Open letter from student groups renews pressure on U of A to take action on sexual violence

·3 min read
Talia Dixon is the University of Alberta Student Union's vice-president of student life.  (Trevor Wilson/CBC - image credit)
Talia Dixon is the University of Alberta Student Union's vice-president of student life. (Trevor Wilson/CBC - image credit)

Nearly two dozen student groups are demanding the University of Alberta take more action to prevent and respond to sexual violence.

The U of A's undergraduate and graduate student unions joined 20 other student groups in signing an open letter that calls for changes to make the university safer.

Talia Dixon, the student union's vice-president of student life, said the letter builds on previous student efforts urging the university to take the issue of sexual violence more seriously.

"Despite this continued advocacy, we've seen really limited advances made on the university's work to prevent and respond to sexual violence," Dixon said.

The 10 demands in the letter are wide-ranging. Requests include updating policies and practices, and making it easier for victims to disclose abuse. Another demand calls for all U of A students, instructors and staff to take mandatory courses about consent and sexual violence.

"Unless you are in residence or the sexual assault centre comes to your class to present to you, you can go your entire university degree without really having to any kind of training on sexual violence," she said.

The open letter is the latest effort by student groups to draw attention to sexual violence. Dixon said student leaders have worked for several years to bring the issue to the fore, and said there have been many private conversations with university executives.

"Generally the response we get is 'This is very concerning' but there's not a lot of action that comes out of it," she said

'We can do better'

In a response to the letter published on the U of A's website Wednesday, provost and vice-president Steven Dew said university leadership will meet with student leaders as soon as possible.

"While the university has made progress in recent years in achieving our goals in this area, there is more we can do and we can do better," Dew said.

Dew shared the school's existing policies on sexual violence, but said he agreed improvement is needed in three particular areas: training for people who work with survivors of sexual violence; ensuring students aren't put at risk by the power imbalance between them and faculty members; and ensuring resources are available across all U of A campuses, including French language resources.

The university has begun recruitment for a sexual violence response co-ordinator, a step that had been requested by student groups.

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The open letter cites a Statistics Canada study that found 11 per cent of post-secondary students who identify as women and four per cent who identify as men were sexually assaulted in a school setting in 2019.

Dixon said the student union also has a call out for survivors to submit their stories about sexual violence to help get a better grasp on what's happening at the U of A.

"The point of that is to collect stories that we can share and show that this is a real problem," Dixon said. "Something that we hear pretty often is that there is a lack of reporting so we don't actually know how big of an issue this is."

The student union also operates an Instagram account where survivors can make disclosures to get help being directed to resources if they need help. Dixon suggests that students who have experienced sexual violence reach out to the school's Sexual Assault Centre.

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