Alumni and students are fuming after it was announced that the woman who headed a shelter where a five-month-old baby died of neglect will receive an honourary degree from Queen’s.
Catherine Brooks is the executive director and co-founder of Anduhyaun, a multi-service Aboriginal agency in Toronto which includes the women’s shelter. Last month an inquest ruled that the death of baby Jordan Heikamp was a homicide. The ruling did not assign blame to a specific person.
The verdict, which does not constitute a legal finding, indicated that the actions of one or more persons caused his death.
A few weeks after the media coverage of Brooks’ testimony at the inquest, Queen’s offered Brooks an honourary degree.
Harry Menna, a past president of the Ottawa Branch of the Queen’s Alumni Association, publicly criticized the University for bestowing the honour.
“If Ms. Brooks does in fact receive the award, the shame will remain forever in the reputation of Queen’s and upon its competence in judging excellence,” wrote Menna in an open letter to Principal William Leggett.
Lynda Morgan, Arts ’03, expressed concern about what effect this will have on her future degree in history.
“By honouring Catherine Brooks, Queen’s is devaluing all degrees that are given,” she said. “The Queen’s community, including students, should be consulted if a candidate is controversial.”
Other students objected to Brooks’ nomination strictly on moral grounds.
“I’m appalled at the insensitivity shown by the selection committee in honouring Ms. Brooks. It is a desecration of baby Jordan’s memory,” said Zoe Van Empel, Arts ’03.
Despite the public outcry, Leggett, who is chairman of the committee that selects the honourees, defended the University’s decision.
“People have to look beyond the recent news coverage to see the long-term contributions Brooks has made to women,” he told the Kingston Whig-Standard.
Brooks has been honoured in the past for her efforts on behalf of women having received the Woman of Distinction Award from the City of Toronto. She was also awarded the Rubina Willis Award, given to women of colour who promote positive changes in their communities.
Menna’s letter also voiced concern about the “extreme feminist views and political activism by supporters of women’s shelters.” “Decide about Ms. Brooks unfair anti-male sentiment,” Menna wrote to Leggett. “Does she deserve an honour from Queen’s?” Brooks exhibited “anti-male sentiment” when she initially blamed Jordan’s absent father for his death, Menna said.
During the inquest Brooks reneged on her accusation.
Bill Flores, president of The Children’s Voice, an organization which acts on behalf of parents who don’t have custody of their children, objected on the same grounds as Menna.
In a letter to Leggett and Premier Mike Harris, Flores condemned the shelter as a “male-hating centre.” He also called for Leggett’s resignation for undermining the University’s integrity by honouring Brooks.
Brooks was unavailable for comment.
Leggett stands by the decision to give Brooks the degree.
“Our concern was that we recognize Ms. Brooks for a lifetime of contributions of a very significant nature to the betterment of the lives of… aboriginal women,” Leggett told the National Post.
Brooks is scheduled to receive her degree on Thursday, at 2 p.m.
–With files from the National Post and the Whig-Standard
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