Western University officials are trying to quell a raucous homecoming tradition that has been brewing for several years on Broughdale Avenue, a residential street near campus. Last September, upwards of 10,000 people crowded the street for a homecoming party. This year, in an effort to nix what they view as a disaster waiting to strike, university administrators have moved homecoming to late October, when they hope mid-term stress and colder weather will discourage students from attending.
The decision was announced in late May, about two months after Western officials met with community representatives to discuss last year’s homecoming bash. According to the university, 11 people were admitted to hospital from Broughdale Avenue between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. on homecoming Saturday, Sept. 26. Western students, out-of-towners and local high school students had filled the dead-end street to capacity, making it hard for ambulances to get through, according to London police and emergency medical personnel.
“Their message to me was that we were going to have a tragic accident if the university didn’t do something different than what we’ve done in the past,” said Western’s provost and vice-president, academic, Janice Deakin. “It’s grown exponentially over the past four to six years to the point where the street is completely obstructed,” she said, adding that previous attempts to quell the unsanctioned party did not go far enough.
“We have done things like host a concert on campus; we certainly have spoken to the residents of Broughdale about bylaws and safety and worked with our partners – the police and off-campus housing people – to try and mitigate this.”
“We can’t solve this problem by handing out tickets and charging people”
Despite two on-campus concerts held last year, many students made their way to the party on Broughdale anyway, in what the London Police Service’s deputy chief, Steve Williams, said was the largest to date and one where lives were at risk. “We had one young male impaled on a fence, we had another young person who experienced a severe allergic reaction and life saving measures had to be taken to save that person’s life, and somebody else fell off a roof,” he said.
It wasn’t the first time partygoers and police in London have clashed. In 2012, St. Patrick’s Day riots on a residential street near Fanshawe College saw a truck torched and 11 people arrested. The following year on Western’s homecoming weekend, police issued 270 infractions. More recently, Mr. Williams said, police have shifted from a zero-tolerance approach to a focus on prevention and police visibility. “We can’t solve this problem merely by handing out tickets and charging people. In fact, when we do that, quite often it ties up our officers,” he said. “We deploy a lot of resources for homecoming, which takes our officers away from other duties in other areas of the city, so this impacts the entire city.”
Student partying in near-campus neighbourhoods has played out in much the same way across Canada, especially in older, established areas in cities like Kingston, Hamilton, Guelph and Waterloo in Ontario, and the Maritime communities of Antigonish, Nova Scotia and Sackville, New Brunswick. According to Michael Fox, a geography professor at Sackville’s Mount Allison University and board member of the International Town and Gown Association, many universities and communities have been coordinating their efforts over the past few years to develop closer relations. “That’s been a significant change, one where you have ongoing participation from not just the university administration, but also in terms of campus planning.”
“We’re trying to reduce the impact on the community as much as possible”
Mr. Fox said strained town and gown relationships are often rooted in student housing and land-use issues, so isolated measures and police enforcement alone aren’t likely to make a difference. “It’s just like anything in terms of planning – you can’t just do it once,” Mr. Fox said, adding that some universities have finally come around to working with student government on events like homecoming. “Very often I used to go and sit in on meetings and analyze these situations, and you’d have the university, municipality, police and the fire department, and not one student in the room.”
At Queen’s University, where homecoming was cancelled in 2009 and brought back four years later, students have stepped up to take back their homecoming weekend. “Students showed the initiative on this,” said Tom Harris, vice-principal, advancement, explaining how the Alma Mater Society at Queen’s worked with the City of Kingston and community partners to organize the ReUnion Street Festival, a closed-off street party featuring live entertainment, drinks and food trucks. The university’s vision of homecoming has also become more attentive to current students, Mr. Harris said, noting the focus of the event has traditionally been on returning alumni.
Other universities and communities have also made efforts to quell conflict. In Waterloo, home to Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo, student volunteers from both campuses knock on doors leading up to St. Patrick’s Day – when student partying reaches a peak – to educate residents about by-laws. The day after, they take part in a cleanup effort. “The City of Waterloo recognized that this party on Ezra Street on St. Patrick’s Day was getting quite big – thousands of people out in the middle of the street – so they put together a group … to figure out how to tackle the big event,” said Chris Lolas, president of the U of Waterloo’s Federation of Students. “We’ve tried to identify areas where, if students are going to be partying and drinking, that they’re doing it in a safe manner and that we’re trying to reduce the impact on the community as much as possible.”
At Western University, student representatives did not have a hand in the decision to move homecoming, which the University Students Council publicly criticized after students spoke out. However, the USC said the university has been open to collaboration and that they have been working together with a marketing company on events to lure students away from Broughdale Avenue. Since Western announced that homecoming was being moved, more than 2,600 people on Facebook have signed up to attend a “Save Hoco” event on the last weekend of September.
“Our councillors voiced their concern that we haven’t adequately provided a good alternative for that first weekend,” said Eddy Avila, president of Western’s USC. “Our main objective now is to provide a good program where our students can have fun and be able to celebrate this potentially new homecoming tradition in a safer location, not just a street.”