Universities Canada – Annual General Meeting

October 24, 2023

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Good morning,

I would like to begin by acknowledging that we are on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinabe peoples, who have been on this land since time immemorial.

Land acknowledgements are an essential part of reconciliation that so many universities have embraced. These acknowledgements are about both the past and the future. They reflect our history—the full and complex history of Canada.

I’m honoured to join you here, and I would like to thank the organizers for inviting me to address you today.

Let me start with two interconnected facts:

  1. We know that misogynistic, sexist and racist discourse in the digital age is harmful and detrimental to, and disproportionally affects, women - women in leadership roles and racialized women in particular. But hateful and disrespectful rhetoric online impacts so many others: Indigenous peoples; peoples of colour; members of the 2SLGBTQI+ community; minority and marginalized communities; young and old. Anyone can be a target.  
  2. We also know that universities are powerful agents of change.

There is no doubt that social media has changed how, and how quickly, we get information. It impacts what we think. It influences our actions and allows us to instantly communicate with people around the world.

Social media and the words we choose to use are powerful tools. They can be a great source of positivity, kindness and generosity. But this power must be wielded responsibly.

With the exponential growth in both usage and influence, we have seen how these platforms can be, and are, misused.

When words demean, threaten and incite hatred, they have profound, devastating consequences. Misinformation and toxic commentary, amplified by social media platforms, can reach millions within seconds. Every day, there are examples of misogyny, violence, harassment and racism. This is what women and girls face online—despite their desire to be judged on their merits, on their ideas and on their actions.

The results?

Physical and mental impacts to individuals.

And diminishing trust in our institutions.

This creates an environment where women and girls withdraw from leadership positions and turn down prominent roles within our society. Words that diminish or threaten women and girls can influence their choices and their future.

What if women, and young women especially, see this and wonder if the cost of leadership is too high? What if this fear chips away at their self-confidence? What if they limit their goals, deny their potential and shy away from expressing their opinions? What if members of other targeted communities feel the same way?

What this does is cast a long shadow, one that is felt from coast to coast to coast.

We need diverse perspectives.

We need diverse voices.

This is vital to our future, and this is a truth you all know. Some of you here have experienced this abuse. I know because I experienced it, too. The online harassment directed towards me was focussed not on my role, but on me as a woman and as an Indigenous person. And I’ve heard these stories of others, here and around the world; stories of leaders, journalists and educators who are passionate about what they do and are vilified for doing it.

The consequences are not merely disheartening. They can be career-altering and emotionally devastating.

So what can be done?

This is when I turn to you: universities, which are defenders of education, and strongholds of research and societal progress.

I invite you to consider two areas in which you can help:

  • Creating a “network of resilience,” and
  • Building digital “safe spaces.”

First, what is a “network of resilience”?

There are two aspects to this: resources and allies.

Services, such as mental health supports, counselling and peer support networks, can empower individuals and help them process and rise above negativity. And it helps them address and confront that negativity directly.

I know first-hand how difficult it can be to access these supports. But these resources should be available in all places—in remote, northern and rural communities, in large cities … and in all our universities.

We need to help the next generation develop not only the language to express what is happening to them and how they feel, but also the tools to effect change and be part of the larger conversation.

Across Canada, I have seen first-hand innovative approaches to mental health that make a difference. And every place I have visited, I have seen how they are making connections in the community, reaching out to provide much needed help to those in need. But the need is great, requiring all the more support for the mental health sector.

At universities, this network of resiliency can take the form of peer supports that can extend outside the boundaries of campus, and include women leaders and established mentors and role models who have faced similar challenges. Mentorship programs can offer invaluable guidance and advice on handling social media attacks and building successful leadership careers.

Finding those mentors is important, as is finding allies to help build this network.

We need allies- women, men, and people of all identities— to speak up … to speak out. And it’s our responsibility to hear what they have to say.

And we would do well to listen to all ages, especially children and youth … who are also impacted by what they encounter online.

After all, everyone has a role to play, everyone needs to share ideas and get involved. We all need to stand together. 

We need all of you to be part of our network of resilience.

Universities can also play a key role in creating digital safe spaces. Today, more than ever, this is necessary and essential.

Ensuring safe spaces for everyone is difficult, and I understand there is no one approach that will work.

But I also know that universities are hubs of creativity and innovation, of research and analysis. Universities can contribute significantly by studying the impacts of online harassment and the ways in which we can support the creation of these digital safe spaces.

Research can serve as the foundation for advocating for policy changes to protect all public figures from online violence. Through interdisciplinary research, we can develop the tools and strategies necessary to effectively combat online toxicity, and help us better define what that means.

I encourage universities to develop online platforms and communities where women leaders of all ages can openly discuss their experiences and seek support from each other.

However we address the pervasive toxic discourse, it will require a collective effort from universities, government bodies, social media platforms, civil society organizations and individuals like us.

And we must all work together, because too many are finding themselves in the spotlight for the wrong reasons, for their gender or race, instead of their ideas and accomplishments.

Their voices are essential for advancing social progress and equality, so we need to create a better world for women, for girls, for our present and future leaders.

We owe it to them to speak up and speak out.

We owe it to them to have difficult conversations.

To Change. To Evolve.

Whatever comes next, I know one simple truth: we cannot achieve anything alone. Only by working together, by engaging with each other, by protecting each other, can we create a momentum for lasting change, one step at a time.

Canada's universities have a crucial role to play in fostering inclusivity, supporting students and leaders and advocating for a more respectful online discourse.

This is hard work, but it is hard work worth doing to get the results we need as a society.

At the beginning of this address, I said that social media and the words we choose have great power—the power to heal, unite and drive positive change.

Together, we can create a digital world where words inspire, rather than incite. This is our collective responsibility.

I look forward to hearing your questions and your ideas for a more respectful future for all of us.

Thank you.