By Melanie Woods, October 18 2016 —
Christian groups frequently rent tables in MacHall from the Students’ Union. They hand out pamphlets on the “joys of Christ” or “what the bible really tells you” or whatever. I usually smile at them but don’t engage — they don’t bother me, I don’t bother them. It’s a fair tradeoff.
But last week, members of the Christian Truth Activists (CTA), an evangelical Christian group that advocates against non-heterosexuality and abortion, rented a table from the Students’ Union near the Q Centre.
This was not a situation of disengagement. Throughout the day, dozens of students and professors gathered to debate with them. Members of the Queers on Campus club counter-protested with large rainbow flags. Campus Security officers hovered nearby. And the crowd grew as several students approached the group.
But despite outrage from students at the graphic pro-life imagery and anti-LGBTQ messages, because the CTA had paid their $85 fee to the SU and signed a contract, they couldn’t be forced to leave until their booking time expired at 4:30 p.m. When time expired, campus security escorted the CTA off campus.
A homophobic, transphobic and graphic pro-life group was able to book a table for hours next to the only designated safe space on campus for the LGBTQ community. That should never happen and is the result of huge oversight on the SU’s part in not vetting who they rent tables to.
The CTA and the group’s leader Bill Whatcott have a history of legal controversy. Whatcott is currently facing a $104-million lawsuit for handing out homophobic materials at Toronto Pride. And a few years ago he was tried by the Supreme Court for distributing flyers to Saskatchewan homes arguing to “keep homosexuality out of Saskatchewan schools.” A quick Google search would’ve shown all of that.
Instead, someone probably just assumed the CTA was one of the harmless Christian groups that often book on campus. But when you’re renting a table next to a designated safe space, assumption isn’t enough.
The Q Centre is a facility and service developed with the intention of creating a safe place for LGBTQ people on the U of C campus. In a world that doesn’t always accept you or your identity, having that safe space is invaluable. And having access to that safe space is equally important.
The CTA table impeded access to the Q Centre, forcing the centre and SU to release a statement including an alternate route through a back entrance emergency exit stairwell. But it’s 2016. I sure hope the LGBTQ community still doesn’t have to only use the back entrance to feel safe.
The SU and university were right to set up alternate routes, warning signs about the graphic imagery and a large campus security presence. They should be commended for that quick response and sincere apology after the fact. There isn’t one specific person or position to blame. But on an institutional level this group should not have been allowed to book this table in the first place.
Sure, the SU and university can’t strictly censor every person and item that walks through MacHall. Freedom of speech is a slippery slope and once you take away one group’s rights, other’s are at risk. As much as the CTA’s display was cruel and hurtful, technically under Canadian law — much like the graphic anti-Muslim posters found on campus earlier this month — it didn’t qualify as hate speech, so there were no legal grounds for censoring them.
By promising a safe space on campus, it is the SU and university’s responsibility to maintain that safe space — even if it’s a little ways outside the Q Centre’s doors.
This incident displays the need for stricter policy. The CTA’s application for the table explicitly said they were focused on “issues that impact the sanctity of human life, the sanctity of human sexuality and religious freedom.” That should’ve set off warning bells.
Instead, a hurtful, harmful group invaded a safe space on campus. This should be a learning experience for the SU — and the U of C, as with the failed injunction verdict they now operate the building, including table bookings.
“The University of Calgary is committed to creating a safe and respectful campus for all students, faculty, staff and visitors,” U of C president Elizabeth Cannon said following the discovery of over 40 graphic anti-Muslim posters on campus earlier this month.
If the SU and university are committed to creating that safe and respectful campus, something like the CTA incident should never happen again. And it honestly probably won’t. Everyone seems to agree the SU messed up here and any future policy will hopefully reflect that.
A stricter booking policy won’t only protect our LGBTQ community on campus, but promote a safer, more respectful environment as a whole. That’s a win for everyone.
Melanie Woods is a fourth-year English student. She writes a column about modern social justice movements called Social Justice Cleric.