The Waterloo Public Interest Research Group’s latest on-campus project found itself stopped almost before it could start in a dispute between WPIRG and campus police. The project, Portrait of a Campus, involved setting up portraits of UW students, staff, and faculty commenting on their concerns with mental health on campus. Within an hour of the portraits being set up on the morning of Sept. 15, campus police had collected most of the portraits and disposed of them in the trash.
Jana Omar spoke to Imprint about the goal behind the project.
“The goal of the project was to shine light on the ways that the University of Waterloo has structural issues that may be a detriment to our health as a community, whether it’s students, staff, or faculty. We wanted to take a unique approach to mental health discussion in regards to getting at the root of what makes an unhealthy campus, as opposed to talking about just the clinical side of things,” Omar said.
The project, which Omar said required several months of work, began following feedback from the WPIRG Open House during spring term, where students advocated for a mental health campaign.
“[We] got a lot of feedback from students on what kinds of issues they wanted to focus on, and students really liked the idea of ‘what weighs us down?’,” Omar said.
About 25 participants were interviewed, including staff, students, and faculty. Omar said that she found it interesting that some staff wanted to remain anonymous.
“They want to speak about what weighs them down, they want to speak about the issues on campus that they see, but they’re concerned for themselves and their jobs and their livelihood,” she said.
The efforts of those involved went largely unnoticed, however, due to campus police’s swift removal of the portraits on campus. The removal was the result of the project not receiving approval to set up on campus, nor did the students attempt to get the proper approval.
“Students contacted a plant ops rep. That plant ops rep, back in July, had mentioned there’s a President’s Advisory Committee on Design that decide on the physical ambiance of the university and they decide what kind of signs and banners go up in public space. The plant ops rep had given the strong impression that it would be highly unlikely that we would get permission for such a display,” Omar said. “We did this as a way of reclaiming student space. Not getting permission was a way of saying ‘this is our space, we paid for it.’”
Omar was critical of the removal of the posters. “Students want to see this, and the reaction from campus police within an hour of putting them up was extremely telling of the university’s lack of talking about this issue and the university ignoring this issue,” she said.
In a recording provided to Imprint between WPIRG members and an unidentified campus police sergeant, the students were told that the posters were garbage.
“As far as I’m aware, [the portraits were] removed at maybe 9:30-10 a.m. this morning, because it’s pretty much litter or garbage for us,” the officer said. “You can’t recover it, because they shouldn’t have been here in the first place. So it becomes our property, and they’re garbage, so now they’re in the garbage.”
Omar called the interaction with the officer “a really unfortunate conversation.”
Despite the setbacks, Omar said that the Portrait of a Campus project would continue. “The portrait project is ongoing in terms of interviews, but besides that we are also looking for researchers to move the project forward.”
Campus police were contacted, but were unable to comment and unwilling to identify the sergeant involved.