In the past four years, three attempts have been made to start a gay club at Algonquin College. But because they receive no support from the college’s administration, no group has lasted more than two years.
In what is becoming a familiar cycle, eager Algonquin first-years start up a gay, lesbian, bi and trans group on campus. Their enthusiasm helps to get the club going but when they graduate, they leave the club abandoned until another passionate student comes along with the energy to carry it forward.
The last group was lucky — they had help from Rob Nettleton, a former president of the Algonquin Students’ Association who is now working as a student activities assistant at the college. He advocated for the club and actively helped them with events and an online community forum.
“Last year, they did have a lot of motivation. I would say that they were one of the most successful ones I have ever seen — kudos to them,” says Nettleton. “They put a lot of work into it. But, unfortunately, every single one of them has graduated. And the people coming in now have no idea what was done last year. It’s unfortunate.”
Kiel Harris and Bret Campbell started the club in 2007. The first year they received a lot of enthusiasm and interest in the group. They had around 40 active participants on campus and their Facebook group had more than 80 members.
Determined not to fail, Harris enlisted help from Nettleton and gay groups at both Carleton and the University of Ottawa. His approach worked, and the group was active in fundraising, networking and coordinating events throughout the year.
“We got to have a queer night — it was the first one in the college, and it was the first time that any queer-associated club used the observatory, so it was really exciting for us,” says Harris.
The group remained active until its second year when enthusiasm waned. Weekly meetings were cut, and the group all but fizzled out except for the Facebook group, (which remains active).
Two factors keep Algonquin students locked in this cycle: it’s a two-year college with high graduate turnover and there is no physical space to house a permanent queer centre .
Algonquin has over 40,000 part time and fulltime students and has outgrown its facilities. In fact, out of the 24 colleges in Ontario, Algonquin College has the most students per square foot.
The Students’ Association is aware of how much this is affecting students. The group has raised $25 million with plans to approach the school’s Board of Governors for more funding in order to build a Student Centre that will provide space for student-run activities — including offices for campus groups.
Mike Hirsch, the current president of the Students’ Association, says that they aim to open the new student centre in 2012 and that groups like the queer club should be able to find a permanent home at that point — potentially the light at the end of the tunnel for a group that has not yet found its niche at the college.
Until then, the only centres on campus that have permanent status are the Mamidosewin Centre, for aboriginal students, and the Centre for students with disabilities. The two centres are run by the school, not the student association. They were built in response to the demand for services.
Nettleton acknowledges that there is a need for a queer centre for youth at the college but that students need to get and remain vocal in their demands for one.
“The structure of Algonquin is different [than most schools], as the average student stay is only two years,” says Nettleton. “It would really have to be a supply and demand kind of deal. For the first couple of years, it would have to start off as being a club and, as demand grew, then maybe an actual office could be opened.”
Nettleton feels that, in order to increase demand for a gay centre, the group needs to remain consistent in its efforts and do some succession planning.
Excedera St Louis, an environmental studies instructor at the college, disagrees that the key to this kind of consistency lies with a succession plan.
“It would mean that the students would have to care about what happens the next year — they don’t,” says St Louis.
Though St Louis does agree that consistency is the key, she feels that students need help from Algonquin faculty. A succession plan, if devised, would help give guidance and help build a strong club — but funding and internal support are major priorities.
As it stands, each club at Algonquin has to reapply for club status each year and receives only a small stipend from the Students’ Association. The groups are student-run with no support from the student union or administration — different from the queer groups at both Carleton and the University of Ottawa, which are supported financially by student funds and administratively by the school. This allows them office space, paid staff and volunteer coordination to keep the centres active.
“I think it should be student run, but having that support from external or internal forces is huge and very motivating for people,” says Nettleton.
This is where St Louis can help, she says. She plans to be at the college for the long haul and has put forward a proposal to anchor the queer group in order to ensure its continuity.
She has scheduled a meeting with Wayne McIntyre, acting director of Student Support Services and she has taken over as one of the group’s Facebook administrators. Her plan at the moment is to head up impromptu information sessions, distribute posters around the school and increase the visibility of queer youth in the college.
If there is a chance for a queer group to be active and grow at Algonquin, St Louis may be just the person to pull it off.
“I’m looking forward to increasing visibility and awareness on campus and creating a safe environment.”