Women’s Centre changes concern students

Members of the University of Calgary campus community are upset with what they see as plans to change the Women’s Resource Centre from its original intent.

For the past several months the U of C transitioned the WRC, located on the third floor of MacEwan Student Centre, to include a new Centre for Community-Engaged Learning ­– a campus service that operates a campus food share program as well as several volunteer initiatives.

Joëlle Robichaud is a WRC volunteer and creator of the “Save the WRC (University of Calgary)” Facebook page, which has seen almost 100 members join over four days as of press time. She said changes to the WRC raised concerns from volunteers who want to keep the organization working the way it has in the past.

“Over the summer there were some immediate changes that were done with very little acknowledgement of the volunteers,” said Robichaud. “As of now there are no more respect guidelines and there are no more gender reserve times.”

The WRC respect guidelines were created at the centre’s inception in 2006. Gender reserve time set aside certain hours when only “woman-bodied, woman-gendered” persons were allowed in the WRC, an environment that Robichaud said created a safe space for many. She added the volunteer base of the WRC is being cut in half from its previous level.

U of C associate vice-provost student and enrolment services Jennifer Quin said the changes are part of a process that has been in motion since last winter, when the WRC director resigned. Erin Kaipainen, then director of community service learning, took on both portfolios.

“We felt there was good synergy between those two programs,” said Quin.

“It doesn’t mean anything in terms of the programming that’s going out.”

Quin said all major events held by the WRC would continue under the new arrangement, even introducing a new “Person’s Day” in October. She feels that the merger is a way of getting more students into the space and increasing the access they have to these services.

Shelia O’Brien was involved in the creation of the WRC as a former special student life advisor to the president. O’Brien championed student areas at the school, seeing the value of non-academic spaces for the U of C.

“We raised $3 million dollars in the community and upgraded 40 student spaces,” said O’Brien. “In the context of doing this I realized that the U of C was really the only significant university in Canada that had not had a women’s resource centre.”

O’Brien and her husband donated a total of $100,000 to the school for the creation and continued success of the WRC, ensuring that it was one of the only spaces in North America designed to serve as solely a women’s centre.

“It was designed very specifically for that purpose and that was what the space was created to reflect,” said O’Brien.

O’Brien was contacted by the University regarding new signage for the space, but never informed of the elimination of key aspects of the centre, such as the gender specific time. She said these type of services are essential to how the WRC was as originally envisioned.

Quin said the policy of a women’s only time in the WRC wasn’t required and administration is looking at other ways of providing a safe space.

“We didn’t feel that it was appropriate to have a policy in place that excluded half of our student body from accessing a student service,” said Quin. “Instead what we’re doing is if a woman comes into the WRC and only wants to be around other women, then we have rooms within that centre that can be closed off.”

“It’s original mandate was to provide a safe, almost isolated space,” said Students’ Union president Lauren Webber, who noted that many females use the space as a refuge for emotional and cultural reasons. “The concern about it being compromised is something that we are definitely looking into.”

“We do think community service learning is a good idea,” said SU vice-president operations and finance James Delaney. “We question the wisdom of having the two in the same space.”

Fiona Nelson, coordinator of the U of C’s women’s studies program, argued that while the WRC did serve as a resource to the entire community, the Centre for Community Engaged learning seems to be simply another student space and she doesn’t see how the two fit together.

“It has an impact on the campus ethos,” said Nelson. “One, the loss of this gender focused space, but also the precedent that is created by the university administration on a space that has been designated for one use, that exists in the Students’ Union building and they’re taking it over and turning it into something else. In that sense it doesn’t matter that it’s the Women’s Centre, it could be anywhere.”

Quin said that she has been meeting with volunteers and others to address specific concerns about the new arrangement, but that most of the issues are more perception than reality.

“I do think there’s a lot of misinformation going around campus right now about these changes,” said Quin. “I think we put a lot of thought into formalizing this arrangement”

“As a member and as a founding member of the advisory committee to the WRC, none of us were informed or consulted,” said Nelson.

After news of changes to the WRC raised concerns with students, the SU also retracted plans for a planned referendum this October over the elimination of a Women’s Resource Centre Levy.

“The Board of Governors voted to move those fees into the non-program fee in April and so we vot[ed] it out so as to not double charge students,” said Webber.

Webber said the SU initially wanted to bring the $40,000 student levy to a by-election vote. Several weeks ago the SU was informed by the university that the WRC would share space with the new Centre for Community-Engaged Learning.

“We’re investigating right now,” said Webber. “Trying to get some formal, written agreement that the WRC will remain as it has been.”

Delaney said that the referendum to end the levy was postponed so as to not confuse the levy referendum with the SU’s support of the WRC.

The WRC’s mission is to “provide a safe and supportive place to advance women’s equality and build community through sharing.” Its signage changed in the last few weeks as the new Centre for Community-Engaged Learning opened inside.

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