On Dec. 3, students are being asked to speak out about how they will combat violence on campus and elsewhere at an event called Join the Circle: Act Against Violence.
For someone like Breanna Neden, a UVic alumnus who graduated in 2010, this campus-based recognition of violence is essential. Neden was sexually assaulted while living in the David Thompson residence during her first year at UVic, an experience that spurred her towards depression and exacerbated an eating disorder.
“When I was assaulted, I didn’t even necessarily think that what had happened was assault because it involved alcohol, and there is a really pervasive drug and alcohol culture on campus that is extremely normalized,” says Neden. “At the time, I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t have the language to know what it was and to speak out about it.” This is why Neden sees the Dec. 3 event as important for UVic. “We need to be acknowledging our lived experiences and our histories of violence on our bodies,” she says.
Classes will be cancelled from 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. so students can take part in an open mic in UVic’s quad, where they may publicly detail in a few sentences how they commit to combat violence. Afterwards, students are invited to write down planned actions against violence while enjoying free soup in the Michèle Pujol Room in the Student Union Building.
Neden says the conversation shouldn’t focus solely on survivors of visible violence, as “mundane forms of violence happen . . . every single day on campus.” Because of this, Join the Circle will not prioritize any particular groups or speakers; the goal is for anyone to have an opportunity to speak.
“If something happened to your body, and you didn’t consent to it, it is a big deal, no matter what that was,” says Neden.
Join the Circle: Act Against Violence, is a new, grassroots response to an older, nation-wide event that traditionally took place on Dec. 6 and focused on the 14 women shot at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in 1989: the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. In 2011, when UVic cancelled its annual ceremony to mark the National Day of Remembrance, the backlash was palpable.
“I thought, ‘Is this a joke? Is this really happening?’ ” says Neden. “Some women were expressing their outrage, and I was equally as outraged, but instantly looking for solutions.”
The genesis of a new day of action
Although two films were screened at Cinecenta in lieu of a ceremony in the quad that December of 2011, many on campus believed the day of action had been scaled back and altered without due notice. From the early ’90s until 2010, UVic had cancelled classes to allow students and faculty to attend the widely publicized event. By comparison, says Neden, attendance at 2011’s screenings “was not as broad as it could have been.”
Renay Maurice was one of a group of eight to 10 students who called themselves “The Women” who announced at the Dec. 2, 2011, screening that they would be marching to UVic President David Turpin’s office. The group planned to employ tactics of the Occupy movement and take up space in the office until he agreed to meet with them to discuss meaningful ways to address violence on campus.
Later that night, the administration responded by requesting a meeting with The Women; the march on Turpin’s office was cancelled.
“To me, that was a very good sign that the university was being responsive to students’ voices,” says Maurice. “We all felt really strongly that this day — this national day — still needs to be fully imagined in Canadian culture, not lost.”
In a letter to Turpin, the group wrote, “As an institution of higher learning we feel that it is this administration’s responsibility to begin addressing this issue as educators, in a comprehensive way, not just in terms of disparate activist events.”
This marked the beginning of consultations between the university — including Grace Wong Sneddon, advisor to the provost on equity and diversity, and Reeta Tremblay, vice-president academic and provost — and The Women, as well as some representatives from UVic advocacy groups (including the Students of Colour Collective, the Women’s Centre and the Anti-Violence Project).
Neden says the university offered $500 toward a new event at one of the first meetings.
“Lots of other events get way more funding than that,” says Neden, “and this is to do with violence against people on this campus.”
UVic’s Equity and Human Rights (EQHR) office was designated as the host for Join the Circle; it has so far provided an additional $2 870 in funding.
In 2006–2007 (the most recent year for which figures are available), EQHR received nine sexual harassment complaints and 18 gender discrimination complaints.
In spite of this, Cindy Player, the director of EQHR, says a special committee formed in April to plan the Dec. 3 event decided that it was time for the event to move beyond strictly gendered experiences of violence.
Still, several of the advocacy groups raised concerns that the new event might not focus enough on some groups’ experiences of violence.
“I think there may be some people who feel that something has been lost in looking at the broader scope,” says Player.
Annalee Lepp, chair of UVic’s Women’s Studies Department, helped lobby the university to cancel classes for a day of action in the ’90s. She is now involved in the discussions about Join the Circle and echoes Player’s sentiment that the day’s mandate has changed.
“I think that it is an expansion of the conversation to really look at what kind of violence is happening around us, whether that is around racism or transphobia or homophobia or sexual assault — to take seriously violence in its many, many forms.”
A sub-committee was formed over the summer to begin consulting students confidentially about how they would like to see violence addressed more broadly at UVic.
More than a one-day event
Maurice says that making the fight against violence more salient to UVic students is perhaps the greatest challenge. In addition to in-person consultations that have been ongoing since the summer, there is an online survey available for students to fill out until Dec. 15 (find it at web.uvic.ca/eqhr/). The survey takes about half an hour to complete, is anonymous and includes open-ended questions like, “What suggestions would you have for the University of Victoria to acknowledge and address various forms of violence on campus and elsewhere?”
“I would just love to see us get 300 or 400 surveys filled,” says Maurice. Once the surveys have been submitted, the responses will be coded and the findings presented to the UVic Senate.
“What I want to see happen is that this is somehow put through constitutionally so that we don’t ever have to fight for it again,” says Maurice of a designated day of action against violence at UVic.
Maurice says the committee hopes to have a follow-up event in March, perhaps in the style of TED talks, which will allow a variety of presentations — everything from slam poetry to dance — of five to 15 minutes in length.
Lepp says, however, that student feedback may tell the committee that it should take a new tack.
“Is a public event the most effective way to address violence on campus?” asks Lepp. “Not to diminish the event on or around Dec. 6, but . . . is this where people’s energies and resources should go? Are there other strategies that may potentially be more effective? We don’t have the answers yet.”
How students can help
Maurice says that Join the Circle organizers are looking for students to help distribute handbills before the event. For Dec. 3, they are looking for students willing to relay messages from people who might not want to step up to the microphone themselves. Assistance in helping the crowd form a circle is also needed.
What’s most important, she adds, is that people fill out the online survey and show up at the event.
Player says all UVic administrators have been invited, though they have not been asked to RSVP.
“I would really love to see more administration come out,” says Neden. “I would love to see Turpin there. I think every single person on the campus should be out there.”
Join the Circle: Act Against Violence
(All events are on traditional territories of Coast Salish and Straits Salish peoples.)
Open mic @ the quad (by Petch Fountain)
11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m
Free soup @ Michèle Pujol Room (SUB)
Students can call Cindy Player at 250-721-7007 to get involved
Speak your truth: clothesline project (hosted by the Anti-Violence Project)
Upper Lounge (SUB)
Painted t-shirts to be displayed at Join the Circle