Rape is no joke: Federal language program comes up short in sexual assault policy


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When I signed up for Explore, a five-week, federally funded language immersion program, I expected a crash course in French. I was taken aback when I arrived at the Université du Québec à Trois Rivières (UQTR) and realized that I would also be immersed in rape culture.

This reality set in during one of the first assemblies for the Explore program at UQTR, when I watched program staff perform a comedic date rape drug skit.

It went like this: Some girls go to a bar, where they dance and drink. A stranger appears, carrying a piece of red paper with “GHB” written on it. He tries to slip the GHB into one of the girls’ drinks. It takes him a few tries, but he succeeds.

To his dismay, a frumpy, unattractive, loner-type girl ends up holding this cup, and drinks from it. The stranger is pleased when the cup is passed to a more attractive and popular girl, who also drinks from it. These two girls pass out. Then, the stranger tries to drag the popular girl off stage, but gives up, apparently because he’s too weak.

Here’s the punch line: he doesn’t try to drag the loner off stage. Even he can see that she’s too unpopular, too unattractive to rape. While the popular girl’s friends re-enter the scene and see her safely off stage, the loner wakes up in the empty club alone.

The skit was clearly intended to be comedic. Some people laughed and most applauded. Student are not allowed to speak English in public, so they waited until they were back in their dorms to discuss the skit and the ways it didn’t sit right with them.

The first two UQTR administrators that I met with told me the skit was intended to raise awareness about sexual assault because “every time we run the program at least one girl is raped and/or drugged.” 

When I later met with Manon Lienard, the Explore coordinator at UQTR, she claimed that someone isn’t drugged or raped every time the program runs, but “a girl was raped during the last session, so it’s fresh in [the other administrators’] minds.”  While Lienard promised that the skit wouldn’t be performed in the future, she also insisted “it’s not our job to educate people about consent.”

Unsatisfied with the simple promise of “no more skits,” I had to wonder what the UQTR Explore program’s new, skit-free approach to raising awareness about sexual assault would be. Would it be less problematic, and who would hold the administration accountable once my cohort of students completed the program?

I sent an inquiry to the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC), the government body that oversees Explore, and learned that Explore lacks a specific policy on how sexual assault is addressed by host institutions. CMEC mandates only that host institutions have policies on sexual assault in place, and a single reference to sexual assault in the university’s policy on harassment suffices to meet this criterion. Since Danielle Cossette, the Québec Explore co-ordinator, wrote to me that this skit was performed in accordance with UQTR’s policies, it’s clear that the council needs to establish a different standard.

UQTR is not the only Explore host institution with a rape culture problem. A petition started by Trois-Rivière students to call for accountability at UQTR has garnered 350 signatures to date and has become a place for alumni to air complaints about how other Explore programs have handled sexual assault cases and reports of racism. One signatory wrote that administrators at the Université de Montréal failed to address a series of sexual harassment and assault incidents until students started a petition and contacted the university’s Office of the President.

Another signatory wrote about Explore students being specifically targeted by men in the area, and yet another wrote about staff at UQTR dismissing her roommate’s sexual assault report because she had been drinking and invited her attacker into her dorm. Multiple Explore host institutions have failed students in the ways they handle cases of sexual harassment and assault.

In the face of similar stories and reports by CBC and The Star, universities and colleges across Canada have recognized the need to establish policies that specifically address sexual assault. Last year, The Star‘s report on sexual assaults on campuses prompted Ontario colleges to review their institutions’ policies and create a province-wide sexual assault policy. In Québec, McGill administration collaborated with student groups to draft a similar policy. The consensus is that specific sexual assault policies — ones that define consent and provide clear channels for reporting sexual assault as well as resources for survivors — are essential tools in combatting sexual assault on campus. UQTR, like many Explore host institutions, currently does not have such a policy in place.

CMEC needs to set a higher standard for host institutions’ policies on sexual assault. Of course this is no easy task — the council needs to balance the host institutions’ autonomy with a safe learning environment for students. It should start by establishing its own policy on sexual assault that sets standards host institutions’ policies are required to meet. For example, it could mandate that resources for survivors of sexual assault be made available to survivors in a language in which they’re fluent. This is something fairly simple that UQTR has repeatedly failed to do.

These steps will require effort, but they are not inconceivably difficult. What’s inconceivable is that CMEC would continue to pay to send students into unsafe learning environments where, at best, violence against women is trivialized and normalized and at worst reports of rape are ignored.

Source: http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/campus-notes/2015/08/rape-no-joke-federal-language-program-comes-short-sexual-assault


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