HALIFAX – Students at Saint Mary’s University rallied against sexual violence Thursday after a frosh-week chant glorifying the abuse of underage girls set off a heated debate over orientation activities and the extent of sexism on campuses.
About 200 students and professors filled a central campus courtyard to listen to speeches and sing a new, positive version of the chant that sparked national outrage for its promotion of non-consensual sex with young girls.
“We really want to start the conversation about consent education, and how to move forward from the events of last week in a constructive way,” said Lewis Rendell, one of the organizers of the rally.
“This is not just a university problem,” she added. “It’s a societal problem.”
The event came a day after the university named the members of a special council that will explore issues of sexual consent and how to prevent or reduce sexual harassment.
Wayne MacKay, a law professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, was appointed to lead the group, which will consult with staff, alumni and others as it looks for ways to change the “culture” around sexual violence while gauging opinion on how women are viewed.
He expects the team will also look at re-thinking orientation events in the wake of several recent controversies that have involved derogatory portrayals of women, and whether the administration should be more involved in overseeing them.
“The frosh activity is really just an indicator and a sign that there are problems about how women are regarded and what’s considered acceptable conduct,” he said in an interview. “While orientation may be part of it, it’s much bigger than that.”
Saint Mary’s struck the panel days after a video surfaced showing about 80 student leaders performing a chant before 400 people during an orientation event on Labour Day.
The song spelled out the word ‘young’ with the lyrics, “Y is for your sister … U is for underage, N is for no consent.”
Days later, a student newspaper at the University of British Columbia reported that a similar chant had been sung on one or more buses during orientation events sponsored by the Commerce Undergraduate Society.
In Newfoundland, students at Memorial University in St. John’s issued apologies after the school’s engineering society used mugs featuring a cartoon image of a barely dressed woman and the words: “If She’s Thirsty … Give her the … D (DAY).” The words refer to a phrase from a pornography website, with the D representing the first letter of a slang term for penis.
The revelations at Saint Mary’s and UBC prompted the resignations of student leaders there and sparked discussions at many campuses over how to manage frosh-week activities and address issues around sexual violence, consensual sex and sexism.
Vanessa Hunt of the Canadian Federation of Students says the incidents reinforce the need for work her group has been doing since the early 1990s with “No Means No” campaigns.
“We’re seeing across the country a need for this kind of discussion,” she said. “It’s an issue in regards to the culture at institutions and in society itself when we look at the issues of rape culture.”
Saint Mary’s and UBC have said they will look at how frosh-week events are organized and suggested there will be more oversight from the administration rather than leaving them in the hands of student associations.
Ryan Flanagan, director of student affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, said his school’s administration became more involved in orientation after there were student leadership concerns in 2010, which he wouldn’t discuss.
He said Carleton’s orientation now emphasizes respectful social activities and academics, while introducing students to the resources on campus.
“It’s becoming the exception not the norm that universities aren’t having a more significant role, if not outright control, of running the programs,” he said.
“Ultimately, if student associations are going to run it I think you’re taking on a risk within your organization and we’re seeing that play out this year with Saint Mary’s and UBC.”
James Sanford, executive director of student services at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., said he expects many school administrators are closely watching what the Saint Mary’s panel will come out with before the end of the year.
The university reviewed its programs after a 19-year-old student died in 2011 following a night of heavy drinking during frosh week. Acadia introduced strict rules to combat excessive drinking, while promoting dry events like movie or games nights during orientation.
“I’d be totally surprised if pretty much every institution in the country hasn’t done a little bit of work to take a look at, ‘Are we at risk, is there a chance that some of the same behaviours might occur (here),’ ” he said.
“This could be one of those moments where there’s an opportunity to create a framework around what are the best practices.”