This week we are observing the 15th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre at Ecole Polytechnique when Mark Lépine, rejected from the engineering program, opened fire, killing 14 female engineering students and injuring 13 others. In his suicide letter, Lépine blamed feminists for “ruining his life.”

After the push for many campuses to further diversify and prevent discrimination on campus, you may think that active sexism doesn’t still exist in university life. But the chilly climate for female students in Thunder Bay, Ontario recently got colder.

An event entitled “Thunder Bay Boob Idol” held at the campus bar, and sponsored by Coors-Molson and Maxim magazine brought gender discrimination issues to a head.

The event was widely protested by the Gender Issues Centre (GIC), an on-campus feminist organization, that maintained the event was in direct violation of Lakehead University Student Union’s principles as outlined in the LUSU constitution which states that the union is “committed to providing an environment where its members, the students of Lakehead University, can pursue academic excellence as well as personal and social growth, free from all forms of discrimination and harassment.”

Maxim, one of the sponsors of the event, is a men’s magazine produced in the U.S., that promotes a blatantly sexist, racist and heterosexist ideology with a section on their website for jokes about “foreigners” and jokes about domestic violence in their magazine. The event was described this way by Shannon Cruickshank, director of the GIC:

    Maxim magazine, with all of its sexist bravado and racist imagery, will be freely walking onto the campus of Lakehead University on November 5. The Gender Issues Centre (GIC), LU’s only on-campus feminist organization, has exhausted all avenues in an effort to have the Maxim Coors Light Girl Search cancelled. The event itself takes place in the form of a body contest. Dubbed “Thunder Bay Boob Idol,” ten women will be graded by 20 judges on the ability to dance to music while scantily clothed. The beauty of the intellect has been, predictably, overlooked in the competition guidelines. Also overlooked is the dangerous partnership between corporate sponsors such as Maxim and Coors-Molson on University campuses. The Gender Issues Centre is organizing a protest.

Despite the outrage voiced by many students, as well as the GIC, the event went on.

“Initially I didn’t see a problem with the event. I don’t read Maxim and then when I started getting phone calls and emails that voiced concerns, I began to see why it was inappropriate to hold this kind of event on campus,” says Graham Strickert, president of the Lakehead University Student Union.

The contract to hold the event was signed in February 2004 by Lakehead’s previous student executive; the current student union had to contend with this decision. The union estimated they’d incur a penalty of between $50,000 and $155,000 to cancel the event, breaching the contract.

“To put a price tag on women’s dignity is rather inappropriate,” says Cruickshank.

With many universities spouting rhetoric about valuing diversity and preventing discrimination, one has to wonder how much of an effect these policies have. Apparently such policies were not enough to prevent or stop events like “Thunder Bay Boob Idol” from happening.

“The GIC was there to question having a sponsor that makes its money off the backs of objectifying women and making degrading racial statements. We were questioning their presence on campus for the financial benefit of the student union,” Cruickshank says.

Gender bias and discrimination against women in academia take many forms, from overt sexual harassment to the much more prevalent problem of subtle and unconscious sexism impacting daily life, work distribution, student evaluations, and promotion and hiring decisions. The culmination of the problems women face has been highly documented with studies in universities in Canada and dubbed “the chilly climate.”

Since the event, Lakehead University, the site of increased reports of sexual assaults and rapes on campus last year, has begun an initiative to open dialogue about sexism, racism and discrimination on campus. The GIC will be taking a leadership role in an educational campaign which will include discussions, workshops and focus groups to deal with issues of sexism and racism at the university. One of their ideas is to institute a core course for all students that addresses issues of gender, sexuality and colonialism.

“To have engineering students who have understanding of Adrienne Rich and English students who have knowledge about sustainable development would serve to benefit both the university and the community,” says Cruickshank.

Sixty men and women turned out to protest the event held on November 5 and over 200 students and members of the community showed up to the December 6 memorial.