Investigation reveals 'dark cloud' surrounding McMaster Redsuits

An independent investigation into a “violent, sexist” songbook has revealed “a dark cloud” that hangs over the organization of Welcome Week events for engineering students at McMaster University.

McMaster dean of students issues 15 recommendations in response to external report

Members of the McMaster Redsuits march in the Hamilton Santa Claus Parade on Nov. 16, 2013. The university suspended the student group in January because of a controversial songbook. (Facebook)

An independent investigation into a vulgar songbook has revealed “a dark cloud” that hangs over the organization of Welcome Week events for engineering students at McMaster University.

In January, university officials suspended the Redsuits, a group of engineering students who organize orientation events, pending an external probe into the songbook. Containing the lyrics of about 25 cheers, the document, attributed to the Redsuits, includes mentions of rape, murder incest and bestiality and numerous misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semitic references.

The university has released the report submitted by the external investigator, who gathered information from student leaders, McMaster officials, and engineering students who wished to contribute to the probe.

In his report, dated April 23, Toronto lawyer James Heeney outlined “serious and deliberate breaches of university policy” that occurred either during last year's Welcome Week or were related to its organization.

Some of alleged violations include:

  • The organization of a barbecue that provided alcohol to underage engineering students.
  • An interview process for Welcome Week reps that included “questions and consideration of factors relating to alcohol and sexuality,” which, Heeney suggested, likely discouraged several qualified candidates from applying or being selected. 
  • “Initiation” activities at a pre-orientation trip, funded in part by student fees, to Sauble Beach that included “excessive” alcohol consumption and an activity that encouraged new Redsuit recruits to “take off their clothing.”

Songbook findings

However, Heeney absolved McMaster Engineering Society (MES) student leadership of any responsibility in the creation or distribution of the songbook, which is believed to have been assembled in 2010 by students who no longer attend the university. 

“While some students have seen the songbook, it was not distributed, used or endorsed by [McMaster Engineering Society executives]” or the current Redsuits representatives, he wrote.

The report also said the university had no prior knowledge of the songbook, despite the fact that investigators believe these types of songs — sometimes with only minor changes between schools — have been sung at university campuses across the country for many years.

The MES could not immediately be reached for comment.

Heeney noted that some students were trying to ensure the more offensive songs would be sung off campus, but then writes the distinction is “fictitious” and that singing those songs off-campus “provides fuel to the negative reputation held about the students within the Faculty.”

He acknowledged that student leaders tried in recent years to make Welcome Week events more inclusive. 

"However, while some progress has been made, the above noted highly inappropriate and dangerous activities have cast a dark cloud over welcome week and must be immediately addressed," Heeney wrote.

Dean's recommendations

In response to the report, Sean Van Koughnett, the university’s dean of students, issued a list of 15 recommendations on how to fix the problems that Heeney identified — policies that, if implemented, would see the Faculty of Engineering take over the running of Welcome Week events.

In a Wednesday statement, he recommended that the control of hiring, orientation and training of the MES executive be taken on by the Faculty of Engineering, and that the $400,000 in student fees collected by the MES be subject to an annual audit.

He recommended that the university ban MES executives from the 2012 and 2013 from running Welcome Week festivities and said a ban on alcohol at non-academic MES events should continue.


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