HALIFAX – Saint Mary’s University says after a year of working behind the scenes it’s ready to roll out a plan that will close the door on a dark year in the school’s history.
The Welcome Week revamp was sparked by the controversial chant that came to light during last year’s introduction week events. At a now cancelled event called Turf Burn students and frosh leaders sang a sexually explicit chant condoning non-consensual sex and under age sex.
The chant was widely condemned, and in the aftermath the student association president resigned and the university took over the management of all Welcome Week activities.
“There’s a great deal happening and most of it is going to roll out and become visible at the start of the academic year,” said Margaret Murphy, Associate Vice President of External Affairs at St. Mary’s. “So it starts with Welcome Week but we’re not going to accomplish cultural change in one week. It’s the start of activities that will roll out through the month of September, through this entire academic year and continues years beyond.”
Welcome Week will be the start of what she says she hopes will be a much bigger cultural shift at the university.
A cultural shift is exactly what Lewis Rendell says the university needs. She was the media contact for the campus Women’s Centre when the controversy was sparked in September 2013. She says she felt pressured by people at her own school to stop speaking out, ultimately she said the stress forced her to take a break from the university. She won’t be back until January but she says she hopes to see a difference.
“I’m hoping for a bigger focus for safety for women and LGBT people on campus because historically at St Mary’s it hasn’t been the most welcoming place,” said Rendell.
SMU administration said this year’s introduction week will have a stronger focus on academics, and faculty will be more involved in the activities. Murphy said the activities will also involve learning modules and more training around sexual health and campus safety.
“Talking to them about alcohol prevention, bystander training, talking about consent. We’re going to be teaching bystander training, rolling it out peer to peer, starting with the new students, starting with the student leaders, its also going to touch faculty and staff,” said Murphy.
But Murphy says university administration recognizes they still have a ways to go before everyone feels safe again.
“I’m really hopeful that in the year ahead that those students that if they felt marginalized in the past, that they see the difference,” said Murphy. “We want to stand for the campus that is welcoming to the LGBTQ community as well as all of the other diversity on campus.”
She knows it will take more than just one introductory week to make that change a reality.
“If people see something going on, they know that they have the support of the St. Mary’s community, whether it’s their fellow students, their professors, there is support. If you see something happening you can step in and be that positive bystander and they’re not going to be alone,” said Murphy. “That’s not all going to happen in week one, that takes time, and it takes people seeing it starting with student leaders and other leaders on campus.”
SMU Welcome Week events will kick off over the Labour Day weekend.