Landmark 21: UNBC Women’s Centre

Artists: Si Transken; Sarah Boyd

Word:  Research

 This small group is only two but it is feisty and trouble. I am not sure the session or the glass will survive the energy they bring.  Not easy to please, the patriarchy has been their un-sought partner and justice a too absent consort for too long. But they surprise me.

They know what they want and they are down to work almost immediately.

The design is simple, well thought through in advance. They have designed a strategy, and they have divided the work quickly and equitably. Feminists, apparently, do not waste time.

They are holding their design up to the light, peering through and beyond the symbols and words they have drafted on the white paper, shifting and exposing and determining and excavating through the lens of paper and whiteness. Their heads are close together as they lean across the table, holding their papers arm length high to the ceiling lights. They are shoulder to shoulder, just like in the anthem of the suffragists at the turn of the last century; they are still carrying that flame. They are face forward, brave and strong and funny. I can’t possibly record some of the jokes that are flying – I can’t keep up, they are so fast and quick. They are also very rude.

Though the design is simple, it is subversive – what else could it be, really, with these two. It subtly incorporates post modernism with the owl replacing the slash so beloved of deconstruction:  Research will become Re / search.  There will be a rainbow. There will be signs and meaning and symbols that not everyone will understand. A hidden code only the marginalized, the oppressed and the overlooked can interpret.

Their poise and energy strikes me powerfully. Convincing the students association and the university administration, year after year, how important, how vitally necessary, this small space, The Women’s Centre, was to the survival of  women. The Women’s Centre never has been offered new or bigger space. But that act of survival was only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, every fall, for how many years, did the Women’s Centre have to justify its existence; holding on to the same small, cramped space that offered comfort and refuge. A sustaining toe-hold for young (and older!) women who were experiencing difficulties. University education is not a uniformly even experience for everyone. Recruitment and retention numbers are not straightforward stories of success for all.  For women, there is a double jeopardy. Vulnerability to harassment, to assault, to subtle discriminations carried in the very veins of your body.

The weight of the centre’s survival, its thriving culture and contributions, sustaining its respected reputation, is heavy most days, having to seek and find support in odd places. Faculty who travelled saved shampoo and conditioners from hotel rooms so students sleeping in the Centre away from residence  because they weren’t safe in residence, could have some toiletries. One prof’s art work becomes a major source of funding, creating project funding over the years that produced gems like a video about sexual harassment on campus.  A support to women off campus, a consistent and profound re/ commitment to the December 6th day of Remembrance and commemoration to honour the women victims of the massacre at École Polytechnique in Montreal; young women whose only crime was to aspire to success in a male profession by attending a university’s professional school; an annual presence at the Take Back the Night march to argue for safer spaces for all women, everywhere. A proud supporter at Pride since its inception 17 years ago. And through all this, though the space was women only, the knowledge was never restrained. The Centre freely shared with everyone, guest lectures in classes, sharing of resources with students doing gender related assignments, counselling, helping boyfriends and husbands. All supports given away for free to anyone who asked. And, in turn how many progressive men became supporters? For example, the guys who showed up and came out to support the Centre, bringing Tim Horton’s and Timbits to the pro-choice rally.

But, while some days are heavy, all days are worth it. The young woman who survived violent attack and who found support at the Centre to not only graduate but to go and graduate again with a Master’s and continue to McGill is only one story of the difference the centre can make in the lives of  the young women who passed through those doors.

The arches that rise through the Search part of their word, sheltering and protecting the small woman figure under them, invoke for me, those small doors to the centre. They are so close to security. They make the difference between loss and accomplishment, defeat and triumph, and become the call to the lost identity reclaimed, a re-search that brings you to  the softly furnished, colourfully crowded curves of the Women’s Centre.

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