The Chown Hall incident, over one year later

Internal emails and interviews with administration show University’s response to racist and homophobic note, inconclusive police investigation, and structural changes

Chown Hall was the site of an act of racism and homophobia in October 2019.
Image by: Tessa Warburton
Chown Hall was the site of an act of racism and homophobia in October 2019.

This article was updated with a statement from Global News on March 16, 2021, at 9:30 a.m.

This article discusses acts of racism and homophobia, which may be triggering for some readers.

At 10:27 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, Mark Erdman, Queen’s Community Relations and Issues manager, sent an email to eight members of Queen’s top administration. “Housing advises there was a disturbing incident in Chown Hall that (in opinion of some staff) may reach bar of hate crime,” he wrote. 

This was the first mention among the Queen’s administration of the act of racism and homophobia that took place in 2019 on the fourth floor of Chown Hall, according to over 300 pages of internal correspondence and reports obtained by The Journal through a freedom of information request.

It was not the last. As the seriousness of the incident became evident, the Queen’s administration and wider community began grappling with how to respond. It was clear that the students of the fourth floor, home to the Bimaadiziwin Ka’nikonhriyo Indigenous & Allies Living-Learning Community, needed immediate support.

At around 2 p.m. on Oct. 10, Residence Manager Geneviève Meloche and Security and Emergency Services Supervisor Tammy Aristilde arrived at Chown Hall to collect evidence in evidence bags. Meloche and Aristilde collected six bags of evidence—three printed letters and three handwritten. The letters were passed along to the Kingston Police Department (KPD) when they arrived at the scene that afternoon.

The story of Chown has often been told as one of anti-Indigenous racism, but it’s important to recognize that the note also addressed LGBTQIA2S+ students and that on Oct. 9, an incident on the fourth floor of Chown had involved the theft of both a Métis flag and a Pride flag.

Representatives of the Four Directions Indigenous Student Centre arrived at Chown that afternoon to perform a smudging ceremony. Representatives focused on supporting Indigenous students became a meaningful presence at Chown over the following week—one reason that a fourth floor Chown resident, in an email to Principal Patrick Deane, said, “The handling of this situation has made me feel even more at home at Queen’s despite the other student or students that have tried their hardest to make me feel the opposite.”

Photos by Maia McCann 

However, many students felt the opposite. Jessica*, an Indigenous student, told The Journal that “Indigenous students have been so unsupported during this time, and it just adds such another layer on top of university, which can be crazy, stressful, and busy.”

Upon hearing about the note, Jessica recalled feeling “shocked and horrified.” She immediately drove back to her parent’s house, where she stayed for a week.

“I was scared to be on campus,” she said. “I kind of just shut down. I stayed off my phone. I couldn’t read anything about it because it was too hurtful. The words were too hateful, and I needed time to myself to heal from that. It was a traumatizing incident.”

Deane released a statement at 4:31 p.m. on Oct. 10, calling the incident a “cowardly violation of human rights and the dignity of individuals” that “sought to intimidate and foster hate toward, and fear in, Indigenous and Queer identified members of our Queen’s family.” Kevin Deluzio, dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, emailed a statement to all Engineering students, and statements were also released by the AMS, Arts and Science Undergraduate Society (ASUS), Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS), and Four Directions.

On the afternoon of Oct. 12, a CBC article reporting on the incident was published, including excerpts of the violent note, which had not previously been public. Queen’s contacted the CBC and asked for the excerpts to be removed as a measure to protect the spread of hate speech.

Kanonhysonne (Janice Hill), associate vice-principal (Indigenous Initiatives and Reconciliation), told The Journal she was “concerned with the potential of students being re-traumatized once it was splashed all over the media.”

Jessica had mixed feelings about the publication of the note in the CBC. “On one hand, I was glad to know exactly what it said, so I didn’t have to trust the university to release the bits and pieces that they thought was more palatable. But on the other hand, reading that was horrible for me and my mental health.”

Dons in Chown had meetings with Campus Maintenance, Campus Security and Emergency Services (CSES), and Becky Shillington, manager (Operations) at ResLife, to discuss the incident. The Journal reached out to both 2019-20 fourth floor Chown dons, but one declined to comment and the other did not respond to a request for comment.

The full residence Don team only had “one or two” hour-long meetings, according to Ryan*, a residence Don.

“We spent the same amount of time talking about the Chown incident as the Australian wildfires,” he said. “We didn’t talk about what actions Dons would do to ensure this doesn’t happen again […] We didn’t talk about how to support students in the future, we didn’t talk about the root of the issue or preventative measures.”

Four days after the CBC article brought national attention to the incident, a meeting facilitated by Shillington and ResLife Coordinator Melyssa Kerr was held at Chown on Oct. 16 to discuss the note. One hundred sixty students attended, according to emails.

In an email from Shillington, she said “there were a few students who were overtly and disrespectfully laughing during the talk.”

Notes from the meeting also said that “on the way back from the meeting, a group of students were laughing and said something along the lines of ‘I can’t wait to take down that sign we just signed and keep it in my room.’”

In an email, Shillington said ResLife would be confirming these student’s identities to follow up with them.

Two sources familiar with the issue said dons had suspicions that the students laughing during the meeting were the perpetrators and held these suspicions when the first note was found. They raised these concerns with ResLife, but sources said there was no apparent effort made to investigate the students. No emails indicated further discussion on the matter.


On Oct. 11, 2019, KPD detectives Jamie Graham and Brian Hanwell were assigned to actively investigate the case. Despite updates given to the Queen’s community by Deane and Tom Harris, then-interim provost and vice-principal (Academic) throughout the semester, there was no meaningful investigation, according to multiple sources close to the matter. 

On Oct. 18, 2019, eight days after the incident, The Journal reported that no fourth floor Chown student residents had spoken to the police up to that point, including the student who first found the note.

“The police didn’t investigate, or at least investigate thoroughly,” Ryan said. “I’m confused what the investigation was. [The police] were not doing their job correctly […] They never spoke to the Dons in Chown.”

Another source with knowledge on the situation confirmed the police never spoke to any students or Dons about the incident, and the police did not visit Chown Hall during the period when the investigation was taking place.

In a statement emailed to The Journal, the KPD called their work on the case “an extensive analysis.”

“Detectives spoke to numerous individuals and potential witnesses in an attempt to garner leads however ultimately had negative results in identifying the suspect/s involved in this incident,” the statement read.

Since the case was classified as a criminal offence, the KPD took the lead once investigators were assigned on Oct. 11, according to Todd Zimmerman, director of Campus Security and Emergency Services (CSES). 

Zimmerman told The Journal that CSES’s role after the incident was to “provide supports to people who needed support through Student Wellness Services and ResLife.”

An email issued to all Chown residents on Oct. 10, at Zimmerman’s request, instructed students and Dons to “direct anyone with information on the incident to contact CSES,” not the police.

Zimmerman said “[CSES] did not get any information as to who may have been responsible.”

One reason for this gap in communication among those affected by the incident, CSES and the KPD could be the historical tension between Indigenous people and security and law enforcement services, Hill said. KPD was the subject of the first racial profiling study of a police department in Canada, which revealed troubling statistics regarding the KPD’s treatment of racialized populations.

“Indigenous students and staff are hesitant to reach out to KPD when they are experiencing challenges,” Hill said. “There are historic reasons for that.”

In an email to Shearer and Harris, Vice-Provost and Dean of Student Affairs Ann Tierney expressed similar sentiments. “Students do not want security present on the floor. They don’t feel they need that and, as you know, students who already feel marginalized often have a complicated relationship with any security services.”

Zimmerman told The Journal CSES attempts not to be “overbearing,” acknowledging that “some people may not want to talk to police.” When asked what CSES does to ensure students with Indigenous and other marginalized identities feel comfortable with its presence on campus, or able to go to them for support, he said “[that problem] is not something I am aware of.”


After three months without any updates on the police investigation, Deane pledged on Jan. 14, 2020, to inquire with the KPD about the investigation’s status.

On Jan. 17, the investigation was formally closed. No charges or arrests were made.

The news was met with disappointment across campus, and both Deane and Shillington reached out to the Queen’s and residence communities.

A spokesperson for the KPD confirmed the investigation remains closed as of Oct. 13, 2020. 

“If any witnesses come forward with any new information that would be able to assist with the investigation, [the detectives] would gladly speak with them.”

The Journal reached out to Detectives Graham and Hanwell for comment multiple times and received no response.

As the news broke, Jessica recalled feeling “extremely disappointed but not surprised.” She told The Journal she felt like it was just brushed off by both the University and the police. 

The day after the investigation was closed, a reporter from Global News came to campus to report from outside Chown Hall and Four Directions. According to an email about the situation sent by Hill, reporters were “taking photos, trying to get interviews, on Facebook and email — basically harassing. The students are now being traumatized […] Students are not feeling safe.”

Global News reached out to The Journal with a statement on March 15.

“On October 15th, 2019 – a Global News Videographer met with concerned Chown Hall 4th floor residents […] outside the building, to interview them about their shock and disappointment with a threatening note containing racist overtones posted on their floor. While there, the Videographer asked a number of others coming and going from the building if they would like to speak with him about the incident. A few declined, but many stopped to talk. It was obvious that, if the intent of the note was to dissuade people from speaking out against racism, that it had failed completely.”

“After reading Janice Hill’s email that seems to describe a negative atmosphere made worse by media attention, we believe her comments don’t reflect the broad majority of experiences with our reporting, given the overall positive feedback our reporting received, and the friendly reception from those we met on campus.  Nonetheless, as members of the media, we are sensitive to the fact that some people will feel justifiably uneasy with the attention that can result from a situation like this, and they may sometimes associate their feelings with the most visible representative of that attention – a television reporter or cameraperson. We will always respond with the appropriate care and humility in these instances.”


In the wake of the incident, the emotional impact rippled across campus. Sources close to the matter spoke of the trauma for young Indigenous and LGBTQIA2S+ students, whose living space had been breached and violated. 

“I’ve spent the last seven years being an Indigenous activist, advocating for Indigenous rights, Indigenous sovereignty, and food security. [Chown] felt so soul-crushing because all the hard work and long hours I put in, it felt like they did nothing […] It definitely does feel hopeless sometimes,” Jessica said.

“If you’ve never been the target of racism or a hate crime, I don’t know if you can fully understand the level of it or the impact of it, and how traumatizing it can be,” Hill said.

In an email to Deane, Harris, and Shearer on Oct. 11, Tierney expressed an emotional response to the thoughts of Indigenous and LGBTQIA2S+ students facing the incident.

“I can’t help but feel like we failed in the promises we made to these families to provide a safe and supportive community for their children. These students don’t feel safe as they have been threatened in their own homes.”

On Oct. 14, extra security was issued to the Yellow House, a dedicated space for Queen’s student groups working to advance social justice and inclusion. Vice-Provost Harris wrote in an email that the measures were “precautionary” because “haters tend to come out.”

A sacred fire was held by Four Directions on Oct. 15, the same day Principal Deane held his first Principal’s Conversation, where he discussed the incident.

On Oct. 18, nearly a thousand students, faculty, staff, and community members took to the streets of campus to march in support of Indigenous and LGBTQ+ students. The march was hosted by Four Directions.

“Many non-Indigenous staff and faculty came to things like the fire and the solidarity march and continued to show support and ask how they could be of assistance,” Hill said of the non-Indigenous Queen’s community’s response to the incident. “People I engaged with were very aware of not wanting to take over or get in the way, but support what the Indigenous community wanted to happen.”

Jessica said Four Directions was helpful both in the direct aftermath of Chown and in the time since, offering resources and providing care packages to Indigenous students at the start of this school year.

According to email communications, Harris made suggestions on Oct. 20 to increase Indigenous presence on campus through physical infrastructure. 

One suggestion was to create a sweat lodge—a structure in which Indigenous peoples perform ceremonies for prayer and healing—that would be owned by Queen’s. Hill said the University was looking for a site for the lodge before the pandemic halted plans.

“There will be a sweat lodge for Queen’s, although the sites we looked at are far away from campus,” she said in an interview. “We’ve been trying tolook around campus property or West Campus to have one that is more accessible.”

Harris also suggested the installation of a totem pole on campus. Totem poles are not part of the culture or history of the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee Peoples, whose territory Queen’s is situated on, and according to Hill, “there was never any discussions of installing a totem pole.” 

Despite efforts to support Indigenous students, some felt the response fell short. There were no specialized resources provided for QTBIPOC students or Dons, and there was limited talk about mental health supports beyond Student Wellness Services, which sources noted may be less helpful for people with complex identities and/or those impacted by trauma. Other sources said they felt that while CSES and ResLife responded strongly, the University administration did not address the issue properly.

“I felt like I couldn’t be safe at [Queen’s],” Jessica said. “I felt that academia in general […] was an unsafe place for me as an Indigenous student.”

Hill pointed to student government as another place where the reaction could have been better. 

“Student governance and the administration could have done more to ensure students felt safe, supported and valued,” she said. In the aftermath of Chown, Hill met with the AMS and SGPS. She has not met with any student government this year.

Hill has been working with the University administration along with Stephanie Simpson, associate vice-principal (Human Rights, Equity and Inclusion). They have set up a committee to talk about “safety and safe spaces for students on campus,” and, on May 27, 2020, the University Senate approved the establishment of a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) Major and Medial in Indigenous Studies, which was effective Sept. 1. 

Hill pointed to recent Indigenous faculty hires, the construction of a new room on the lower level of Stauffer Library built using wampum as an inspiration, working groups out of the Aboriginal Council of Queen’s University, and permanently hanging Indigenous and LGBTQIA2S+ flags at Four Directions, the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, residences, and other places on campus as steps forward.

In addition to other actions aiming to support the Indigenous community, the Living-Learning Community was moved out of Chown to another residence that “has the ability to be more secure,” Hill said.

For Jessica, the University’s actions have not been enough to combat the discomfort and fear Indigenous students feel. “It’s definitely very performative on their part, they’re just doing the bare minimum to keep people off their backs,” she said.

Security was, and remains, a topic of serious concern after the incident.

“Many of the recommendations students made [after the incident] have been acted on, but they feel recommendations around safety have not,” Hill said.

After the incident, security personnel were assigned to do additional patrols of floors and common spaces in Chown despite racialized students’ concerns regarding security services’ and law enforcement’s treatment of marginalized communities.

One request the residents of Chown’s fourth floor made was the installation of security cameras. According to a Jan. 21 email from Hill to Shearer, this was voted down by the other floors in the building.

However, according to Zimmerman, CCTV video cameras have now been installed in the hallways of Chown Hall.

Another security concern had to do with Chown Hall’s front door. Like all Queen’s residences, the main door was supposed to be locked, with key access only to residents of the building. This was confirmed in an email from ResLife to Chown residents on Oct. 22,  2020 meant to reassure students about safety measures in Chown.

However, multiple sources told The Journal that the front door of Chown was not as secure as ResLife indicated.

“The Chown door ‘locks,’ but you can just yank it open,” Ryan said. “Most students have realized it’s an open building.”

Unlike other residences, the only key-access points in Chown are the main floor entries, meaning once a person is inside, there’s access to every floor. According to Ryan, Dons had put in maintenance requests to have it locked before the incident but were ignored. 

“You’d think ResLife would address the issue promptly, but they let it go through the entire academic year,” he said. Sources said the lock has now been fixed.

Despite the security concerns, CSES protocols for dealing with serious incidents in residence “have not changed,” said Zimmerman. “We’re trying to get better at dealing with nuance.” One change CSES has implemented is more cultural sensitivity training for officers.

Zimmerman said he didn’t see the note found on Oct. 10 as an example of poor security because “the only thing that really changed [to potentially have caused the incident] is that the people living in Chown were different than the people who lived there before.”


“I don’t know that [Indigenous members of the Queen’s community] feel a lot different than they did immediately following Chown. We still hear that students, staff and faculty continue to not feel safe and don’t feel heard,” Hill said. 

The incident at Chown happened between a series of racist incidents at Queen’s. Prior to Chown, Queen’s attracted national attention for racist costume parties, and since October of last year, a coronavirus themed party took place, Four Directions was vandalized twice, and Instagram accounts @StolenBySmith and @ErasedByFEAS have provided a platform for students to share experiences of racism and prejudice on campus. 

Moreover, Canadian history has long been taught from a colonial perspective, with the lived experiences of Indigenous people often being erased. It’s why Jessica believes a strong place to start changing the culture at Queen’s would be a mandatory Indigenous studies course.

“A lot of people who have preconceived notions about Indigenous people, the type of people who would write a note such as the one at Chown, never got to learn about Indigenous people properly,” she said. “That’s a testament to school systems failing us, particularly in Ontario […] There are things about my own people that I didn’t know until I was 20, because it’s not taught and a lot of colonialism is taking and ending our traditional knowledge.”

She pointed out that Ontario high schools lack almost any Indigenous curriculum, although the public school boards are “making good steps.”

In contrast, “the universities certainly aren’t doing as much as they could in terms of educating people on not just Indigenous issues, but Indigenous people and the ways in which our culture can be celebrated and appreciated.” 

When Jessica brought up the idea for a mandatory Indigenous Studies course with Deane, along with other suggestions intended to alter the racist culture at Queen’s, she said her ideas were “completely ignored, or it was said it can’t be done.” 

Numerous sources told The Journal they feel ResLife is not focused on the emotional, mental, and physical safety of racialized students on campus. In addition, multiple interviewees said the University administration also needs to consider the systemic causes for inaction on racism and homophobia at Queen’s.

However, Hill sees progress in the conversations that are happening.

“The issue of racism is front and centre at Queen’s right now, and that started with the incident in Chown. Racism is top of mind for everyone right now,” she said. “How do we combat it in the community? The biggest way is trying to change the culture of the University, which will be difficult and take time.”

Hill said she isn’t sure how to fundamentally alter the culture at Queen’s, but was happy to see it is a priority for Principal Deane, who, along with the rest of the administration, released a Declaration of Commitment to Address Systemic Racism on Aug. 12, 2020. 

She believes education will play a big role in creating positive change. “Education will get us out of this. We can make positive change in the world through education.”

While Hill remains positive, Jessica said the culture at Queen’s surrounding Indigeneity has not changed over the last year and a half. 

Following the hate crimes at Four Directions over the summer where within one month, five Pride and Indigenous flags were slashed and a tipi was damaged, Jessica got in touch with Deane and members of senior administration to voice her concerns. 

“I told them that I don’t know if I can continue being a student here, because the environment is toxic.”

“They tried to assure me they were making steps in the right direction. But it was, again, pretty bare minimum. I wanted them to help us, as Indigenous students, enact systemic change, so these things would stop happening.”

She was put in contact with counselors, people in her major, and the undergraduate chair of her department. “Their only goal was to make sure that I personally stayed in school, not to take on the bigger challenges of changing the University culture to make it more inclusive,” Jessica said.

Jessica emphasized the work of Four Directions and other equity groups for trying to fill the gaps the administration has left, but it is not enough. 

“If we were to go back to campus, I would not be surprised if more hate crimes are committed […] hate crimes on campus are a regular occurrence. I don’t think the university has done anything to change the views or actions 

of students.”

A year and a half after Chown, there has been no conclusion. Not only did law enforcement fail to bring the perpetrators of the incident to justice, but Jessica pointed to the recurring vandalism at Four Directions as a testament to the lack of change within the Queen’s culture. 

“We need to create a university culture in which Indigenous students are welcome, and where hate crimes won’t happen regularly,” Jessica says. “We need a culture where I don’t have to expect the worst.”

*Names changed for anonymity due to safety reasons.


anti-racism, Chown Hall

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