At a recent University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU) council meeting, UMSU womyn’s representative Alana Robert expressed disappointment with several student councils, calling them out for their failure to participate in consent culture workshops that she facilitated.
Among the councils Robert mentioned specifically to the Manitoban were the University of Manitoba Engineering Society (UMES) and the Commerce Students’ Association (CSA).
Spearheaded by Robert, the consent culture workshop initiative began in August when she teamed up with Rebecca Kunzman, UMSU vice-president advocacy, to address high-risk situations for sexual assault on campus.
According to Robert, a number of students had approached her because they had experienced sexual violence both on and off campus, including at university events. Robert and Kunzman decided that the most efficient way to address this issue was to approach student associations directly and offer them sexual assault workshop training.
Student associations all have their own events and each faculty has its own distinct culture. As such, Robert told the Manitoban that she felt sexual assault training programs could ensure a higher level of safety.
Councils were asked at the beginning of the fall term to attend one of two workshops – either a consent culture workshop organized and run by the University of Manitoba Justice for Women student group in partnership with community organizations, or a bystander intervention training program run by the university.
Although the initiative began in August with emails to all student councils, Robert said it has only been in the last month or so that she has seen councils get engaged and welcome Justice for Women into their councils. She added that for several councils, workshops have only happened after many emails and follow-ups.
“Other faculties have been less responsive to having this programming extended to their council. But we’ve made it very available to everyone,” Robert said.
“We were excited to get a response from some larger faculties, but we’re a little bit disappointed at those that decided not to engage in this.”
Kunzman told the Manitoban that the slow response and low participation from certain faculties to implement this training could be due to simple disorganization on the part of the student councils, considering that this year was the first year the programs have been offered.
However, Kunzman also emphasized that councils have had since August to implement this training, and spoke of the months-long process to get councils to attend the workshops, at first offering it to the councils and then “strongly recommending” it.
“‘Strongly recommend’ was not strong enough,” Kunzman said.
“Of all of the faculties, the number that we had that were easy to work with was probably two. Every other faculty required numerous emails, phone calls, texts, Facebook,” she added.
To address this, Kunzman and Robert began to use more forceful language by telling student councils that the initiative was “required” or “mandated.” But they did not have any way to enforce this, short of withholding funding from the councils.
Robert and Kunzman have drafted a two-part proposal that will be tabled at the next UMSU council meeting on Feb. 11 to address this perceived problem.
According to Kunzman, the motion, if passed, would approve in principle the idea that all councils must receive mandatory sexual assault training. It will also outline the penalties that will occur if councils do not implement this training within a specific period of time.
Kunzman said that some of these penalties could include imposing sanctions on the faculty council, withholding funding, or referring it to mediation. The motion would also allow the workshop program to become an UMSU policy for future years.
This motion is due to what Robert characterized as the reluctance of some student councils to engage fully in the workshops.
Robert said that she is not surprised that UMES and CSA have been reluctant to participate fully in the workshops, given that both are faculties historically dominated by male students.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” she said.
“And I think that in itself just reinforces why this kind of programming is so needed. The value of it is being overlooked.”
Robert also emphasized that lack of participation on the part of both councils may not reflect the beliefs of the student bodies within these faculties, but that the lack of participation by a few key individuals in leadership positions has halted the process for everyone.
The proposed motion will ensure that they will not be able to do so in the future, she said.
André Marchildon, senior stick for the UMES, told the Manitoban that he is “disappointed” by Robert’s comments.
His council did participate in a consent culture workshop in January, but attendance was low because he did not receive the promotional materials necessary to attract a greater turnout, he said.
“There was definitely a communication breakdown here,” Marchildon said, adding that this confusion arose based on the fact that Robert is responsible for the workshop while UMSU is responsible for promoting it.
“I was emailing Alana requesting promotional materials and whatnot, and then I didn’t receive anything from UMSU until about four or five hours before the event, at which point it was going to be nearly impossible to promote it.”
Marchildon added that he was away at a conference the week preceding the event and was unable to adequately promote it in person. As such, he was disappointed by the exceedingly low turnout for the workshop.
He added that he is arranging for a bystander workshop to be offered to students after reading week.
“I think the consent culture workshops are a great initiative, dealing with a really important issue,” Marchildon said, adding that making the workshops mandatory is based on a false perception that student councils like UMES were resistant to participating.
“The perception that there was resistance to have these workshops is very inaccurate.”
Noah Yagi, president of the CSA, told the Manitoban that they have not yet implemented the consent culture workshop due to organizational issues.
According to Yagi, the CSA has not been able to host a workshop yet, but have made two attempts to do so through Justice for Women and UMSU.
“Unfortunately, one of the times they were unable to send their people because they were overbooked, so it got moved. We’ve made two separate attempts, and they both fell through,” Yagi said.
“There was definitely some miscommunication on what was required.”
On the proposed motion to mandate these workshops, Yagi said he thought it was “a great initiative.”
“I think UMSU has as part of their mandate an advocacy role for student issues, and I definitely think this is a student issue that needs to be pushed out,” he said.
“I think this is a major issue for students across Canada our age.”
Yagi told the Manitoban he still plans to implement the workshop, and is currently trying to set it up to occur after the next CSA council meeting, the date of which has yet to be determined.