Campus bar condemns sexual assault: Setting the bar high for Canadian universities

theweal-newsA few months have passed since 40 staff members at a University of Calgary campus bar received sexual assault prevention training, but student leaders are already suggesting that other institutions follow suit.

“It provides a safe environment where patrons can feel comfortable,” says Jonah Ardiel, vice-president academic of the U of C’s Students’ Union, which owns and operates The Den, the on campus bar.

“I would absolutely recommend that other licensed establishments in the city and other post-secondary institutes undertake a [similar] program.”

The Students’ Union supported a student club’s request last year when its members suggested that such a program be implemented.

The training, which was developed by the Calgary Sexual Health Centre (CSHC) and customized specifically for staff at The Den, occurred at the end of September, and was “more preventative in nature than anything else,” according to VP Ardiel.

Emily Leedham, president of U of C’s Consent Awareness and Sexual Education club (CASE), requested that the Students’ Union help facilitate the training.

“We just really wanted it to be a safe space for everyone, and really make it clear that sexual harassment is not acceptable,” says Leedham.

“We want to be as proactive as possible because The Den is a great place for student community.”

So what exactly did the training look like?

Based on a program previously developed by CSHC, facilitators worked with participants to help create a safe and supportive environment for patrons at The Den.

“A typical scenario might entail a perpetrator getting closer and closer to a patron who is visibly uncomfortable with the situation,” explains Ardiel.

“At this point, a staff member may intervene and confront the person presumably being harassed to make sure they are okay.”

Both Ardiel and Leedham confirmed that students and staff alike have had many good things to say about the training.

“We have had lots of positive responses from students, and people saying that they’d be more comfortable going to The Den now that staff are more aware of these instances,” confirms Leedham.

Ardiel agrees, and says that since the training took place in September, no incidents of sexual harassment have been reported at the Den.

“I think [that is] an indication that the training was successful,” says Ardiel.

As for sexual harassment on other areas of campus, Leedham says that over the past eight months, 10 incidents have been reported, with three occurring in the last week of October.

“We’re not sure if people are reporting it more and that’s why we’re seeing it, or if there is an actual increase in this activity. Either way, it’s concerning.”

As the approach of preventing sexual harassment and assault on college campuses across North America begins to shift and conversations on the subject become more prominent, The Den has become one of the first in Canada to implement a preventative training program.

This current movement away from the once-widely-accepted idea of victim blaming was one of the primary reasons behind CASE’s request for this type of training.

“We believe that sexual assault and harassment only happen because someone chooses to commit [them], and if you’re telling potential victims to constantly look over their shoulder, watch what they’re doing, watch what they’re wearing, then you’re really creating a culture of fear where your actions are policed by this invisible threat that if you don’t do something right, you could experience assault,” emphasizes Leedham.

“I think it’s really great to educate people that it’s the perpetrators that need to be held accountable.”

Leedham also shed light on a common misunderstanding about how sexual harassment occurs:

“One of the main misconceptions people have about sexual assault is that it’s a stranger jumping out of the bush and attacking you. Statistically that’s not true. The number one type of sexual assault is [by acquaintances], so it’s often someone you trust.”

According to Statistics Canada, the perpetrator is known by the victim in 75 per cent of all reported sexual assault cases. A fact sheet on dating violence released by Justice Canada says that more than 80 per cent of reported rapes that occur on college campuses are committed by someone known to the victim, with half of these incidents occurring on dates.

The majority of assaults are committed against women between the ages of 16 and 24, and statistics show that one in four Canadian women will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime.

While many may find these numbers troubling, sexual assault is difficult to quantify, as only 6 per cent of incidents are reported to police.

VP Student Life of SAIT’s Students’ Association (SAITSA), Thao Nguyen, says that SAITSA has been in contact with CSHC and are currently “working on scheduling a day for all staff at the Gateway and potentially all SAITSA staff” to receive similar training.

Although college campuses across the United States have set an example by aiming to prevent sexual assault through educational programs and campaigns since the introduction of Title IX, Leedham says that Canadian colleges and universities have a long way to go, but U of C’s Students’ Union is certainly setting the bar.

“We are really excited to see initiatives like this happen at other campuses as well,” says Leedham.

“We hope that other bars in the city and on other campuses can step up and take a look at what they are doing to address this issue.”

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