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On small N.S. francophone campus, student Me Too campaign ‘removes the curtain’

HALIFAX — When English professor Brian Gibson sat down with a female student at Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia on March 9, he expected a routine discussion on her struggles catching up on course work.

Instead, by the next morning he was writing an angry email demanding reform to the university’s sexual violence policies, after hearing the young woman describe becoming suicidal in the aftermath of an alleged campus rape.

“I was so disturbed by this (meeting) that I sent an email to the administration,” said Gibson. “I basically said, ‘This is ridiculous … This has to change.'”

His email noted, the “the sexual-assault hearing process for the student’s case … isn’t overseen by a single person who is a qualified psychologist, psychiatrist or counsellor or has any extensive experience with such hearings.”

Within weeks, the woman – whose name cannot be published due to a court publication ban – had teamed with Gibson and several other students and former students to plan an online campaign titled SA Change Now.

Launched on Sept. 1, it includes vignettes describing allegations of sexual assault and misconduct at the province’s only francophone university.

Some advocates involved in the campaign’s launch say it’s the latest example of how a Me Too movement – where survivors tell their stories and lead the calls for reformed sexual assault policies – can force change on a small campus.

The site states there have been “at least 53 sexual assaults either on Université Sainte-Anne campus or involving students from the university” between 2015 and 2019. The school had approximately 350 full-time students per year during that time.

Within days of the site’s appearance, the RCMP made a public appeal for any information related to alleged sexual assaults at the school. 

On Tuesday, RCMP spokesman Cpl. Chris Marshall said in an interview that in recent years, four alleged sexual assaults at the university were investigated. However, he said local police are now also “aware” of the fresh allegations and – while survivors haven’t directly contacted the force – investigators have received information on several of the cases.

“This is the first instance (in the past three years) that I’ve seen where an online campaign led directly to any kind of an investigation or file being opened,” he said. “These movements give survivors the courage and the confidence to finally come forward to tell their story and to bring them to the police.”

The school said in an email to The Canadian Press last Friday that it is working on responding to calls for reform, including improved lighting on campus and the hiring of an on-site counsellor for assault victims. It said it is also looking at having an independent review of its hearing process.

But the SA Change Now campaign is also calling for an apology from the administration, an office dedicated to the complaints and the inclusion of qualified professionals in hearings held to sanction students for misconduct. It’s also demanding that the school set deadlines to make the reforms and stick to them.

The school’s director of communications did not respond on Tuesday to requests for further comment.

Joanna Clark, a graduate of the education program, said in an interview Monday she recalled bringing forward complaints as a student leader to the administration and feeling there was little impact.

This time, she’s more hopeful. “It was time to remove the curtain … It’s not hidden anymore,” she said.

The young woman whose story became the catalyst for the website said she feels a mixture of relief and continuing stress as she relives her own story. “I’ve kind of channelled my anger into this campaign,” she said. 

She said in 2021 she was sexually assaulted by a male student at a secluded area near the campus. The prosecutor dropped charges last April, saying there was “no realistic prospect of conviction.” However, the court approved a one-year peace bond requiring the young man to stay away from the woman.

She said that during the legal process she was “ostracized, shamed and bullied” by people on and off campus for pressing her case. In the spring of 2022, she took time off school for mental health care and was placed on a suicide watch amid a diagnosis of PTSD. 

The young woman said she continued with the internal university process after criminal charges were dropped but said she felt it was poorly conducted. She said the people leading the process – two students, an administrator and an academic supervisor – lacked training on dealing with sexual assault survivors. She was also concerned about legal costs, as she needed a lawyer.

So she ended her complaint in early 2023.  “I had six courses to work on and it was all retraumatizing …. Meanwhile, they let him (the student she launched the complaint against) graduate. There was nothing I could do anyway,” she said.

Gibson, Clark and the young woman say they’re hoping the police investigation and their campaign bring results and change soon.

But as they await more information on the response, Gibson said he’s found the process of going public was the “only” and best choice.

“It was by talking to more students I started to realize, ‘Holy mother of God, this is really, really bad,'” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 13, 2023.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press