Students at George Brown say they want a sexual assault policy where people believe them and it’s taken seriously
Advisory: This article features descriptions of sexual assault and harassment and may be triggering to some readers.
Have you ever been dancing in a club or at a bar when you felt a pair of hands unexpectedly groping your body?
Now, what if it happened at your school?
Samantha Brown, the aboriginal representative for the Student Association (SA) at George Brown College (GBC) knows what it’s like. “I’ve been to several pub nights and I’ve been sexually assaulted,” said Brown. “I’ve had students come and just grab my ass, and that’s inappropriate because I’ve never given them permission, I don’t know who they are, sometimes I don’t even know what they look like. I don’t know how that’s supposed to be appropriate in a place that’s supposed to be safe.”
The SA, who runs the Kings Lounge where Brown says she was sexually assaulted, has no stand-alone sexual assault policy, and neither does the college.
In the wake of an investigation by the Toronto Star that found only nine colleges or universities in Canada had a separate sexual assault policy, Colleges Ontario, the umbrella organization of the 24 public colleges in the province, says they are developing one.
According to Jodi Serwatuk, a spokesperson for GBC, a report from the Sexual Assault Task Force has been developed and will be reviewed by all of the presidents of Ontario colleges. She says that this is the first step in the development of a policy.
The SA participates in the No Means No campaign of the Canadian Federation of Students, handing out stickers and buttons to raise awareness and including one page in the day-planner that is given out to 15,000 students every year.
When asked about what she would like to see in a sexual assault policy, Brown said, “belief would be really nice. Actually believing the victim, the person who experienced that because there’s a lot of, ‘Oh well, that didn’t happen. That’s not that bad’. Especially with aboriginal people, we are dismissed very easily.”
Brittany Ellis, a support staff at the SA’s Community Action Centre would also like to see more action around sexual assault and consent.
“I would love to be in a space where something like that happens at a pub night at school but everyone around says ‘Hey, hands off! What’s your problem?’ instead of it always having to be the person with the hands on them,” says Ellis.
Another survivor of sexual assault, who asked that we not publish her name, was triggered when she says her professor made a reference to the high-profile case of former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi who has been charged with a string of violent sexual assaults.
She says she was in class preparing for her final exam in December when they got to what she thought would be a routine review of business law, when the professor, whom she has asked not be named, started talking about the sexual assaults Ghomeshi has been charged with.
“At that point my mind shut off, I was like ‘we’re going to go into melt-down in 5,4,3…’ I had an episode, I didn’t feel safe suddenly, I became hyper-aware that I was one woman in a room filled with men and I panicked. I felt like the walls were closing in on me.”
She had to leave the classroom and went to a washroom and cried. “I was mad at myself for not being able to handle that conversation, I was mad at him for bringing it up, I felt guilty that something like that happened to me before, I felt disappointed that the whole thing happened. The whole episode could have been avoided,” she said.
The next day she went to a her program co-ordinator Steven Konvalinka and told him what happened.
“He said that everything I said was absolutely right, that there was no place for it, I was right in coming to him,” she said. “He didn’t want me to feel that I had no reason to be upset, he wanted to reassure me that I was taken seriously and he would communicate with me every step of the way.”
Konvalinka then walked with her to see Tony Priolo, the chair of the school of work and college preparation, who also cleared his schedule that day to talk with her. She asked that faculty be more sensitive to the chance that they could be teaching a survivor of sexual violence.
Priolo says he is going to schedule training on responding to trauma from an organization called Come and Sit Together at an upcoming professional development day that would be attended by all faculty from the department. Priolo also arranged one-on-one tutoring for the class she missed before the exam.
Mandy Bonisteel is the co-ordinator of the assaulted women’s and children’s counsellor advocate (AWCCA) program at GBC and has taught at the college and worked in the anti-violence movement for over 20 years. She knows how important it is to believe survivors when they report.
“We know statistically that the response a survivor gets when they tell what happens to them has a great weight in the future of how they heal from that,” said Bonisteel. “That means that awareness and education among those that might hear from a survivor that they experienced sexual violence is your biggest challenge.”
“It’s unbelievable to me that this place doesn’t have a co-ordinated plan of education and response that both encourages the response but also makes us more prepared to respond.” -Mandy Bonisteel, Co-ordinator of the assaulted women’s and children’s counsellor advocate program.
The irony that George Brown College, which boasts an innovative and unique program filled with experts on preventing and handling cases of sexual violence, does not have a sexual assault policy is not lost on her.
“It’s unbelievable to me that this place doesn’t have a co-ordinated plan of education and response that both encourages the response but also makes us more prepared to respond,” says Bonisteel.
In fact, Bonisteel had even participated in the development of the Resource Guide for Ontario’s Colleges and Universities, a 46-page document that was published by the Ontario Women’s Directorate with the Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities (MTCU) in 2013.
“There was a number of consultations across the province with student associations and teachers, human rights officers at education institutions and university reps and MTCU,” said Bonisteel. “So this guide came out and then—nobody acted.”
Bonisteel’s call for a co-ordinated response is reflected in the guide that outlines a six-point plan on how colleges and universities could better respond to sexual assault.
The guide suggests that each institution should have a sexual violence response team with people who have experience working with survivors or knowledge of sexual violence at its core and would be drawn from a variety of areas of the institution and student organizations.
The guide puts a particular emphasis on student leaders or representatives of student associations, saying that they “are an important link to the concerns of the broader student population.”
“We’ll have a new policy, that’s great, but we still don’t have places for the students to go,” says Ellis who mentions that part-time students can’t access counselling at the college. “Everyone has to work together to make this work and I feel that quite often we’re passing the buck.”
The afternoon of the day that the unnamed survivor says she was triggered, she wound up eating lunch with her father at Gabby’s across the street from the St. James campus when she noticed a group of women with protest signs outside with slogans against gendered violence. They were students in the AWCCA program who were raising awareness in the lead-up to the annual National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women on Dec. 6. She walked across the street and joined them.
“I thought it was so coincidental that happened the same day,” she said. “It made me feel a lot better to find other people on campus who were saying this is a really important issue, I feel like I made friends.”