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Queer university students hold Ottawa conference

Students share successes and stories of activism

OUT ON CAMPUS. Jason Van Rooy of the University Of Manitoba (left) and Robin Moore of the University Of Calgary take a break from the Canadian University Queer Services Conference at the U Of Ottawa. Credit: Pat Croteau

A January confer-ence of post-secondary queer student groups has re-energized them, participants say.

Organized by the Pride Centre at the University Of Ottawa, the Jan 13-15 Canadian University Queer Services Conference drew nearly 90 people active in 27 campuses across Canada.

The conference was the first of its kind and participants were impressed. Several told Capital Xtra of feeling a sense of isolation on their campuses. They spoke of unsupportive administrations and the constant challenge of transition and turnover. While some groups struggle from year to year, others don’t make it.

“I think it’s actually been a wonderful experience because now I actually understand what’s available across the country in other universities,” says Robin Moore, a delegate from the University Of Calgary. “Our club gets $150 a year, and that’s all the money we’re given — we have to raise all of our own money elsewhere. So it’s amazing to hear others complain about not having any money and they were given $17,000 as a budget.”

Moore also feels recharged and ready to fight for queer rights in the province most hostile to our kind. Alberta is one of the richest provinces in Canada, but people feel pressure to stay closeted. “And I would like to be a part of changing that,” says Moore.

Jason Van Rooy of the University Of Manitoba echoes the sentiment. “It’s a unique opportunity for all of us to talk about our lives [across the country], which we’ve never been able to do before.”

Adds Floh Herra Vega of McGill University: “It’s also great to be able to share the knowledge that we have that other groups might not. There’s things out there that you never really realized were there, until you come here and you talk to people and you realize what’s going on across the country.”

Funding was a major focus of the conference, along with issues of transition and continuity — including learning to pass the torch from one year to another and to make long-term plans for an organization. “It really is one of the number-one student centre killers,” says conference organizer Joel Guénette, of U Of O’s Pride Centre. “If people drop the ball, then it gets dropped forever.”

Participants also discussed the importance of activism. Though the U Of O Pride Centre avoids involvement in overt political action (a source of tension between past club executives and their peers at Carleton’s queer centre), participants told Capital Xtra that they see value in campus queer groups being overtly political.

Most smaller university groups are limited by resources to building awareness and letter-writing campaigns. Others, like Queer McGill, are more active. That group, for example, has been working to overturn the discriminatory policies of the blood drive, and after some lobbying the student society at McGill has adopted Queer McGill’s position.

In one session, students learned new political tools from one of Ottawa’s best political activists and organizers — former city councillor Alex Munter, who was also co-ordinator of Canadians For Equal Marriage. The session helped prepare students to move on to the next battles now that the equal marriage fight has been won.

“That milestone has been reached, but that doesn’t mean we’re equal,” Vega says. “There are other things that we should fight for, but the question is, ‘What is that basis of unity now — what are our goals?’ I think it’s important to talk about that, and see what can we work on together, because obviously more numbers and unity is stronger.”

Students said they wanted to see the conference become yearly. “I’m looking at some key universities right now, and I’ve been in contact with their leaders in order to see if it can be negotiated as to passing the conference along,” Guénette says.

Manitoba’s Van Rooy thinks the conference “has the potential to become huge. Right now it’s mostly schools that have groups already in place, and most of them have some funding. There are a lot of schools in this country that have gay students, but there’s nothing for them at all. My organization has been around for 38 years, and I don’t know how to start one.”

Calgary’s Moore also sees the potential for creating something lasting. “I’d also like to see a sort of tying-in of all the campus clubs across the country. That way, if I was a student leaving Calgary going to Ottawa, I’d like to have that information through Calgary, who to contact, where to go.”

And McGill’s Vega sees even more potential for building new resources for high school students, who can learn about getting resources and funding for their own groups. Then, “you come to university and you’ve already got seasoned activists,” she says with a laugh.