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The Mend the Gap - Jared Perry connection - A response

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
St. Mary's Campus [Photo: sfdblog.ca]
St. Mary's Campus [Photo: sfdblog.ca]

By Rebecca Rose

“Y is for young, O is for oh so tight, U is for underage, N is for no consent and G is for grab that ass.” Most of us are familiar with the now infamous chant caught on tape during this year’s Saint Mary’s University frosh week, which celebrated rape and made national headlines.

After the story broke and the rage spread there were calls for then-president of the SMU Student Association (SMUSA), Jared Perry (who knew of and admitted to participating in the chant) to resign. And he did, first from his position as chair of StudentsNS (an alliance of some Nova Scotia student associations) and then from SMUSA.

This past Tuesday, the Halifax Media Co-op posted a completely uncritical article about StudentsNS’ Mend the Gap campaign, which they say aims to get more women elected to student unions.

Luckily for StudentsNS, their former rape-chanting chair, Mr. Perry, wasn’t quoted in the article. But he was quoted in a recent press release about a partnership with government to address alcohol and sexual assault on campuses.

“Together, students and the Province [sic] are working to turn the tide on sexual assault and alcohol abuse among students,” said Jared Perry. Carrigan Desjardins, the SMUSA VP in charge of Frosh who also resigned, is also quoted in the release.

How is it that Jared Perry is quoted about ending sexual assault on campus just days before he was busted for promoting rape via chant at SMU? How can a provincial organization with Mr. Perry as its chair wax poetic about getting women involved in students’ unions and ending sexual assault with a straight face?

Why did the Halifax Media Co-op run this article, the week after “rape chant” became part of our vocabulary, without additional commentary or analysis? The fact that the story was originally written last year, and was recently re-posted on a professor’s blog in light of the SMU fiasco is not an excuse.

Every student representative makes mistakes. I made plenty. It’s how you learn. But this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill, oops-I-said-something-stupid-in-the-student-paper kind of mistake. On a SMU level, Mr. Perry was elected to represent nearly 7,000 students. On a provincial level, he headed an organization that claims to “give students a united voice in Nova Scotia” (despite the fact that they actually don’t represent all of the students in NS). Over half of the university students are women, many of who have been sexually assaulted. Given all of this, somehow, it didn’t occur to him that chanting about raping underage women might inappropriate. Of course, that is until the video was posted.

This isn’t just a Jared Perry thing. Remember, this chant has been taught to frosh leaders and then to first years at SMU for years.

And groups such as StudentsNS wonder why women don’t want to get involved in their student unions?

I got involved in my students’ union at Ryerson University in Toronto back in 2003. I was a volunteer at the women’s centre and called out a candidate in the students’ union elections after he was quoted in the student paper saying that he was a proud womanizer. At 19, I was elected to my first of three terms on the students’ union’s executive. The president during my first year on the exec, a business student named Dave, thought it was appropriate to give “the shocker” (named such as it’s a surprise, ie not consensual) at various students’ union events, mostly because he knew it made me uncomfortable.

When I moved back to Nova Scotia, I worked for the Canadian Federation of Students; the group behind those reduce tuition fees demos and the No Means No campaign. As a feminist, I was always proud to work for an organization that had a long list of women elected reps and staff, had a national women’s constituency group, printed posters that proudly proclaimed A Women’s Place is in Her Student Union and took feminist stances on issues such as sexual assault, reproductive rights, gendered violence and missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

I saw the positive correlation between taking on women-centric initiatives and the number of brilliant young women elected to or involved in their students’ union. Last year the entire NSCAD students’ union executive was women. In addition to leading the public battle for the very existence of their school, the women-dominated SUNSCAD held a week dedicated to promoting consent.

So why wasn’t I overjoyed when StudentsNS launched the Mend the Gap campaign?

At the time of the campaign launch, the majority of the group’s Board and all three staff members were men. Many women simply rolled their eyes: another campaign by a bunch of dudes inviting us to get involved in their game. Similar to when white feminists talk about how they really want to include racialized women, like we somehow own the women’s movement.

StudentsNS also often only brought dudes in suits to important government meetings. At one of these meetings one representative pointed out that my fellow staff person (also a woman) had the same name as a porn star, in front of the Finance Minister. At another, a representative called the CFS’ Chairperson (a woman) “irrational” for expressing frustration over tuition fee hikes. Up until last year, the group hadn’t taken (public) interest in issues of women’s rights or any of the various women’s/feminist events that happen in this city.

For me, the last straw was this past winter when I attended an event at South House, the Dalhouse University women's centre, held to encourage women to run in students’ union elections. It was meant to be a space for women to talk about sexism within students’ unions. StudentsNS brought two staffers: a contract part-time staff person hired specifically for the campaign, a woman, and a permanent male staffer. It was mortifying to watch the man refuse to let the young woman get a word in about “her” campaign.

Women (especially those involved in electoral politics) experience situations similar to this all of the time. These interactions contribute to an overall negative climate for women on our campuses.

What role do women get to play in our organizations and movements? Are they encouraged to take leadership roles? Are they given the skills and support to do so? Or do we see women’s involvement in politics as simply meeting a quota to make our institutions look more representative?

Student reps need to look at how they may perpetuate sexism and misogyny and takes steps to address that. Annual anti-oppression training wouldn’t hurt.

Student associations need to support their campus women’s and gender resource centres (in principle and financially) and take strong stances on issues that are important to women, regardless of if they are controversial.

And when we do get involved, we deserve to be treated with respect. We are not irrational or bitchy when we express our opinions. Please don’t tell us to “lighten up”, “chill” or “let it go” when we vent our frustration with sexism or rape culture or anything else for that matter.

Making our student associations and campuses, safe spaces for women it is going to take more than a short-term, and short-sighted, campaign.

Rebecca Rose is a Dartmouth-based feminist and queer activist who spent 10 years as a student activist.

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