By Lori Chambers
Chair Sexual Assault Task Force / Professor of
Women’s Studies at Lakehead University
In October of 2013 a brave graduate of Lakehead University sent a letter to the Chronicle Journal outlining her experiences of sexual assault. She did not blame the university with regard to the assault which took place off campus, but was distressed by the failure of numerous individuals on campus to provide her with academic accommodation. She did not want another student to face similar challenges in the future. In response, President Stevenson immediately assembled a Sexual Assault Task Force to formulate a stand-alone policy on sexual violence. The Task Force included several students, service providers from both on and off campus, and faculty and staff at both campuses. In June of 2014, the Board of Governors approved the policy and protocol recommended by the Task Force. The policy reflects zero-tolerance of any form of sexual violence and applies to all members of the university community. In taking this step, Lakehead University was at the vanguard of reform. Since this time, the President of the United States has deemed campus sexual assault a top priority and mandated policies such as that at Lakehead, and the Premier of Ontario has announced a policy, Bill 132, which will achieve the same objective in Ontario. She has also introduced an educational campaign province-wide on television and social media. This represents considerable progress. Zero-tolerance policies not only make a statement about the human rights of all citizens to live in peace and safety, but also create a safe space in which individuals who have experienced sexual violence, who are too often silenced, can speak about their experiences. Tremendous work has also been done on campus by student activists at Lakehead to encourage dialogue about sexual violence and to educate students, staff, faculty and the wider public about consent. In recognition of the excellent and on-going work that has been done at Lakehead, the Premier made the official announcement of her new policy here on January 13, 2016. The Premier spent the afternoon, with her Ministers, touring facilities at the university and speaking with student activists, particularly those at the Gender Issues Center. The policy was then announced, and a student speaker addressed the importance of lived experience in the formulation of policy and the efforts made by the university to include student voices in the process of developing policy and responses to violence. The event was intended as a celebration. Students who participated had made themselves vulnerable by speaking in such a public venue. In this context, the behavior of journalists at the event was deeply disturbing. After the Premier thanked the student speaker, she opened the event to questions from the media. Instead of acknowledging the importance of the issues at hand, or thanking the students and participants for their input, journalists immediately asked questions about the Nipigon bridge failure. While this is an important and pressing issue, the questions should have been put on hold until the experiences of the students, and the importance of the policy, had been acknowledged. The faces of the students immediately evidenced distress. The audience fell silent. The discomfort was palpable. It was clear that the journalists asking questions were missing the whole point of the exercise. Once again, the subject of sexual violence was explicitly ignored and silenced. A member of the audience (not a journalist) gently tried to bring the discussion back on track by asking about sexual violence policies in the health sector (thank you), but the journalists in question ignored this subtle hint and resumed their questions about unrelated issues. At this point, feeling that all victims of sexual violence had been profoundly disrespected, I spoke up and asserted that the failure to acknowledge those who have experienced sexual violence was inappropriate. At a minimum, reference should have been made to the bravery of students and the importance of the policy before other questions were asked. One journalist responded that “it wasn’t the media’s fault”, but I beg to differ. Journalists are responsible for the questions they ask, just as we are all responsible for how we respond as individuals and as a community to those who have experienced violence of any kind. And it is deeply disturbing that not one journalist present thought that a ground-breaking policy with regard to sexual violence was worth talking about, or paused to consider the impact of their questions on those who had made themselves vulnerable by speaking about personal experiences. It is, of course, possible that some journalists present, like many others in the audience, were upset, but were shocked into silence by the disrespect shown to those who have experienced violence. I recognize that it is the responsibility of journalists to ask important questions of the government, and that it is normal protocol to ask any and all questions during any opportunity with the Premier. However, the ability to do something does not make it the right thing to do. The journalists perpetuated the silencing of those who have experienced sexual violence. Unfortunately, a report about this event, published the following day in the Chronicle Journal, also diminished the importance of this issue, spending only a third of the space in a report about the event talking about sexual violence and instead focusing, yet again, on the Nipigon bridge. (In contrast, CBC radio offered a sensitive and timely commentary on sexual violence). The failure of the Chronicle Journal to deal adequately with this issue is sad and ironic given the potential for the media to help dispel myths about sexual violence and to transform community values. This letter is not to place blame on any person in particular, but to ask that members of the media engage in self-reflection about their responsibilities in this regard. With the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, the inquest into the deaths of Indigenous students in Thunder Bay, and the pending investigation into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women all important issues in current news, the need for such self-reflection is heightened. If we do not understand and care about the impact of our words and actions on those who have experienced trauma, we are complicit in perpetuating violence and the harms it produces.