McMaster student group suspended over 'sexist, violent, degrading' songbook

The Redsuits student group, part of the McMaster Engineering Society, has been suspended over a songbook containing what the university calls "sexist, violent and degrading material."

'The material is highly repugnant,' says university official David Wilkinson

Members of the McMaster Redsuits march in the Hamilton Santa Claus Parade last November. The engineering student group has been banned from campus activities. (Facebook)

McMaster University has suspended an engineering student group over a songbook containing what the university calls “sexist, violent and degrading material.”

The songbook contains around 25 cheers and includes multiple references to violent rape, murder, incest, bestiality and sex with underage females. It is also rife with misogynistic and homophobic slurs.  

It is not clear when the songbook was created, but its foreword suggests the students who compiled it were set to graduate in 2010. 

“The material is highly repugnant,” said provost and vice-president (academic) David Wilkinson. “We are very strong advocates of creating an inclusive community at the university, so when we discovered this book and saw its contents, we took immediate and swift action to indicate a book with this kind of content in it is unacceptable.”

The suspended group is called the Redsuits, student volunteers from the McMaster Engineering Society (MES) who promote spirit throughout the year on campus, recognized by wearing red jumpsuits. The group plays a main role during the university’s orientation week welcoming new engineering students to the campus.

In a statement released on Thursday afternoon, the McMaster Engineering Society's leadership condemned the content of the songbook and said it has never "distributed or endorsed" the text. 

"The content unequivocally opposes what the MES represents," the statement says. 

"The MES would like to extend its deepest apologies to any individuals or groups that may have been offended by the document’s content, and strongly affirms that these attitudes will not be tolerated within the MES.​"

Redsuit songbook disclaimer

CBC News in Hamilton has obtained a copy of the Redsuits songbook, which includes a disclaimer preceding one of its most lurid chants: "There is no good place to sing this. People will be offended [...] The content of the next page includes: bloody rape, murderous incest, child mutilation, and fetal ingestion at the very least."

As a result of the suspension, Wilkinson said the Redsuits will no longer be able to run or participate in any events on campus, effectively immediately. They will also not allowed to play a role in the upcoming Welcome Week in September 2014.

The McMaster Engineering Society is also barred from holding any events involving alcohol.

Wilkinson said a full review of the nature of the songbook and its use on campus will be launched by an investigator external to the university. Any events that happen off campus related to the Redsuits will also be part of that review.

About 100 students are involved with the Redsuits, but Wilkinson suspects only a small subsection of the Redsuits were aware of the songbook.

Wilkinson said the university was only made aware of the songbook’s existence a couple of days ago by “a member of the McMaster community.” He doesn’t know for sure when the document was written, but believes the content has been around for a while and updated over the years.

“The book contains content that is highly sexist in nature and degrading to a number of groups, in particular women. It’s highly misogynist,” Wilkinson said. “I would be embarrassed to go into detail.”

Engineering students do use chants on campus and in public, Wilkinson said, but the ones he has heard are nothing like what is in the book.

On Thursday morning, Wilkinson said he met with MES president Emily Au to make her aware of the suspension.

“It’s fair to say she was somewhat stunned by the revelations,” he said. “She has been very co-operative so far.”

The McMaster Engineering Society is run by current students in the engineering faculty and is financed independently of the university. The society has not yet responded to an interview request from the CBC.

Student blog criticizes songbook content

Third-year McMaster humanities student Udoka Okafor posted the chant book to her blog in September, decrying the sexist and violent content that the cheers contain.

“Although I am unsure as to how many of these chants are being used today, if any at all, these chants were compiled not so long ago,” she wrote. “And not only should the people who compiled them be held accountable to their actions, but they demonstrate the extent to which the monstrosity that is sexism, has eaten at the fabric of institutions.”

An official from McMaster contacted Okafor on Thursday to notify her about the attention her blog post might attract.

“I am also aware that you have posted a copy of this chant book on your blog,” wrote Sean Van Koughnett, the university’s dean of students, in an email.

“Any decisions related to your blog post are yours and yours alone, but I wanted to bring this to your attention given that various interested parties may actively search out this chant book and be led to your blog. I encourage you to give some thought to how you would like to handle this situation.”

Okafor told CBC News she intends to leave the blog post up “for now,” but she lauded the university for taking action.

“I’m actually happy that the university is investigating it,” she said. “I think it just shows the culture that the university is trying to cultivate.”

Frosh Week scandals

The disciplinary action at McMaster comes less than five months after controversial Frosh Week chants at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and the University of British Columbia spurred outrage across the country.

In early September, a video posted online showed student leaders at St. Mary's yelling cheers that glorified rape.

In the clip posted to Instagram, the students used the word "young" as an acronym in a chant that included the lines: "Y is for your sister […] U is for underage, N is for no consent […] Saint Mary’s boys we like them young."

Uproar over the video led the university to conduct a review that resulted in 20 recommendations on how to prevent and address sexual violence on campus.

A similar chant, sung by students with UBC’s Commerce Undergraduate Society, prompted an investigation in September.

The student group responded by pledging a $250,000 donation to a sexual assault counselling service.

UBC president Stephen Toope said 81 Commerce Undergraduate Society orientation leaders would also be required to do community service.

"We all need to be involved — those who made serious mistakes and misjudgments, and those who didn’t," said Toope.

"UBC is seizing this moment to strike at the violence, sexualization and discrimination that still lurks below the surface in pockets of our society."

An article posted to the McMaster website on Thursday notifies students of the suspension. (McMaster University)