WARNING: This story contains references to suicide and may be distressing for some readers.
The City of Hamilton is examining its contractual agreements with a local private, Reformed Christian university after a transgender student died by suicide at the school late last year.
The discussion over Redeemer University occurred at last week’s emergency and community services committee meeting after a recommendation from Hamilton’s LGBTQ advisory committee to review funding to the school, and whether the school adheres to a city policy on gender identity and expression.
It’s unclear if the city considers the policy when making contractual agreements.
It states the city “is committed to ensuring that transgender and gender nonconforming persons are treated with full dignity, whenever they interact with city and city-funded services or are employees of the city.”
Rebecca Banky, chair of the LGBTQ advisory committee, told CBC Hamilton she has concerns Redeemer is violating the policy.
Redeemer doesn’t receive government operating funding like a public university does and must rely on donations, but it has received millions in taxpayer dollars through federal grants and programs. It has also received money through city contracts.
During the meeting last week, councillors heard that some of its agreements with Redeemer include paying for rental space, offering funding of the innovation hub CityLAB, transit programs and data sharing for water through Redeemer’s environmental program.
Councillors agreed to have city lawyers and senior management review the city’s contracts and funding with Redeemer, as well as if the school adheres to the gender identity policy.
“I want to make sure it’s crystal clear in our directions we’re looking for … how might we be able to do this, versus an analysis that says we’re currently limited from being able to implement this,” Ward 3 Coun. Nrinder Nann said last week.
Banky said she was glad to hear councillors want to take action in the wake of the student death, which she called “an unnecessary and preventable tragedy.”
Bekett Noble, 34, was a fourth-year psychology student at Redeemer University who was nonbinary and used they and them pronouns.
They were known in the school community for working various jobs on campus and for co-founding Genesis, an unofficial student group on campus promoting LGBTQ+ awareness.
Noble died inside the school on Nov. 23 and their body was found the next day. Banky said the death “rocked” Hamilton’s LGBTQ community.
An email Noble sent to the university leadership shortly before their death obtained by CBC Hamilton indicated Noble felt the school didn’t adequately support LGBTQ+ students.
The school cancelled classes that day, offered counselling services and, a few weeks later, lowered its flag to half-mast.
Redeemer also announced it was establishing a mental health task force to review the school’s mental health programming.
On Dec. 10, members of the Genesis group cited the school’s announcement, saying they felt there was progress being made “towards creating mental health supports that will serve LGBTQ+ students on Redeemer’s campus.”
“We indeed have felt grief and pain yet want to move forward in a spirit of hope,” the group said in a statement.
University spokesperson Shannon McBride told CBC Hamilton this week the task force is set to complete recommendations by April 30 and said it will include feedback from “under-represented student groups.”
“As we continue to grieve Bekett’s loss, we are committed to ensuring a positive campus environment for all who choose to be part of this Christian community,” McBride said on Wednesday.
Students previously raised concerns about school
Banky’s concerns and Noble’s death comes two years after students and alumni at Redeemer University spoke to CBC Hamilton about issues they had regarding a school policy and campus culture.
The policy that raised concerns stated students would be disciplined for any sexual behaviour that occurs outside a heterosexual marriage, based on what Redeemer called “biblical intentions.”
Asked if the policy was still in effect, McBride said: “Redeemer continues to have a Policy on Life and Conduct that references the community’s beliefs about sexuality and many other aspects of the Christian life. Employees and undergraduate students voluntarily commit to it.”
Human rights experts previously said the rule could be discriminatory and challenged in the courts.
Former Redeemer president Robert Graham previously said all people, including members of the LGBTQ community, “are created in the image of God and therefore deserve to be treated with dignity, love and respect.”
“Redeemer condemns violence, harassment and intimidation,” he wrote in 2020.
Listening to people from equity-seeking communities through anonymous surveys and discussion groups.
Updating various policies and communication about the school.
Ensuring routine reviews of policies.
Assessing classroom culture to ensure students can be honest and inquisitive without fear or recrimination.
The policy on sexual behaviour also raised questions over whether Redeemer should receive taxpayer funds.
According to the school website, the largest single sum of government money Redeemer ever received was $2.9 million for infrastructure projects in 2009 through the Knowledge Infrastructure Program by the federal government.
The website also states 15 faculty members received $246,720 in research grants and funding between 2021 and 2022.
Online databases also show Redeemer has received $1,144,700 from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) between 1999 and 2022 and $454,247 from 1998 to 2022 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).
NSERC previously didn’t respond to questions about funding Redeemer and SSHRC previously said it didn’t have leverage to assess funding based on if the school had policies that were found to be discriminatory.
Noble remembered for advocacy work, love of fitness
Jelayne Wiebe, Noble’s sister, and Meaghan Markettos, a close friend in Hamilton, said Noble loved cats, country music and fitness.
Both said Noble was very introverted but also empathetic.
Noble was also a prominent advocate at Redeemer.
Nobel had been pushing for official group status for the Genesis group. They also pushed to have the school designate a universal washroom and was also someone other LGBTQ students approached.
“All the advocacy work Bekett did came from their heart because it wasn’t at all in line with the way they’d like to spend time or the way they’re wired,” Wiebe said.
“This was something they determined to be so vital and important they gave something of themselves to the cause that cost them more than it would’ve cost others.”
If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, there is help out there:
Trans Lifeline – 1-877-330-6366. It offers full anonymity and confidentiality.
The Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (Text, 4 p.m. to midnight ET only) | crisisservicescanada.ca.
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868. You can also text CONNECT to 686868 and get immediate support from a crisis responder through the Crisis Text Line, powered by Kids Help Phone. Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca.
In Quebec (French): Association Québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)