You could cut the tension with a knife inside the Duckworth Centre. While 250 graduates awaited their diplomas this past Sunday afternoon, silent protestors outside took a stand against the University of Winnipeg’s actions.
Even though some were aware that Erin Larson’s valedictorian speech would criticize the U of W’s administration for bestowing an honorary degree on Provencher MP and federal public safety minister Vic Toews, her words at the fall convocation ceremony shocked many nonetheless.
“I’m extremely honoured to be selected as the valedictorian (but) I have to admit I’m not proud to share the stage with everybody that is on it today,” said Larson as the crowd began to murmur.
Larson received an honours degree in psychology at the Oct. 17 ceremony and said that the support she received from her peers and professors helped her give the speech.
“I did hear a few people booing but I was getting overwhelming support from my graduating class that sat in front of me as well as the faculty members that sat in front of me,” Larson said at the convocation’s reception.
“The fact is that most of the student body disagreed with this decision, that some administration disagrees with this decision and members of the faculty disagree with this decision.”
Using her pull as valedictorian to articulate her beliefs was met with several opponents, one being Eric Prosser, who came from Calgary to see his nephew graduate.
“(I booed because) it’s just as wrong if you stand by and watch something wrong being done,” he said.
“You have people here for four or five years to get a degree, and it gets hijacked on the basis of a political statement. That’s not fair. All it is, is taking a shot at someone who doesn’t get to fight back, there is no rebuttal.”
He also thinks a graduation ceremony is not the place for political dialogue.
“If Toews had given a speech about why you should vote for the Conservative party, I would have been just as offended,” Prosser said.
Larson’s speech and protestors outside the Duckworth Centre argued that it’s hypocritical for a supposedly progressive university to honour a man who has been opposed to gay marriage and supported new tough on crime measures.
“He has called refugees terrorists, called down same sex marriage, is anti-choice in terms of abortion, has called down feminists and is very intolerant,“ said protestor Sandy Rubinfeld. “And he is being given an honorary degree? That’s an abomination.”
Toews was awarded the degree by a sub-committee of the U of W’s senate, a committee in which the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association holds a seat.
“What happened last year was that there was no time given to research the nominee and so the UWSA committee member abstained from the vote,“ said Katie Haig-Anderson, vice-president advocate for the UWSA.
“We’re planning to look at (it) for this coming year, to ensure that there’s a better process in the senate committee to give out honorary degrees.”
In the Oct. 18 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press, university president Lloyd Axworthy described the protest outside of the Duckworth Centre as very respectful.
“I wouldn’t quite say the same for the valedictorian,” he told the newspaper. “The ceremony is really for the students and their families and friends. . . . It’s not a place to use as a political platform.”
Larson disagrees and would like to see U of W administration issue an apology to the student body for not upholding their values for honouring Toews.
“I was taught to stand up for what I believe in during my last four years here,” she said.
Read more about this issue on pages 8 and 10. To see Larson’s speech, visit www.tinyurl.com/UWOct17.
Published in Volume 65, Number 8 of The Uniter (October 21, 2010)