Sex assault survivor centre opening at Halifax university, student union helpline relaunching

A pedestrian walks by a Dalhousie building in Halifax on Friday, May 22, 2015.
A pedestrian walks by a Dalhousie building in Halifax on Friday, May 22, 2015. Darren Pittman/The Canadian Press

A sexual assault and harassment phone line at Dalhousie University which closed last fall is being reopened once more, housed in a new support centre to provide added resources and support for victims of sexual assault and sexualized violence.

Dal Student Union’s phone line was started in September 2015 originally as a six-week pilot project. It was created to offer support to students during the time of year when the union said sexual violence is at its peak on university campuses. It closed in the fall of 2016 after Dalhousie University no longer “adequately” funded the service.

READ MORE: 17 ‘legitimate calls’ made to Dalhousie University’s sexual assault phone line last school year

This week, it was announced that the phone line would reopen as of September. The confidential service will again offer help 24/7, but this time, will be housed in the DSU’s new Survivor Support Centre (SSC).

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“The phone line is such an important and crucial service,” said Amina Abawajy, president of the student union.

“The [SSC] office has a three-fold mandate of advocacy, support and education, and so those are the areas we’ll be focusing on through the short-term of this year and the long-term as well.”

After the phone line opened in September 2015 as a pilot project, the service was extended for another eight weeks, and a funding boost from the university took the service to the end of the year.

But about 12 months ago, funding from the university was reduced, shutting the doors for the service to operate during the entire 2016-17 school year. The university said at the time that it had offered to fund the phone line at 50 per cent of the operating costs, but DSU wanted 100 per cent commitment.

DSU continued to offer the service for three months until Nov. 3, but it would be a “pared down” version, running 12 a.m. to 12 p.m. instead of 24/7.

READ MORE: ‘A light to students’: Dal sexual assault phone line gets funding, extension

A student levy earlier this year changed the tides for the possibility of offering the service during the 2017-18 school year. The levy has students paying $2.50 each — “basically a cup of coffee,” Abawajy said — ensuring the helpline stays open.

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She said the main purpose of both the phone line and centre is support for survivors.

“Unfortunately, sexual assault and sexualized violence is rampant in our communities and on our campus,” Abawajy said. “It’s happening too often and the centre is hopefully a place to provide education as to culture shift and eradicating rape culture.”

Though the university will not have financial involvement in the phone line this year, Dalhousie’s vice provost for student affairs, Arig al Shaibah, said they still want to support the service.

When plans were in the works to restart the service, al Shaibah said she reached out to the DSU to share the university’s strategy and approach to violence prevention and response. They, in turn, spoke with her about their own initiatives, including the phone line.

WATCH: The Dalhousie Student Union says its 24-hour sexual assault and harassment phone line is closing early because the university isn’t providing the necessary funding. Steve Silva reports.

Click to play video 'Dalhousie Student Union paring down sexual assault helpline due to ‘inadequate’ funding' Dalhousie Student Union paring down sexual assault helpline due to ‘inadequate’ funding
Dalhousie Student Union paring down sexual assault helpline due to ‘inadequate’ funding – Aug 29, 2016

“Hopefully, we have the opportunity to complement one another and continue the good work of addressing this issue on campus,” she said.

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In addition, al Shaibah said they will offer any support needed in terms of mentorship, support and coaching for staff who have varying expertise if it’s needed.

Abawajy added that in addition to the phone line, the support centre is a physical space which will be staffed with someone to handle intake and support.

Training for volunteers will take place during the last weekend of August, and applications are open. Abawajy said the full-time co-ordinator for the centre has not been hired yet, but the application process has closed, meaning the post will be in place shortly.