In her fourth year of studies at Carleton, Emily Boucher knew that it was time to come out. Having grown up in a small town in Nova Scotia, she had never had much exposure to gays or lesbians, and didn’t have any queer friends to help her through the coming-out process. What she did have was Carleton’s GLBT Centre.
“I found out about the GLBT Centre at Carleton on the Clubs And Societies websites a little while before,” Boucher says. “I came in, and they were really friendly, which helped.” Boucher eventually went on to work at the centre as a volunteer that year, and has since struck up two close friendships.
“Even though I didn’t know anyone coming into it, and a lot of people there were friends, I still did feel really welcomed and I met a lot of great people, and also through that got involved with the community at large in Ottawa, like with PTS. It made me feel like I belonged somewhere.”
Boucher’s story reflects the success of Carleton’s GLBT Centre. But as well as support, the centre also focusses on education and advocacy.
“A lot of our programming reflects that,” says Joanna Paddock, the centre’s programming coordinator. “With education, we do a lot of safe-sex workshops, sensitivity training. Right now, we’re trying to create transphobia and biphobia workshops. With advocacy, we have a political discussion group that happens every week during the school year. We also have something we’re trying to bring back to life, which is the Queer Liberation Army, which was run out of our centre, but the centre shut it down after a while.”
As Boucher can attest, support is probably their largest focus, not only with one-on-one peer support, but also through discussion groups and just making new friends.
The centre offers a number of other resources, notes administrative coordinator Shaun Vollick. They include a 600-book information lending library.
The centre operates with a “safe space” policy, not tolerating any infighting or discrimination. Paddock says all such comments are immediately stopped. She speaks well of the Carleton student community as a whole. In the past seven years, there have been no reported bashing incidents, she says, and campus faculty have a reputation for openness on queer issues.
This impacts on the centre’s educational focus, Paddock says. “This year we’re going to be focussing more on educating our members about biphobia and transphobia, rather than working on educating the Carleton community about homophobia, because we feel that it isn’t so much of an issue anymore.”
And while the centre’s major focus is on providing the social services that queer students need, they also are proud of their political activity. Last year, two campus groups were active in the same-sex marriage debate, although the coordinators admit students aren’t always interested in politics.
“It depends on the issue,” Vollick says. “I wouldn’t say it’s a huge component. I know this year – we still have to get approval – we’re looking to have someone who would be involved in the political scene, and hopefully would advocate for our causes both on campus and outside.”
Not far away, University Of Ottawa students boast their own Pride Centre, which they operate using some of the same safe-space principles.
“We focus on being a positive space and a bias-free zone,” says Joel Guenette, the Pride Centre’s service director. “Because we’re a drop-in centre, we basically wanted to be a welcoming environment for everybody so they can come in, they can check out the multimedia library, they can come in for consultations, discussion groups, social nights when we watch movies, play board games, and always have a safe environment for everyone.”
Like Carleton, Ottawa U’s Pride Centre also offers peer-to-peer services, hosts structured weekly discussion groups and offers social space where students can have some fun.
Unlike Carleton, though, Ottawa U’s Pride Centre has chosen not to fight for queer rights or against right-wing politics. Ironically, Guenette cites the group’s safe-space and bias-free policies as the reason for this political inaction, saying the centre tries to respect all sides of an issue. That doesn’t mean that individual queer student at U Of O aren’t politically active, however.
“The nature of the city of Ottawa itself forces students to have a more active role in politics in general,” Guenette says. “A lot of students are more informed than the Canadian ‘norm.’ It’s not the same as in the Western provinces or in the Atlantic provinces, so there seems to be a very good basis for accepting diversity. So our students work less on the radical ‘Stop homophobia now!’ or ‘No more bashing!’ ideas that existed and were very important in the past, and are working on a lot more subtle projects like youth mentoring services and making sure that there’s enough information in schools for queer youth, or giving workshops in different religious and faith circles.”
Guenette has big plans for this academic year. He’s planning a national conference – the Canadian University Queer Services Conference – for Jan 13-15, 2006. Inviting delegates from all Canadian university campuses, Guenette hopes to use the forum to help struggling Pride Centres from other campuses.
“We’ve collected a lot of funding to help students make it to this conference,” Guenette says. “So many centres could not even dream of having the money to send two delegates to Ottawa in order to network with other centres, sit through workshops, gather information on how to better offer services to students on campus.”
Algonquin College is one campus where queer students could use that help. The college doesn’t even have an official GLBT Centre. Campus queer groups come and go – and they’re more needed at Algonquin than other campuses.
“We do experience a lot of homophobia within that school because it is a college and some people have not grown up yet,” says Christine Drummond, the Algonquin group’s outgoing director. “It’s not like a university environment where people are more mature.” After a year of trying to organize a group with a physical presence, the task remains unfinished.
Drummond cites incidents on campus where comments have been shouted to her while postering for Campus Pride – which her group coordinated with Carleton last year. Other students were continually ripping those same posters down.
“I’m in Police Foundations, where it’s a very male-dominated course. Some of the guys are pretty cool with it, some of them try to give you a hard time and the girls don’t want to associate with you. It’s not too bad, but when you’re doing things in public it causes a little bit of a stir.”
When Drummond started at Algonquin last year, she and another student tried to find a GLBT Centre on campus, only to learn that one didn’t exist. The students’ association told them that there was potential for a club.
“They offered us the position of running it, so we had to go through a series of papers to fill out, we had to get 10 other students who supported the idea of having a GBLT Centre within Algonquin, but it only ran as a group. We had a couple of problems with fundraising and whatnot. Last year was pretty slow due to the fact that we didn’t have too many people who were interested, but we had a lot of people who were there at the meetings just so they’d have a safe place to go.”
Plans for a centre remained uncompleted by the end of school year.