How a campus advocacy group is supporting survivors, fighting sexual violence and calling out institutional negligence.
On the morning of March 16, students at the University of Toronto’s downtown campus were met with stirring posters stuck to street poles and community message boards across campus.
Then, as quickly as they were put up, the posters started to disappear, leaving many wondering if the university had anything do with it.
Many of the posters read messages like these:
“My rapist was fired from his Student Life [the hub of the university’s student community network] position following the attack. He was rehired to a different division of Student Life shortly after.”
“The sexual harassment office said they couldn’t take my report seriously because I’m a sex worker.”
“If you were drinking, you probably don’t remember.”
Silence is Violence U of T is a group on campus focused on bringing “the fight against sexual assault to college and university campuses across Canada.” The group are the creators of the poster campaign, Survivors Speak Back, which was also circulating on social media. The campaign highlights the stories of individuals surviving sexual violence and who are re-traumatized again by institutional negligence.
In developing the campaign, the organizers—all of whom have been directly affected by sexual violence in one way or another—put out the call for stories about people’s experiences interacting with the university after an incident. “Within the first 24 hours we got about 70 responses, and they’ve still keep coming in,” said Ellie Ade Kur, a PhD student and the founder of the university’s SiV chapter.
She says they found an alarming similarity in the responses.
“One of the consistent themes is that people coming in with experiences of sexual violence to the University of Toronto, more often than not, are being entirely shut down by first responders,” Ade Kur said.
Organizers wanted to make these stories about the university’s woeful responses to sexual violence were made public, Ade Kur said.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed. Students have been talking about the campaign’s bold message.
U of T student Tessa Mahrt-Smith said the posters had a powerful impact on her. “They were difficult to read. It actually took me a few days to read through all of them without needing to stop and regroup for a while.”
For some, the campaign is starting a conversation around a subject that is challenging for some people to talk about.
“I think the message has been incredibly effective,” said Mira El Hussein, another U of T student. “Contextualizing some of these struggles does essentially break the silence and taboo nature of discussing sexual violence on campus.”
However, as quickly as the posters went up around campus, they were removed.
Ade Kur says she approached a group of workers scraping posters off of sidewalk poles who revealed that they were contractors paid by the university to remove the posters about sexual assault.
The university denies that it had any role in either directly removing the posters from sidewalk poles or paying contractors to do so.
Director of media relations at U of T, Althea Blackburn-Evans, said caretaking staff do not remove posters that are on City property.
“Our role is to support people who experience sexual violence and to take any steps they choose to get support,” said Terry McQuaid, the university’s executive director for personal safety, high risk and sexual violence prevention and support.
The Survivors Speak Back campaign has opened up a space to discuss the university’s institutional failure to respond properly to sexual violence. “Now,” Ade Kur said, “we literally get messages from people saying ‘I was just sexually assaulted a few hours ago or last night, so what do I do?’” She says their services now extend to immediate crisis intervention, such as taking people to the hospital for medical tests and rape kits or accompanying people to speak to police if they want to make a statement.
And Ade Kur said they’re not done yet. “This is the first installment of the Survivors Speak Back campaign,” she said. The second phase of the Survivors Speak Back campaign starts tomorrow at Trinity College at 6 Hoskin Ave.