By Gabrielle Ross-Marquette
Gabrielle Ross-Marquette represents student unions in Ontario to the Canadian Federation of Students. This sees her mobilizing post-secondary students around issues of accessible and affordable education, equity, social justice and ending sexual violence. She is also an Acadian, a writer, a knitter, a TV watcher, a wanderer and a dreamer.
Gabrielle presented to It’s Never OK: Ontario’s Summit on Sexual Violence and Harassment:
This picture was taken in the dark, basement level hallways of the Colonel By building of the University of Ottawa campus. I want you to imagine, just for a second, that you are a woman-identified engineering graduate student, walking the halls after you’ve locked up your lab for the night. How would seeing those words make you feel about your campus, about your colleagues, about your community?
Students on campuses across the country face sexual violence in all of its forms on an all too frequent basis. We’ve all seen or heard about the notorious incidents through mainstream media, so there is no need to rehash the violence that was spewed through chants, Facebook chats or the blogosphere, though I want to reiterate over and over again that these incidents may be the ones that became notorious in mainstream media, but are not isolated nor unique to particular campuses. This is the culture students across this province and country face when they get up in the morning to head to class, to volunteer, to work. This is a rape culture where sexual violence is so normalized that it is rendered invisible and inevitable.
We must continue to be productive in an environment where 1 in 5 of our peers will be sexually assaulted. We must continue to eat, sleep and socialize in an environment where trans women, indigenous women, racialized women, women with disabilities are more likely to face that violence, with less resources in place to support them. We must continue to benefit our institutions through cutting-edge research while conversations around consent or respecting the right to say no or publicizing the rate of sexual violence are stifled by administrators, faculty and yes, sometimes, other students.
The students recognized early the importance of organizing to ensure that structural and systemic ways the student leaders cause conversations to sensitize the university community college and the challenges faced by students in relation to sexual violence. I am here as a representative of the Canadian Federation of Students and Students, but I have to acknowledge the hard work that the student movement is at this level for several decades. In 1981, student unions and provincial student organizations existing at the time decided to unite with one voice at the national level to advocate student interests at all levels. We are perhaps best known for our claims for accessibility to post-secondary education through the lowering or eliminating school fees or the conversion of loans into non-repayable grants. However, at the time students made sure to include in the concept of accessibility, safety of students on campus with the “No Means No” campaign, an sexual violence awareness campaign .
That part of the work happens on the ground, on campuses across the province and across the country. However, as an organization, we also pressure our provincial and federal decision-makers to adopt policies that centre students’ needs and points of views.
We created a lobby document written by the Women’s Issues Committee in 1982. In it, the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario recommends the adoption of clear policies, grievance procedures, the collection of data and the creation of information materials. These might sound familiar: these are the exact recommendations we offered Premier Wynne and the Ontario Women’s Directorate at the Students’ Roundtable last Winter.
We are very proud that these recommendations were finally taken seriously by the provincial government and other provinces such as Nova Scotia , are also listening students who have been working on this issue for years. It was a great victory and a great relief to see in black and white , the provincial post-secondary institutions must now adopt policies , stressing the importance of the student contribution , among other recommendations. We are aware that we must continue to work in the legislative , institutional, and personal.
The recommendations from our 1982 lobby document were made 30 years ago. Imagine, in the last 30 years, how our understanding of consent has changed and evolved, how differently we perceive sexual violence, how our institutions and demographics have changed. If we are just now starting to tackle our 30 year-old recommendations, imagine how much more work needs to be done at the policy-level to accurately reflect students’ current needs and experiences.
It is important to address current challenges that students face which limit their full participation in this process.
Currently, post-secondary institutions are operating under what I will define as a “public relations framework”. When these institutions are being run as businesses trying to attract as many students as possible, to collect more money, to achieve more status, to compete with each other, instead of the publicly funded spaces that they are meant to be, an environment is not created where meaningful data collection can be instituted, where truly meaningful policies centering the individuals’ who have experienced sexual violence can be developed, where discussions around consent can be taking place in classrooms and curriculums. Further, when these very important things are called for at a provincial level, but very little financial and infrastructural investments are made to adequately support them, it makes us question the integrity of the process.
These systems are intertwined: cuts to government funding for post-secondary institutions results in a greater reliance on tuition fees, resulting in these institutions increasingly being run as businesses, needing to “look good” to potential “Basic Income Units” which in turns allows an unsafe culture to fester and remain unquestioned.
We also need to move away from the idea that our policies can be “one size fits all”. What students want to see, what they need to see, is empathy. It’s education, about how sexual violence is perpetrated through systems of oppression, like white supremacy, patriarchy, and cisnormativity, reproduced from our interactions with classmates to seeking advice from our faculty. It is recognition. It is believing our experiences, our trauma.
At the end of the day, through all of this, there is hope. Look for that hope amongst students. The students who, again and again, take up this work though they are affected and re-victimized by it every single day. You can see the hope amongst the students that sit around tables with you, that are patient, and kind, even through the daily injustices. You can see it in the students that are focused on awareness, education, and consciousness-raising. That is what you can take with you today, to guide you through this weekend: students are doing this work, and they have been doing this work for decades. Now it’s your turn.