U of M students’ Hoedown Week kicks up criticism

A University of Manitoba faculty is grappling with the legacy of a student-run fundraiser during which agriculture majors were auctioned off like slaves, as well as the resignation of a student leader who alleges her peers were reluctant to take concerns about the event seriously.

As part of its annual “Hoedown Week,” the Faculty of Agriculture Students’ Organization has long hosted a mid-year auction to raise money for charity.

Bidders have typically been able to pledge amounts to win a personal assistant — a volunteer from the organization — for a day.

Citing the insensitivity of running an event that makes light of slavery, Hiwot Jonk flagged concerns about the tradition to colleagues on FASO in September when she was elected to be its inaugural equity, diversity and inclusion advisor for 2023-24.

“There was a lot of unnecessary discussions about it when it should’ve just been said, right from the beginning: ‘This event is problematic. It’s offensive. It’s racist. It should not be happening, and end of conversation,’” said Jonk, who is studying human nutritional sciences.

FASO leaders met with Tina Chen, a vice-provost who oversees the university’s office of equity transformation, to discuss the matter in the fall term.

In the wake of those discussions, the student council revamped and rebranded the event to mirror horse racing for Hoedown Week (Jan. 8 to 13). The “FASO Calcutta,” which involved open bidding on student teams who competed in challenges, was held at a campus bar on Jan. 8.

“From my office and for the university, events in which the selling and buying of people and kind of re-enactments of slavery or slave auctions is not appropriate and is certainly communicated,” Chen said Wednesday.

The vice-provost, equity, said her job is to educate and provide recommendations so community members can problem-solve and make decisions.

The term “calcutta” is used to describe a form of betting and is the former name of Kolkata, the capital of India’s West Bengal state, which has a colonial past and was once a slave trading port, she noted.

“Language has power. We want to think about what historical roots are, what resonances it has, what it might mean for different communities, for different people at different times,” Chen said, adding such considerations are part of the anti-racism learning she wants people to engage in.

Tensions have been mounting in the agriculture faculty as students with conservative beliefs push back against new equity-related initiatives and dismiss “what is a human decency question as a political question,” said Phil Veldhuis, who has taught so-called aggies for more than 10 years.

“Admin have been wrestling with student attitudes and behaviour,” the instructor said.

Veldhuis added the student population, which has historically been rural, Caucasian and male-dominated, has changed significantly since U of M’s human nutritional sciences department joined the faculty in 2014-15.

An anonymous letter-writer contacted FASO this time last year to raise concerns about “the glorification of binge drinking” in the faculty and student leaders’ failure to make learners with disabilities and members of the LGBTTQ+ community feel welcome.

“These issues have resulted in myself and many of my peers not feeling safe, accepted, nor included in our faculty,” states an excerpt from the letter written by an individual who indicated they were a non-binary student with an invisible disability.

Among their suggestions, the letter-writer said adding new positions to the council would be “a step in the right direction.”

Jonk became FASO’s first EDI adviser, but she said her motions to add an Indigenous students’ representative, an accessibility and gender students’ representative and a racialized students’ representative failed.

Owing to her frustrations, including challenges related to obtaining funding for an event, feeling tokenized and the executive team’s decision to hold a calcutta, the 22-year-old announced her resignation this month.

Jonk indicated she has repeatedly asked FASO to issue a public statement since Jan. 8.

In an email Wednesday, a student council spokeswoman acknowledged the harm that hosting the calcutta caused community members and issued an apology on behalf of FASO.

“We strongly condemn the practice of slavery and all forms of systemic and social injustice. As such, this event will never happen again as a part of FASO’s activities,” senior stick Nicola Wolfe said in a written statement.

Wolfe said the council will work with both its faculty’s equity, diversity and inclusion co-ordinator and Chen’s office “in seeking ongoing education and guidance.”

The dean of the faculty of agricultural and food sciences said he generally does not interfere in student council affairs because of the bicameral nature of faculty and student decision-making processes.

However, Martin Scanlon said he asked a FASO representative to do a “complete rethink” and scrap auctions in mid-January, following the latest Hoedown Week, and was informed the council had already come to that conclusion.

“We’ve got to make sure that we’re attracting the best talent and typically that talent comes from a very diverse pool so from our perspective, we’ve got to make sure that we are a welcoming place so I am disappointed if there’s activities that are going on – either in the faculty or in FASO – that do not make this a welcoming environment,” Scanlon said.

Tracy Karuhogo, president of the undergraduate students’ union at U of M, said her office is investigating concerns involving FASO.


Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press