The only thing the recent sexual assault case can offer Queen's is lesson

How the trial illuminates sexual violence problems on campus

Natasha Kornak and Rona Ambrose meeting about the JUST act.
Natasha Kornak and Rona Ambrose meeting about the JUST act.
Credit: 
Supplied by Natasha Kornak

When the recruitment team from Queen’s came to my high school in grade twelve, they spoke highly of the robust school spirit, the quality of the academics and the student life on campus. 

Not once did they mention the prominence of sexual violence at the university.

Sexual assault was foreign to me when I entered my first year in 2015. I knew what it was but my grasp on it ended there. It wasn’t until one of my best friends here at Queen’s told me she had been sexually assaulted that the concept became tangible and personal for me. With her permission, I’m going to share her experience with you.

She was sexually assaulted in the third week of September going into her first year. Afterwards, she made the decision to go to the hospital, where she was driven by a Queen’s security guard, to access what’s commonly referred to as a rape kit. Take a minute to digest how brave that is. But getting help from Queen’s wasn’t easy. She particularly had trouble getting her professors to appropriately implement her academic accommodations.

My friend is brave and resilient and isn’t defined by her experience. But her experience does define the Queen’s community as one where sexual violence and rape culture can exist.

Now, I don’t know the girl who was assaulted by the now fourth-year Commerce student and I likely never will; but when I think of her, I think of someone who has the same level of bravery and resiliency as my friend; someone who knew she owed it to herself to seek justice for what happened to her. Imagine being 16 years old and going through the process of reporting an assault. You’d have to be profoundly brave to go through that.

If you don’t know, Queen’s student Chance Macdonald pled guilty to a charge of common assault, even though the actions he committed can be classified as sexual assault under the Criminal Code of Canada, in April. However, his sentencing was delayed so it would be kept off the record until he completed an internship with Deloitte. The judge in this case, Justice Allan Letourneau, told Macdonald he had “played extremely high-end hockey and [knew] the mob mentality that can exist in that atmosphere,” as if this was some sort of excuse for Macdonald’s actions. He’ll also only have to complete 88 days of intermittent jail time. Ultimately, Macdonald’s sentencing was profoundly lenient so his athletic, academic and vocational prospects would be protected.

But in order to have such prospects, Macdonald must have something of value to offer. If there’s one thing this situation can give to the Queen’s community, it’s a reminder that sexual violence is alive and well on and off our campus. This case reminds us that our justice system still sometimes prioritizes the wellbeing of perpetrators, particularly those who are white, male with good athletic and/or academic abilities, over the wellbeing of the victim or survivor. It reminds us that rape culture on campus is real. Don’t believe me? Think about this:

“I just got raped by that exam.” How many times have you heard someone say something like that?

How many times have you seen one of those lude bedsheet signs – ones that say “daughter drop off” for instance – hanging from a house near campus during Frosh Week?

The cycle of sexual violence is vicious and unforgiving. It starts with actions like these, which, intentional or not, normalize sexual violence both on and off campus. When actions like this continue without repercussions, assaults are bound to occur.

When a victim or survivor of sexual assault chooses to go to the police, they face their first obstacle: being believed. In Canada, one in five claims of sexual assault are deemed “unfounded” (in other words, baseless) by police.

If a case is lucky enough to make it to a court room, survivors are often met with even more doubt and shame. I know individuals whose cases have been dropped by the prosecutor without consultation. The conviction rate for sexual assault is only 0.03%. Still, in those cases that do result in a conviction, many sentences are equivalent to a slap on the wrist.

This is the cycle of sexual violence, a cycle that we have allowed to continue for far too long.

University is where we learn who we are as individuals, where we reaffirm our sense of right and wrong. How Queen’s administration responds to this situation will tell us whether or not they condone sexual violence. It’s no longer good enough to simply claim the safety of the students is their top priority or that they don’t tolerate sexual violence. These claims can’t erase the physical and emotional scars left on victims of sexual violence. These words won’t stop me from looking over my shoulder when I walk home from a night of studying at the library. If Queen’s doesn’t take appropriate action, they’ll be complicit in any future sexual assault committed by their students. Plain and simple.

The day I found out my friend was assaulted was the day I not only became an ally, but also an advocate in the fight against sexual violence on campus and beyond. Essentially, I strive to relay the voices of survivors who may not be ready or able to speak out about their experiences to those who can make change happen.

So what can you do? Well, there’s a few things. You can email the Dean of Commerce, Provost, Judicial Affairs Manager, Dean of Student Affairs, and our Sexual Violence and Prevention Coordinator, Barbara Lotan to express your concerns about this. You can launch a non-academic misconduct complaint with the AMS. You can also write to your Member of Parliament about the need for sexual assault sensitivity training for judges and write to the Ontario Judicial Council about Justice Letourneau’s lenient sentencing.

Most importantly, you can reflect on your actions and your words to see if you have in any way contributed to this culture. You can educate yourself on the very real issue of violence against women and girls in Canada. You can seek out bystander intervention training to learn how you can help prevent an assault or help someone who may have been assaulted. You can speak out when you someone says or does something that contributes to this culture. It’s never too late to become an ally.

We need to fight for those who have already experienced sexual assault—those who have been ignored, not believed or denied justice. But we also need to fight for those who might experience sexual violence in the future and try to prevent assaults before they happen. I’ve never been sexually assaulted, but I could be. And I’d never see it coming; no one ever does. It could be me, but it could also be you, your sister, your brother, your roommate, your neighbour. We’re all vulnerable, but we’re stronger when we support one another.

We have an inalienable responsibility to take up the fight against sexual violence on and off campus, otherwise we’ll be having this same conversation in a year from now, if not sooner.

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