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Event coordinators defend political statement and say mental health advocacy is political work

Dan LeRoy | Fulcrum Staff

A Facebook page set up to promote the Peer Help Centre and Centre for Students with Disabilities’ (CSD) “Let’s Talk About Mental Health” conference from March 9–10 caused controversy after the location of the event was listed as being on “unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin territory” at the University of Ottawa.

Dozens of comments sprang up almost immediately with students expressing their disbelief that an event that should be welcoming to all by its very nature would be clouded by an implicit and potentially controversial political statement.

After seeing that the CSD had deleted many of the remarks made in response to the location of the event, the comments section was flooded with remarks about censorship, and the event was removed from Facebook entirely.

Kerry Duncan, coordinator for the CSD, explained that the very nature of a conference that challenges the status quo on mental illness is political.

“To say that the ‘Let’s Talk About Mental Health’ conference would be ‘non-political’ without the recognition that it is taking place on unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin territory completely misses the fact that mental health advocacy at all levels is political work,” Duncan said.

She went on to explain that working with the aboriginal community has been and will continue to be a fundamental priority of the Student Federation of the Univeristy of Ottawa, the CSD, and the Mental Health Coalition. When drawing the connection between “unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin territory” and the cause of mental illness, Duncan responded, “[we must] acknowledge the legacy of colonialism, and how that impacts indigenous students’ mental health.”

The argument presented by the creators of the page is that living in a society with a somewhat hushed history of colonialism can be a factor in one’s psychological well-being, and should therefore be necessarily challenged in a conference that is trying to shed light on mental illness.

Politically active fourth-year English student Marilyn Tourangeau believes the entire situation shouldn’t have happened.

“I am not offended by this statement, but rather, it is a political statement and does not belong on a mental health event page,” she said. “I think aboriginal history can be part of our culture on this campus only if people get educated in an approachable way. Tokenism is not the answer.”

Amanda O’Brien, Peer Help Centre service coordinator said the statement was not meant to offend.

“The comment was more meant to include indigenous students, rather than exclude or offend anyone.” She encourages students to take part in the weekend’s activities, which will go ahead as planned.