On Thursday, posters containing quotes from students, staff, and faculty about the university’s response to their experiences of sexual violence were put up in conspicuous locations across campus.
Silence is Violence, a group dedicated to combatting sexual violence and rape culture, launched its Survivors Speak Back campaign on March 16. The campaign aims to “reveal disturbing trends of power and coercion within the university” and has sparked conversation on campus and on social media.
Later that day, some posters were taken down by the university. University of Toronto spokesperson Elizabeth Church told The Varsity that “the posters were removed in accordance with the university’s Procedure on Distribution of Publications, Posters and Banners.”
The Varsity spoke with the University of Toronto chapter of Silence is Violence’s members Paulysha De Gannes, Tamsyn Riddle, Nicoli Dos Santos, and Hannah Dos Santos about the campaign.
Riddle explained that surveys conducted by the group indicated “that survivors at U of T are routinely silenced and discouraged from reporting or speaking out about the violence they experience,” creating a dearth of awareness among non-survivors about the “widespread sexual violence that happens on campus.”
Riddle continued, “Putting quotes from real survivors around the university that failed them” through the Survivors Speak Back campaign aimed to spread awareness while showing “survivors that they are not alone and that there are other students who care about their experiences.”
Nicoli Dos Santos referred to a Survivors Speak Back poster quoting “one survivor who was told by their college that they could be punished for retaliation if they spoke about their rape. I don’t think the university realizes how much damage silencing of the voices of survivors of sexual assault does in terms of delaying healing and recovery.”
When asked about the importance of a campaign like Survivors Speak Back at U of T, Hannah Dos Santos stated that the university “is a point of reference to the public on many fronts” and that “the silencing of the experiences of students does a disservice not only to those impacted by sexual violence, but also to those looking to the University of Toronto as an example.”
On the impact of the campaign, De Gannes noted that “response has been far reaching and the campaign has been shared by students across Canada via social media.” Hannah Dos Santos added that public response to the campaign “is indicative of the overwhelming pervasiveness of sexual violence within and beyond the boundaries of the university,” as well as “the importance of survivor-centred and trauma-sensitive approaches” in how the university responds to sexual violence. Nicoli Dos Santos noted that, despite the “challenging and discouraging” effect of the university’s call to have Survivors Speak Back posters removed, “the photos that we now have of contractors removing the posters stand as a powerful, visual metaphor of the systematic silencing of the voices of survivors by our University.”
U of T is currently seeking feedback on methods to address sexual violence on campus through an online consultation website that is open until April 10, as well as in-person consultation meetings on all three campuses.
UTSC and UTM’s consultation sessions respectively took place on March 15 and March 16, while the St. George campus’ consultation will take place on March 20 in the Governing Council Chamber at Simcoe Hall.
These efforts are part of the university’s implementation of a new Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment, which was passed by Governing Council on December 15, 2016 and took effect on January 1 this year.
The new policy aims for a standardization of access to support and services across campuses for staff, students, and faculty impacted by sexual assault and harassment, whether it occurs on or off-campus.
To achieve policy goals, the Tri-Campus Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre was created. It is accessible at the temporary location on the St. George campus on the sixth floor of the Bissell Building, while locations are UTSC and UTM are set to open in April.
Terry McQuaid, the university’s Executive Director of Personal Safety, High Risk, Sexual Violence Prevention and Support told The Varsity that Silence is Violence’s campaign and the implementation of a new policy was an opportunity “to create conversations” on how to “collaboratively ensure that survivors… are supported” by asking the question, “How do we get our messaging, in terms of education and prevention, out into the community in a way that speaks to the diversity of the community?”
On the university’s ongoing consultation campaigns, Silence is Violence stated via Facebook that “many of our members attended and [shared] their thoughts,” but few points were incorporated into “the final version of the policy.” The statement further said that “the support workers who were on-site for the consultations were on their phones the entire time” and that “they are being paid to provide support and did not even want to fully engage for two hours of their work day.”
When asked about the sentiment expressed in Silence is Violence that the university was not doing enough for people impacted by sexual violence, McQuaid said, “Certainly the posters are saying that loud and clear.” She went on to say that given the university’s new policy, “it’s a really pivotal time to create an opportunity to do things even better.”