We Believe Survivors brings a voice to students

We Believe Survivors Coalition (WBSC) is an organization that was formed in the fall of 2017 after concern UOIT’s sexual violence policy was not fully supporting students.

The group consists of students, alumni and faculty members from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. The group also has support from community members from Durham Rape Crisis Centre and the campus Indigenous student centre. The issue of sexual violence policy was addressed at a panel event in March at UOIT’s Charles Street campus, hosted by WBSC, and moderated by Dr. Jen Rinaldi.

Policy around sexual violence was a problem not just at UOIT, but across Canada says, Dr. Rinaldi, the lead organizer of the event. Dr. Rinaldi is also a professor of social science and humanities at UOIT.

Dr. Jen Rinaldi and Sam Rockbrune at We Believe Survivors Coalition event.

UOIT’s current policy on their website says it affirms UOIT’s ongoing commitment to maintaining a healthy and safe environment for work and study by providing support and assistance to students who may have experienced an act of sexual violence, and by condemning any act that perpetuates or reinforces sexual violence.  Through education and preventative programming, we strive to create a culture that is characterized by respect and inclusion, and where individuals are empowered to intervene in situations where sexual violence has taken or may take place.

Dr. Olga Marques, chair of the advisory committee on student sexual violence prevention and support at UOIT, says the school has acknowledged the concerns voiced by WBSC.  Dr. Marques is also an assistant professor of social science and humanities at UOIT.  The committee was formed in December, 2017 to revise the policy. Members of the advisory committee included students, a faculty member, a member of equity and inclusion, representatives from student life, the student union and a mental health counsellor.

The panelists at the WBSC event were experts on sexual violence on campuses across Ontario.  Each survivor advocate talked about the challenges they faced in their attempt to try and make changes.

Silence is Violence, University of Toronto (U of T) chapter, was represented by Mira El Hussein and Tamsyn Riddle. It was started by two people involved in activism. Their challenge is to work with the policy, providing direct support to survivors and accompanying them to meetings with administrators. They spoke about the pushback they met when they put up posters around the U of T campus titled ‘Survivor Speak Back’. These posters were asking survivors to share their story about how disclosures were handled when they reported an incident. They collected 600 responses from students over a six-week period. El Hussein recalled one of the organizers was walking down the street and saw someone peeling off one of the group’s posters off a pole with a screwdriver. When she approached him, he advised her he was paid by the university to remove the poster.

“They (U of T) were willing to spend money on removing posters … but not pay money to treat us like human beings,” said El Hussein.

Another panelist was Taylor Berzin, a graduate of Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) and co-founder of Advocate for Student Culture of Consent (ASCC). Their goal is to make their campus safer and end the silence around sexual violence. Berzin spent two years working with fellow students, alumni and community to create Consent is Golden, WLU’s first gendered violence policy.

Then the Ontario government passed Bill 132 on March 8, 2016, and it came into effect Sept. 8, 2016. Bill 132 is a mandated policy that has been invoked by the provincial government where all post-secondary schools must have a sexual policy in place on their campus.

“We need to continue to be creative, resilient, angry and caring, as we proceed to combat rape culture on our campuses,” says Berzin.

Also on the panel was Emily Rosser, a sexual violence activist for more than 10 years. She has been at the University of Windsor for about a year. They have a program called Bystander Initiative – saying we can all do something. The program started with faculty members. The goal of the program is to change students’ thoughts and behaviours towards sexual violence.  Students are trained in how to speak up and stand up for each other against sexual violence.  Cherlene Cheung, now at the University of Windsor, is also a graduate of UOIT. As a law student, she is currently training to be a bystander by learning to stand up for survivors. Cheung says peers are the most effective advocate for helping survivors.

Caitlin Salvino, the national chair for Our Turn, also spoke. This group was formed in May, 2016. Its purpose is to be a student survivor advocate at the national level.  They are currently operating in eight provinces across Canada. In October, 2017 the group created a national action plan that included a report card that grades universities across Canada on their sexual violence policies and action plans.  (At the time of publishing a grade of C+ was issued for UOIT.)

Dr. Marques says the committee “will be going over the policy in a manner that respects student’s voices. They will try to ensure that students feel heard and their voice is not being lost to a higher power.”

Dr. Rinaldi hopes the first meeting of We Believe Survivors Coalition will generate interest from the campus, as they field ideas from grassroots organizations to make an impression on the people who are responsible for policy implementation at UOIT.