Debate sparked by concerns around lecture by Ghomeshi lawyer

On Nov. 17, the Xaverian Weekly published an opinion piece titled “Difficult Conversations at St. FX.” Jasmine Cormier, a third-year student at St. Francis Xavier University (St. FX) in Nova Scotia, voiced her concerns about lawyer Marie Henein’s planned speech at Bishop’s University in February for its annual Donald Lectures series. The lecture will be live-streamed at St. FX, and possibly at Mount Allison, as part of collaboration between the newly renamed “Maple League” of liberal arts universities.

Henein is an award-winning lawyer based in Toronto. Last year, she defended former CBC radio broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi against multiple allegations of sexual violence in a trial that attracted international attention and prompted campus conversations about sexual violence policy and procedure.

In her piece, Cormier wrote that “selecting Marie Henein as a guest lecturer serves to silence victims and perpetuate rape culture.” The piece has received national media attention and has sparked a conversation at Mt. A as to whether or not the university will choose to live-stream her lecture.

Henein is the only woman among a set of prestigious lecturers who will offer live-streamed speeches available to Mt. A, St. FX, Acadia University and Bishop’s University, the four Maple League universities. Other lecturers featured this year include former prime minister Paul Martin, author and activist Joseph Boyden, and senator Murray Sinclair.

Cormier’s article caught the attention of media outlets such as the CBC, CTV, Global News and the Toronto Star. Michael Goldbloom, principal of Bishop’s University, published an opinion piece on Nov. 24 in the Montreal Gazette in which he welcomed Henein to Bishop’s.

Tasia Alexopoulos, women’s and gender studies professor at Mt. A, said media outlets have attacked the structure and tone of Cormier’s article rather than giving her concerns weight. “It’s really unbecoming of national media to attack a student who is writing for a student newspaper. I think that’s been really revealing of what happens when students voice their opinions, and of who actually has the ability to come to the table,” Alexopoulos said.

In a phone call to the Argosy, Cormier said, “I think what a lot of people forget when they read interviews with me is that I’m not a journalist. I don’t write for the CBC, I don’t even write for the school paper, this was an opinion piece.”

Cormier said her concerns centre around issues of sexual violence at St. FX and on other campuses.

The Maple League: what is it? Izzy Francolini/Argosy
The Maple League: what is it? Izzy Francolini/Argosy

“After all the controversy last year surrounding this trial and all the controversial things she said about women, victims and survivors in the past, it’s such a disservice to students who are victims of sexual violence, who should feel safe coming forward, especially on a university campus,” Cormier said in an interview with the Canadian Press.

“My concern is that the discomfort of students, staff and faculty is not being taken seriously and that it’s being treated as irrational, that it’s being treated as though raising concerns is being equated to violating freedom of speech,” Alexopoulos said.

“Obviously, there are always going to be speakers and viewpoints that not everyone is going to agree on. What’s important is that people feel heard and that every opinion can be brought to the table,” she said.

Katharyn Stevenson, president of the women’s and gender studies society at Mt. A, is concerned about Henein being upheld as a role model.

“I think a lot of people are using this controversy as a grounding example to critique the liberal arts in general, how a lot of people think the liberal arts is becoming a space that coddles students,” Stevenson said.

“In university we do encounter things that make us uncomfortable. That’s what makes us better students and better individuals,” she said. “But you can’t criticize someone for speaking out against a speaker they feel is harmful to students. To people who have gone through these experiences this reaffirms the fact that trauma is often invalidated.”

Robert Hiscock, director of marketing and communications at Mt. A, said the school is considering live-streaming the lecture but that nothing is firmly in the calendar.

“I don’t believe she’s speaking about that subject,” said Hiscock, referring to the controversy around last year’s trial. “But I recognize that it might be something that would value from more contextualization.”

“You have to respect the fact that some people could find it troubling,” he said. “Universities are places for debate and discussion, a lot of our coursework is around that.

“Is there a way to do it in which it is positioned appropriately and has educational value? Maybe there are ways that faculty could assist in making it a more educational experience, and we are open to considering that,” Hiscock said.

Alexopoulos said a lot of work is already being done in the university to facilitate similar discussions.

“It seems like a better learning experience would be to listen to what people are saying,” she said. “Maybe this isn’t the right time for this. If you have an outcry from people, why isn’t that the learning experience? Why don’t we say, ‘OK, we’re not going to live-stream this lecture—now let’s have meaningful discussions about why.’”

Henein did not respond to the Argosy’s request for comment.

Catherine Turnbull
Now in her fourth year of an honours degree in philosophy, Catherine still subsists on a continuous cycle of good coffee and cheap wine. If she’s not in the office inserting Oxford commas wherever she can, she might be climbing a mountain or procrasti-baking.