Calgary

'A huge issue of mental health': Researcher receives $80K grant to study history of hazing

For some, hazing is a rite of passage, a way to bond and be inducted into a group through a shared challenging experience. But at some schools or sports teams, the humiliating experiences more than cross that line — verging into abusive behaviour that's led to criminal charges or even deaths.

'There'd be things such as early forms of waterboarding. Dragging student initiates through the mud'

Paul Stortz, an associate history professor at the University of Calgary, is studying the history of hazing at Canadian universities. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

For some, hazing is a rite of passage, a way to bond and be inducted into a group through a shared challenging experience. But at some schools or sports teams, the humiliating experiences more than cross that line — verging into abusive behaviour that's led to criminal charges or even deaths.

"This has gone back in Western universities several centuries … and this is something we see today as well," said Paul Stortz, an associate history professor at the University of Calgary. 

"This happened historically. So there'd be things such as early forms of waterboarding. Dragging student initiates through the mud. Putting them in cages, mock trials, blindfolds, rolling barrels uphill."

Earlier this year, Stortz was awarded an $80,000 grant from the national Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to study the history of hazing in schools across Canada. 

Stortz said the funding has allowed him to employ students to assist with his studies. 

He said by looking at how hazing rituals started to really take shape in Canada in the mid-19th century, he hopes to better understand how the practice — which robs people of their dignity, he said — became so entrenched.

"It's hugely problematic … this is a huge issue of mental health, of student mental health," he said. "Customs and traditions are very, very difficult to break. So we have to in a sense be very creative in our thinking on how to deal with these initiations and yet not compromise the student culture that is constructed in particular ways." 

This fall, multiple former students at a private Catholic boys' school in Toronto were sentenced for their roles in sexual assaults involved in hazing incidents.

In 2010, video was sent to the University of Alberta's student paper that showed students being forced to eat their own vomit and being locked in a urine-soaked box.

With files from Hala Ghonaim

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