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Indigenous ceremony at University of Winnipeg sparks sexism debate

An advertisement for a pipe ceremony called for women to wear long skirts. A University of Winnipeg political science professor calls that dress-code sexist.

Advertisement for ceremony called for women to wear long skirts; professor calls dress-code sexist

Lillian Pitawanakwat, an elder from Manitoulin Island, takes part in a pipe ceremony in June 2009. The ceremony was one of many healing processes going on throughout the aboriginal community on behalf of those who attended residential schools. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

The University of Winnipeg is defending a public gathering where female participants were encouraged to wear long skirts out of respect for an indigenous pipe ceremony.

Joanne Boucher, an associate professor of political science, questioned why a religious ceremony of any kind was allowed on campus to begin with — and she said the dress code is sexist.

"The university is bound to operate on the basis of its respectful workplace policy. That makes it crystal clear that differential treatment is unacceptable," said Boucher.

But in a statement on its website, the University of Winnipeg defended the dress code, saying it wasn't really enforced and calling the ceremony "a learning opportunity for everyone." 

"I hear what she's saying," said Wab Kinew, associate vice-president of Indigenous Affairs at the University of Winnipeg.

"But the wording on the invitation was 'the elder requests that women wear skirts.' It wasn't mandating, it wasn't turning people away."

Kinew said that when the ceremony actually took place, it was an inclusive event where many people chose to wear skirts, while others did not.

It's an issue that came up at the University of Saskatchewan in 2013, when a similar poster was distributed that called for women to wear long skirts and to avoid the ceremony if they were menstruating.
Alex Wilson said the issue of wearing gendered clothing as part of a pipe ceremony was introduced by European settlers. (University of Saskatchewan)

"I wasn't raised with the understanding that I could not attend a ceremony based on the clothing that I wear or based on any kind of body regulation," said Alex Wilson, an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan and member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation.

Wilson was one of several people who pushed for change in the wake of that controversy. After a series of public discussions with indigenous women on campus and with the larger university community, Wilson said the university anti-discrimination policy was expanded to make ceremonies more inclusive.

Historical research has shown that the idea of wearing skirts at ceremonies was first introduced by prudish Victorian-era Europeans, Wilson said, adding it was later enforced by fur traders, missionaries and the Canadian government.

"Distinguishing between gender was definitely part of the agenda for the residential schools era," said Wilson, adding that among her people, the Swampy Cree, specific clothing for genders is a relatively new concept.

"If you talk to elders here, they can remember a time, or they tell stories of their grandparents' time, when people made their own clothes and it didn't have to do with cloth and it didn't have to do with long skirts."