On October 4, the annual Keith Davey Forum at Victoria University was interrupted by approximately a dozen students protesting the forum’s topic of the discussion: “Social Inequality: Is it a Real Problem? Can it be Solved?”

The event featured Head of Massey College Hugh Segal, National Post columnist Andrew Coyne, Director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy Sarah Kaplan, and Stephen LeDrew as the moderator.

The students walked onto the stage at the beginning of the forum and spoke on what they perceived to be a “dishonest, disrespectful, inflammatory” framing of social inequality.

At the beginning of the discussion, Antoinette Handley, Chair of the Department of Political Science, addressed the controversy surrounding the topic. “Let me assure you it was never the intention of the organizers to cast doubt on the existence of social inequality, or to trivialize it in any way,” she said.

“And yet, I completely understand that that is precisely the reading that this framing of the question opens itself up to. Rather, what was the intention of the organizers was to engage a discussion about the relationship between social inequality on the one hand, and economic inequality on the other.”

The students were also protesting the choice of panelists for the event — a group of all white, predominantly male speakers. 

At one point during the demonstration, an audience member yelled, “we didn’t come to hear you.” The remark was followed by both jeers and applause as the protesters continued to speak.

After approximately five minutes on stage, the students invited the audience to walk out with them in protest. At least one row of audience members stood up and left the theatre.

“When I went to Victoria College, I didn’t see anybody there on the midnight shift washing toilets… like I was, to pay for my tuition,” LeDrew said, as the students were leaving.

“We’re not trying to make this personally about any one of you. It’s not about you, that’s the point,” the protesters responded. 

Following the event, LeDrew spoke to The Varsity about the presence of the protesters. “I think everybody has the right to protest, and bless them that they took this opportunity.” However, LeDrew said that the criticism of himself and the panelists was “out of order.”

“The talk is mostly a bunch of never-do-wells born with silver spoons in their mouths; that’s what they in fact said, which is absolute crap. They should get their facts first. As far as protesting for the point and for the issue, God bless them.”  

After the protesters left, the forum continued and the panelists touched on topics such as universal minimum income, Indigenous issues, and the gender pay gap.

During the Q&A segment of the discussion, The Varsity asked Segal what he would say to students concerned about the recent incident of anti-Black racism at Massey College, which resulted in an apology and resignation from Senior Fellow Michael Marrus.

“The administration and the college takes the event extremely seriously,” Segal said. “It is completely inappropriate to engage in the kind of even jocular discussion of which is offensive, is racist, and demeaning… I apologize on behalf of the college.”

Forum organizers and panelists respond

The forum was organized by the Department of Political Science, the Association of Political Science Students (APSS), and Victoria University.

Handley wrote to The Varsity, “During yesterday’s Davey Forum a group of students voiced concern in a peaceful and respectful manner. Their action caused very little disruption to the event.”

Although Victoria College did not speak with The Varsity directly, Handley said that her comment came in consultation with Acting Principal of Victoria College Stephen Rupp.

Prior to the forum, the APSS issued a statement expressing their dissatisfaction with the event. “We understand and agree with you that the question in combination with the speakers selected is problematic,” the statement read.

“The APSS had limited planning abilities in this event: We were a part of a single meeting, at which point the speakers had not yet been selected. However, we were wrong to not scrutinize each choice further and bring our own concerns to the attention of our partners.”

Following the forum, Handley released a statement on the Department of Political Science’s website saying that the topic of discussion was never intended as a “challenge to the reality of inequality.”

Student attendees respond

The forum was open to the public, while Vic One students and students taking POL101 were encouraged to attend in order to receive a bonus mark in their classes.

One of the attendees, Joy Fan, told The Varsity that “The way it started with the whole demonstration, I was interested to see the response but it was great that it was so receptive. The panelists, as well, were very aware of where they stood, but they could still give useful information about the situation anyhow.”

Shannon Vincent, another Vic One student, said afterwards, “The [event] title and those who were represented during the talk, that was inappropriate. There wasn’t enough diversity. However, had the protesters stayed, they would have gotten more out of it than just protesting because there was a discussion that was viable and not excluding minorities.”

APSS did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment.

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