Plenty of ground left to cover this year at SMU | The Coast Halifax

Plenty of ground left to cover this year at SMU

A year after a pro-rape frosh chant drew widespread outrage, there’s still much to improve at Saint Mary’s.

Plenty of ground left to cover this year at SMU
Jacob Boon
Two thousand new students will soon fill this campus.

Changing an entire culture isn't easy, but that's the task Saint Mary's University has taken on after the controversial events of last fall. That was when hundreds of new and returning SMU students gathered in public for a traditional frosh chant encouraging sexual assault.

"Y is for your sister, O is for oh-so-tight, U is for underage, N is for no consent, G is for grab that ass...SMU boys we like them young."

After a video of the event came to light on Instagram, it lit a firestorm of international attention and public outrage.

This year, orientation week should appear quite different. Gone are events like Dirty Bingo and "strip line," replaced with faculty luncheons and voluntary workshops around sexual consent. While many orientation leaders are returning from last year's frosh, Saint Mary's says this year's training will be different.

"They've gone through the experience of last year, first of all, so I think they're very much aware of where the university is at," says communications officer Travis Smith, noting the student leaders will also have to sign a year-long charter of responsibilities. "They're fully vetted this time."

Last time, there was quite a bit of training as well. Frosh leaders in 2013 received four separate sessions of training on sexual assault and violence prevention, yet the lessons didn't seem to stick.

"There seems to be this complete disconnect between understanding what needed to be happening and practicing it," says Wayne MacKay, the Dalhousie law professor who helped author Saint Mary's post-rape chant report on improving campus culture. "Maybe that's a comment in part that so-called sensitivity training, while important, doesn't go far enough."

It was likely the most baffling element of events last fall; how behaviour so strongly condemned could have slipped past so many young minds without anyone questioning the content.

"With those chants, you'd be hard-pressed to know what's being chanted in that moment if you're not paying attention to what's going on," says Smith. "It's a lot easier when it's captured on video and you get to hear it."

According to organizers, the chant had been performed at frosh since at least 2009, yet no one on the student union executive at Saint Mary's, or the university's administration seemed to be aware of it.

Jared Perry, then-president of SMU's student association, half-explained the rationale for the chant's continued existence shortly before he officially resigned last September, saying it was "more about the rhyme" than the content. Perry, along with vice-president Carrigan Desjardins, stepped down from their SMUSA positions, while all frosh leaders and executives were required to attend sensitivity training at St. Francis Xavier.

Another mystery was how no students would have voiced disapproval about such frosh activities in previous years. One former leader who said she did was Alexandria Bennett, who came forward in the media last fall stating she had brought concerns to SMUSA which were then dismissed. Cathie Ross, general manager of SMUSA, countered that the organization had heard no such complaints. Bennett claims she received legal threats to recant her statement, which, combined with the ostracism she felt on campus from coming forward, led her to drop out of school this past winter. She declined any further comment, wanting to put the incident behind her.

Despite attempts to reach them, Jared Perry and Cathie Ross were unable to be interviewed about these incidents. Former vice-president Carrigan Desjardins hung up when contacted at her current job as project manager for SMU's business development centre.

"I don't know if there's any real utility at this point in looking back at last year's issue," says Travis Smith. "I don't see that as being productive."

Let's look at this year's issues, then: MacKay's report highlighted a series of deficiencies in Saint Mary's culture and its administrative policy, which it recommended fixing. Those included reclaiming orientation week, establishing a sexual violence response team and revising the school's sexual assault policy, among others. Perhaps the most outrageous finding was the sexual assault policy's tradition of low-level conflict resolution. Instead of formally adjudicating incidences of sexual assault, the university instead preferred an informal approach accommodating "the wishing and needs of both the victims and alleged perpetrators."

"It's not like some conflict between two faculty members with a personality disagreement, or a student engaged in some vandalism off-campus," says MacKay. "One size does not fit all."

Despite a report from Students Nova Scotia earlier this year finding that first-year students are particular targets of sexual predators in the first semester of university, Saint Mary's sexual assault policy update and changes to their conflict resolution haven't been completed in time for orientation.

What's also unknown is just how big of a problem rape is on SMU's campus. Canadian universities are not required by law to collect statistics on sexual assaults, leaving that matter for the police.

"I don't think the statistics we use, we would feel they would just be so under-representative of what's going on," says associate vice-president of external affairs Margaret Murphy.

According to Students NS, only about five percent of sexual assaults are formally reported. Over the last four years, only eight assaults on Saint Mary's campus have been reported to police, meaning the actual number of on-campus rapes could be as high as 160 over four years.

Saint Mary's, for its part, will be conducting an anonymous survey of students and faculty this fall and publishing the results to try and get a better scope of just how many assaults are happening. There will also be continual six-month updates, the next being due in December, on how well MacKay's policy improvements are being implemented.

"We're not expecting to change anyone's mind on week one of the academic year," says Murphy. "People have to see behaviours change."

Ultimately, how Saint Mary's responds to the events of last fall is still to be judged. Some changes, like finally taking control of frosh activities, have been quick to materialize, but there's still a tremendous amount of work to be done and 2,000 new students arriving on campus next week. Hopefully, the school is ready.

"We are very much being challenged to stand up," says Murphy, "and not in a quiet, passive way."