All right, troops. There’s been some false intelligence circulating among the ranks. It’s time for a briefing.
Ethan Cabel’s Dec. 2 article in the Manitoban about events surrounding military recruitment on the U of W campus is wildly inaccurate and serves only to fan the flames of anger and hysteria with misinformation. His article has invaded the U of W; it’s time for our defence.
To make things immediately clear, people are saying the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association (UWSA) did a lot of things they didn’t. No, no one is banning the military. No, no one hates your cousin who’s in the army. Let’s talk about what really happened.
On Oct. 6 some U of W students learned that Navy recruiters were tabling outside the Riddell Hall cafeteria. Students only learned about it as it was happening, because the student body has no foreknowledge of or control over whom the university chooses to let table. But we like to make sure both sides of debates are represented in cases like this, and in the absence of a more formal way to respond to these issues, we decided to come to the atrium and peaceably demonstrate.
Several students stood near the table for about half an hour, some holding signs with anti-war messages. Like many U of W students, most were members of various student groups – two were UWSA executive members. This was a spontaneous gathering that had no discussion at organizational levels and didn’t carry the weight or endorsement of any of those groups; it was just students acting as individuals.
The demonstration was not remarkable enough to be a story on its own. Word spread because of a confrontation with university security that occurred afterwards. But inflamed emotions and careless expedience ultimately resulted in Cabel’s telephone-tag version of the story: students “encircling Canadian Forces recruiters, screaming and chanting at them in an attempt at intimidation,” a student union resorting to “cheap intimidation tactics to drive our men and women in uniform away from campus.” We can chalk this up to bad intelligence.
The table was never blocked. No one was encircled. Students were never prevented from approaching the table or talking to the recruiters. There was almost no interaction between students demonstrating and students approaching the table. The interaction between demonstrators and the recruiters themselves was peaceable and cordial.
There was no confrontation or argument. Except for a few moments of chanting, the action was almost totally quiet. It’s flattering Cabel thinks we’re tough enough to try to intimidate military men, but untrue. And Cabel, like so many, seems to think this was an official UWSA action. Someone writing for the Manitoban should understand the difference between actual student union policy and the private actions and opinions of individual representatives.
Now, did some of the campus rowdies briefly suggest hindering the recruitment? Yes, but this was never seriously considered. The UWSA representatives ensured we abided by the university’s Respectful Working and Learning Environment Policy and refrained from blocking the tabling while also exercising our right to peacefully assemble and demonstrate. Cabel wants to envisage the U of W as a homogenous mass of communists and postmodernists following the dictates of an iron-fisted student government vanguard. I can tell you, my radical friends wish the UWSA wanted to get rid of the military. But it doesn’t.
Just as the demonstration and tabling was wrapping up, security arrived with a response that frustrated people. They demanded names and identification, ordered students off campus, and placed their hands on people without provocation, escalating a totally calm situation. This might have been where people got the idea that there had been a confrontation. But with the military men, there was no such confrontation. They were unfazed by our presence, armed though we were with construction paper and rhymes. I imagine they’ve dealt with worse.
Recruiters tabled again on Oct. 21 and Nov. 3 without incident. Students stood nearby and handed out anti-war flyers. There was no demonstrating or chanting. No one from the UWSA was involved.
During the Grey Cup celebrations on Nov. 27, the university was filled with exhibitions and displays which, again, students and the student association had no foreknowledge of or control over. We saw much of our campus space suddenly taken up by sports festivities and corporate sponsors, which already seemed out of place for U of W. Then folks learned there was a Canadian Armed Forces station set up in our RecPlex. This booth had a number of visual and kinesthetic elements that went a little further than the recruiters, who had merely offered words for sober consideration.
This station dazzled the eye with military equipment, vehicles, weaponry, images of bombs, and activities like flight simulators and an obstacle course simulating a combat zone. This was seen as potentially minimizing the harsh reality of war (for both soldiers and civilians) and conflating warfare with games and sports, given the context of the soccer field, the Grey Cup, and soldiers engaging small children with the activities. Cabel invokes the presence of children as if to say “How could any of this idyllic scene ever upset someone?” Well, one of the soldiers did have to apologize for getting mad at a little girl for being named Isis, but that’s neither here nor there.
Despite best intentions, the display was triggering (in every sense of the word). The iconography of war and weaponry can inspire deep pride in some, and deep pain and traumatic memories in others. There was no consultation or foreknowledge given by the administration to students or even the student association. No way to prepare people for this, to warn people who might be distressed by this sight; no time to ask questions about whether all of this followed university policy or whether this was the appropriate place and manner for such a display.
To express these concerns the UWSA put out a brief statement in the form of a Facebook post. It should be noted that’s literally all they did – partly because there’s nothing more they could do. Students have no mechanism of stopping community partner tabling that gets administration approval. The UWSA never made any statements remotely advocating a “ban” on the military on campus, and none of the executives have advocated that privately.
Still, there was a ton of backlash from people who greatly misinterpreted the situation. People thought the UWSA was attacking the military and individual servicepersons; that they were trying to ban the military; that they could ban the military. All ideas that were patently untrue, but indulged in because people feel an emotional attachment to this issue that sometimes leaves facts by the wayside. The UWSA received hundreds of comments and emails (mostly from non-UW students) full of hateful speech, slurs, personal attacks and threats. If you know people doing this, tell them to have a heart and knock it off.
And then to pour gasoline on this fire came Cabel’s piece, a distillation of all the vitriol and misinformation that’s been circulating, which has naturally led to even more hate and threats directed at the UWSA. Cabel loads us with inaccurate claims, firing it off with mean-spirited invective and ideological hyperbole (ironic, considering how much time he spends attacking people for being “ideological”).
Beyond a description of the protest rooted mainly in his imagination, Cabel states that the UWSA is “effectively implying that military personnel had no place in an institution of higher learning.” Cabel might imply they think that, but the UWSA themselves never have. All they did was make one Facebook post expressing measured concerns about one specific display, and another post clarifying they weren’t personally attacking military servicepersons (which somehow seemed to only enrage Cabel further).
He accused the association of doing things it has never done, has never expressed any desire to do, and would have no ability to do even if they wanted, which they don’t. He accuses them of trying to stifle free speech – but what is Cabel trying to do?
To Cabel a simple Facebook post about an ill-advised display on a soccer field is a “stand” against the military, a left-wing conspiracy against “our capitalist economy and parliamentary democracy,” spitting in the face of fallen heroes. He could have responded to what the association actually did, like many others have. But he chose to exacerbate public hysteria with the most hamfisted of right-wing rhetoric and misinformation.
When charging into a battle of ideas, you should actually understand the other side. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to remember that your disagreement with other people should always be rooted in the facts and not your feelings.
Andrew Vineberg is a University of Winnipeg student and was involved in the Oct. 6 demonstration at Riddell Hall.