Photo | Hana Nikčević
River Pereira provides insight on updating traditions and the importance of visibility
During its Orientation Week, Victoria College presents itself the way it wants to be seen. Such is the case with any institution. However, Vic’s claim that we are inclusive and progressive comes with the responsibility to build a culture that reflects these values. Every year, Vic frosh holds a set of Traditional Ceremonies (Traditionals or Trads) which were, until last frosh, segregated by those who identify as men and those who identify as women. This system was problematic for the incoming student body because it excluded and isolated non-binary and transgender students—forcing them to either come out or misgender themselves in order to conform with the reinforcement of the gender binary practiced by this “tradition.”
It is without a doubt that Traditionals have changed significantly over the years—especially so during the past few years. Trads were originally created by the women of Victoria College, at a time when it was difficult to be a woman in higher education. Traditionals celebrated successful alumna, sending the message to incoming students that they were also capable of overcoming these systemic barriers. Some time after, a separate ceremony was added to welcome male students. In hosting two separate ceremonies, the assumption was that students would attend the one corresponding to the gender they had been assigned at birth. Due to the problematic nature of this ceremony, however, in 2016, Vic Orientation held a single ceremony, welcome to all students in order to abolish the tendency to separate students in compliance with the gender binary.
River Pereira, an Orientation Exec for Vic’s 2016 Frosh Week, spearheaded the initiative to hold gender–neutral Traditional Ceremonies. The Strand sat down with them to discuss the significance of this change, as well as the importance of speaking out.
The Strand: What were Trads like in previous years?
River Pereira: Improvement was kind of happening. You didn’t have to go based on the gender people assumed you were. A few people did take that option of going where they were comfortable with, but those people were questioned by peers and frosh leaders, both to their faces and behind their backs. Separating students by gender seems so archaic. It was kind of ridiculous to me that it was still happening.
How do Traditionals compare to the overall level of inclusivity during Frosh?
I think last year when I was an Exec, Frosh was fairly inclusive because there were a few members of the Exec who were adamant about things like having pronouns written on nametags, and putting content warnings where they were needed. I think that Trads last year furthered that message of inclusivity that we tried to embody throughout frosh week.
In previous years it was definitely not the same vibe. In my second year, Frosh Week was great, but I feel that throughout the entire week, there was this message that Vic is really inclusive and progressive I had come out as non-binary and while I was looking at the traditional ceremonies I was like, this is a weird pause in the inclusivity for a couple of hours. I feel like the gender-segregated Traditionals contradicted the way that Vic was trying to present itself during that week.
Why do you think the change happened so incrementally?
One of the reasons was that it is a big change in logistics, but I do feel like logistics were something that a lot of people were hiding behind. There was also the fear that with a gender-neutral traditional ceremony, the historical components of previous ceremonies would be erased. In the women’s ceremony, they did talk a lot about women’s history at Vic, which is great, but my response to that was that we could still talk about it at the neutral one.
I don’t know why it took so long. I mean, there are the obvious reasons, like transphobia, and people not being aware of non-binary genders. I know it was mentioned a couple of times, like, “Well, it’s such a small percentage of people, why does it matter?”
Could you speak more about the idea of “tradition”?
I think, in a lot of ways, I can see why tradition is important to a lot of people and I’m not trying to downplay that. But I also feel like a lot of traditions are rooted in things like homophobia, transphobia, racism, and classism—so it ends up not growing with the society that it’s part of. A lot of the time, people participate in traditions because they’re comfortable, or because they’re scared of change. Sometimes that fear of change is benign, but sometimes it ends up alienating and hurting a lot of people.
How would you encourage people to speak out about these issues?
It’s very important to remind those who are inclined to speak out against systemic oppression that they’re allowed to take a step back. You’re allowed to ask for help and you’re allowed to rally multiply voices.
I also feel like it’s important to emphasize that if you see something is wrong and you want to say something about it: do it. When I say that, I get that I’m coming from a place of immense privilege—being white, masculine of centre, and able-bodied. All of these things allowed me to do what I did, so I don’t want to downplay the added difficulty that it’s going to be for somebody else.
What do you think are the main things that remain to be done in the work towards inclusivity?
That’s a big question. We could abolish ignorance as a concept and make people more open to learning and accepting other people. I’m one voice of this monolith of a marginalized group that includes all of these different intersections and I don’t think it would be fair of me to point to specific things, because the things in my world that I want to change aren’t going to be prioritized in someone else’s world, and that’s totally okay.
Structurally as well as culturally, there is still a lot to be done to make our communities more inclusive. There is value in discussion as well as advocacy: let us make an effort to listen more, to ask questions, and to make sure that when we talk about inclusivity, we ask whether everyone—down to the last small percentage point—feels welcome.
The above interview has been edited for length and clarity purposes.