Content Warning: this post discusses sexual violence/assault; reporting; police involvement; intersections of violence, reporting, and identity.
On December 6th, 1989, fourteen women were murdered, and ten women were injured at École Polytechnique, an Engineering school, in Montreal, Canada. This violent act was committed by Marc Lépine; a man with an overt hate for feminists/feminism and was enraged that women were occupying roles that were traditionally held by men. This act, arguably, was one of the first headlining gender-based violence cases on a Canadian post-secondary campus.
December 6th, 2019 will mark 30 years since the Montreal Massacre occurred, and as we grapple with headline after headline and discussion after discussion, it appears to be the perfect time to reflect on what progress, if any, has been made. I am saddened to say that we are not much further ahead in eliminating or even reducing the presence of sexual and gender-based violence on post-secondary campuses.
In discussing being 30 years removed from the Montreal Massacre, Mayor Valérie Plante noted that, “In order to change things, we must first accept them as they are.” Yet, it remains striking to see a country that prides itself on being a leader on the advancement of gender equality, be so stagnant when it comes to the issue of eradicating sexual or gender-based violence, particularly on post-secondary campuses.
Based on the way most Canadian post-secondary campuses advertise themselves, you could be easily led to believe that sexual violence on campus is not an issue. However, all it takes is a simple conversation with students to see that the reality is starkly different. Administrations across the country have and continue to neglect not only how dire the issue truly is but also students’ need for services and harm reduction measures.
In Canada, according to Our Turn (2017) a national student-led action plan to end campus sexual violence indicates that 1 in every 5 women will experience sexual violence while studying at a postsecondary institution, and 80% of these students will be assaulted by someone they know. Within these statistics, we are also reminded that marginalized individuals face an even great risk as Indigenous women and women living with disabilities, respectfully, are three times more likely to experience sexual violence.
It is important to note that these daunting statistics, do not take into account those who have decided not to report. Choosing not to report can occur for a number of reasons: including lack of accessibility, discomfort with police, lack of anonymous reporting processes, fear of not being believed, or simply the stigma and trauma of being a survivor among a myriad of other reasons. Also, worth considering is the fact that women of colour, trans women, immigrant women, women with disabilities, indigenous women, and internationally studying women face more barriers to seeking services and reporting their cases.
So why does sexual violence remain a rampant problem in post-secondary institutions? The list of reasons is endless, but I would like to focus on one particular reason: how harmful patriarchal norms create an environment in which violence against women flourishes on post-secondary campuses.
Society reinforces rape culture behaviours and toxic masculinity through patriarchal norms. Meaning, traditional understandings of what it means to be a man fuelled through gender norms are manifested and perpetuated through the communities that post-secondary campuses create. This, in turn, has led to an environment where sexual assault continues to happen at crisis triggering rates. The harmful effects of this are easily seen through how the phrase ‘no means no’ is consistently being repeated through orientation weeks, pub nights, club events, and overall spaces on campuses. The alarming reality that men are not accepting the answer ‘no’ has gotten so severe across the post-secondary environment in Canada that the sheer amount of sexual assault cases reported has led the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) to start a campaign called “Consent is Mandatory.” The perpetuation of rape culture on campuses has and continues to attribute to the sexual violence crisis we are facing and must be dismantled in order to see meaningful change.
An issue as large and complicated as dismantling rape culture that leads to high rates of sexual assault on campuses in Canada is one that requires more fulsome discussion and is certainly not an issue with a quick-fix. As I reflect on the Montreal Massacre and look to the years ahead, the one thing I know for certain is that we need a new approach to tackling this issue. If our goal is to dismantle the systems that fuel sexual violence, I believe that the way forward lies in women, advocates, and allies all working together to support each other in combatting this issue. Allying and fighting together is the only way to demonstrate that women’s issues are not just women’s issues. And I’m grateful for all the work that has already been done and the people on the frontlines trying to make change happen. Fundamentally, this cannot just be done by you and me. This is a multi-level effort that must engage stakeholders, campus administrations, safety authorities, governing bodies, and students to be successful.
It is 30 years later and we are not much further ahead. This can and should inspire some anger in post-secondary spaces. Anger, in this context, does not mean anger targeted towards a specific group of people, but rather anger that needs to be directed towards the lack of attention put on this issue by people in decision-making roles. This is the kind of anger that must be harnessed to ensure the safety and equality of women and girls on campuses and beyond.
Cassandra is a fourth year social work and human rights & equity studies student at York University. She has been a youth activist with Plan International Canada for over 3 years as a Speaker’s Bureau member, a youth advocate, and mentor for sexual and reproductive health and rights for women and girls internationally.