A sandstone coloured building with an entrance flanked by two large walls. A blue and white sign over the glass doors says (in French) Welcome to Sainte-Anne.
Université Sainte-Anne's campus in Church Point on Aug. 28, 2023. Credit: Yvette d'Entremont

Two of the students behind a campaign calling on Université Sainte-Anne’s administration to address campus rape culture said they’re raising awareness to protect others and facilitate change.

“When I reported my rape to the school, it became clear to me rather quickly that no one who was involved in the process was trauma-informed or knew how to speak to a victim of sexual assault in a way that wouldn’t leave them feeling even worse,” Charlotte (a pseudonym) said in an interview with the Halifax Examiner earlier this week.

“That’s one of the biggest parts about rape culture on campus and how they deal with cases,” Charlotte said. “My mental health suffered immensely as a result of what happened to me. And because of all the victim shaming I was subjected to after it happened, I didn’t want to live anymore.”

Charlotte is one of several behind a group called SA Change Now. Members are current and former Sainte-Anne students who said they’ve been victimized by the rape culture at the university’s Church Point campus and/or have friends and know others who were victimized.

They launched a website Friday evening that will include firsthand, anonymous accounts of harassment, sexual assault, and rape.

‘Tired, fed up, and outraged’

On the site, they wrote:

We have become so tired of, fed up with, and outraged by the many experiences of harassment, sexual assault, and rape at Université Sainte-Anne, and/or experiencing such harassment, sexual assault, and rape ourselves…only for the university to so often not take such experiences and cases seriously, and to not treat victims with compassion, care, and concern. Students at Sainte-Anne have, for years, raised complaints and questions about sexual harassment and sexual assault to little avail. 

The site also has a petition that supporters are encouraged to sign. It outlines five reforms survivors want the university to implement. Those include installation of an office (person) dedicated to sexual assault complaints and ensuring qualified, trauma-informed professionals are part of the sexual assault hearing process. 

From the petition:

For years now, there has been a persistent rape culture at Université Sainte-Anne, our small university in southwest Nova Scotia. This rape culture means that sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape on campus have been minimized, tolerated, and accepted. Over the years, students victimized by this rape culture, repeatedly ignored and unheard, have struggled to finish their studies, transferred schools, or dropped out. 

‘Festering’ rape culture

The launch of the website and reasons behind it was shared by Sainte-Anne English professor Brian Gibson in an opinion piece published here. Gibson outlined details of what he called a festering rape culture at the small university in Digby County. 

Over a five-year period (2015 to 2019), Gibson said at least 53 sexual assaults and rapes had been committed against students and/or on the campus. He also wrote that at least 17 of those had been committed by a single perpetrator — a student security officer — in 2018 and 2019. 

A former staff member who no longer works at the university had compiled the list of 53 accounts after conversations with students who’d faced sexual violence.

There’s no paper trail, and the Examiner has no way of confirming this number. 

Responding to a query about whether the university’s administration knew about the serial rapist, Université Sainte-Anne spokesperson Rachelle LeBlanc said they’ve had two separate reported sexual assault cases involving different individuals in the last few years. 

In her email, LeBlanc said both cases were taken very seriously. 

“Actions were taken internally following the steps outlined in our sexual violence policy, and both were reported to the RCMP,” LeBlanc wrote.

LeBlanc also said the university has continuous discussions regarding sexual violence and student and staff safety on their campus. She said this was of utmost importance and something they take very seriously. 

“Having said that, sexual violence cases are often complex matters that are sensitive and confidential,” LeBlanc wrote. “All concerns raised by students and employees have been dealt with responsibly and with respect for all.”

‘Stories swept under the rug’

But the students involved in the campaign, along with Gibson and at least one other professor, believe that not enough is being done by the administration. 

“As students talked to me about the rape culture at their university, it was clear that they wanted to speak up and speak out for those coming to Sainte-Anne,” Gibson wrote in his opinion piece.

“Future students need to know, to gain a better sense of how bad the rape culture is at the small university they’ll be going to.”

Charlotte said Gibson’s words and concerns echo her own.

“It just can’t keep going like this. It’s been pushed aside and stories have been swept under the rug for years and years. The truth needs to just be put out there so that they do something,” Charlotte said. 

“I feel like people need to know how bad it is. This campaign is asking them to do what they should’ve done a long time ago, and do what has been overlooked for so long.”

‘Left me there like trash’

A current student at the university, Charlotte said her own nightmare began following an off-campus party. She was drunk, he was “stone cold sober.”

“I was giving every sign that I did not want to. I was like, ‘I’m on the end of my period. Not right now.’ And then he told me to get out of the car and take out my tampon. And then I was just panicked. We were in the middle of nowhere. It’s down a long road…It’s still on campus, but it was raining and it was pitch black and it was maybe 1am and there was no one around,” Charlotte said.

“So it was just me. And I was alone and I was drunk and he wouldn’t stop pushing. I felt like I had no choice. And then he finished inside of me without asking. And then dropped me off at my res (residence) and just kind of left me there like trash on the side of the road. Just dropped me off and took off.”

‘Would’ve been better to just stay silent’

Charlotte spent that night and the next day sobbing, unable to leave her bed. She eventually told a resident assistant what had happened. Because the young man who assaulted her was popular, she said she became a target.

Ostracized by most of her peers in the wake of rumours and after enduring what Charlotte described as a barrage of non-stop “slut shaming” and victim blaming, she was eventually forced to move off campus.

A few months later, Charlotte was hospitalized after trying to take her own life.

“The biggest issue was reporting it (sexual assault). A lot of the time I feel like it would have been better to just stay silent and not say anything because of how badly I was treated,” she said.

The process took more than a year. Charlotte had reported her sexual assault to police, which temporarily halted the university’s proceedings in accordance with its policy.

Although the young man was charged, the case was eventually dropped because there wasn’t enough evidence. 

Charlotte said while the university disagrees, she believes academic accommodations that should’ve been granted under its sexual violence policy weren’t. She said she was forced to retake and pay (a second time) for some of the courses she’d been close to completing. 

Despite knowing how much she was struggling with her mental health, Charlotte said some of her professors refused leniency with assignment deadlines and even threatened late penalties.

‘Way too retraumatizing’

Others, she said, were compassionate. In particular, Charlotte singled out Brian Gibson and a female professor. 

“(They) offered to be there to talk about it. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t even know if I would be here. I’ve told them that and they are just both so humble about it,” she said. 

“But I don’t know if they realize how much they have done for me and how much of a difference they make. And I don’t know if the university realizes how lucky they are to have them there. They have saved me and so many other students, I’m sure, because they are always there and offer to be there.”

Charlotte also takes issue with the way the hearing committees are set up. She said hers included two students and the staff member she must deal with for academic accommodations. 

“The one and only supervisor at the school I have to work with to get accommodations was on my hearing process for sexual assault. It’s a conflict. It was like they were just picking and choosing random people at the university,” she said. 

“And it’s so small that they should have outside people or people dedicated to just that. It shouldn’t be everyone from every department being told what happened to me.”

With the pressure of school work and struggles with her mental health, the stress of a looming university hearing was too much. In the end, Charlotte couldn’t go through with it.

“It was going to be way too re-traumatizing,” she said. “He was able to close it, so nothing was done.”

Need for trauma-informed approach

Among the many frustrating aspects of what she endured, she said she’s “blown away” that the university doesn’t have proper, trauma-informed support for students. She said it’s also critical the university hire someone dedicated to dealing with sexual assault complaints, and that qualified trauma-informed professionals are included in the sexual assault hearing process.

“Somehow the victim who came forward was the one who did something wrong. That’s what it all boils down to…The truth of the matter is that his actions are responsible for what happens to his reputation, not my recounting them,” Charlotte said. 

“I shouldn’t have to suffer in silence. And I now feel a responsibility to bring awareness to the kinds of experiences that young women have here when they come forward. Enough is enough, and it needs to change.”

Conflict of interest

Lauren (also a pseudonym), another student who recently left Sainte-Anne due to how her sexual assault case was handled, is also working on the SA Change Now campaign. 

In an interview, Lauren said she was raped in a dorm room on campus by a student whose harassing advances she’d been turning down for weeks. What happened to her is burned into her brain.  

“I felt really hopeless. Even though I was crying and telling him to get off of me, he wasn’t listening to a thing I was saying,” Lauren said. “Also, he didn’t use a condom. And then I had to see him every day. The campus is tiny as hell.”

Several months later, Lauren found herself talking to someone about what had happened. They encouraged her to report it to the university, and she did. 

When it came time for the hearing, Lauren said she was upset to learn that one of her assailant’s close friends was on the committee. Lauren said she demanded he be removed because it was a conflict of interest. 

“Eventually they changed it. But they didn’t want to at first. (They said) ‘It’s his job. He needs to be professional,’” she said. “I’m like ‘I don’t care. That’s not how it works.’ How do you know if he’s actually being professional? How do you know?”

Separated by a sheet

During the hearing, Lauren was dismayed to discover both parties would be in the same room. They asked if she wanted a sheet placed in between them, and she agreed. 

In the early stages of the three-hour long hearing, when asked if he’d requested verbal consent from her, Lauren said her rapist replied that he hadn’t.

“He just admitted that he didn’t. So I’m like, ‘Fantastic,’” Lauren said.

Lauren was “livid” that one of his witnesses was a female student who told the committee she’d been working on a big project with him around the same time. The young woman told the committee they’d spent a lot of time together and she’d never felt uncomfortable around him. The witness also questioned why it took Lauren so long to report it.

In the end, the committee ruled against Lauren. She appealed the decision.

“(I’m thinking) do you remember the first 10 minutes where he said he didn’t ask for consent? You guys post so many fucking posters everywhere about if you don’t ask, it’s no. And that if you’re drunk, it’s no,” Lauren said.

“So what you’re telling me right now is the complete fucking opposite. And they’re like, ‘If you have a problem with our decision, you can go to the appeals committee and take it up with them.’”

‘Everyone’s going to know what’s happening’

The appeals committee did, however, rule in Lauren’s favour and granted her request that he live off campus. But her relief was short-lived. A week before exams, she received an email informing her that due to a procedural issue, everything was on hold pending another meeting. 

“(Then) a day before, I get an email from the (university) again with a letter from (him) saying that he wasn’t going to go to the meeting because it wasn’t fair because it was the same people from the first committee that voted against him,” Lauren said. “So he asked for another committee. They accepted.”

That new committee, Lauren said, involved “other random people” from the small campus. 

“There’s not that many staff. None of them are trauma-informed,” Lauren said. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God. Everyone’s going to know what’s happening with my life. Jeezus.”

Frustrated, Lauren decided to report her rape to police, temporarily halting the university proceedings as per its policy.

But when the police file was closed, Lauren decided against pursuing the matter through the university. She couldn’t stay at Sainte-Anne any longer, and is now continuing her postsecondary studies in another province.

Forcing change

Lauren said like others, she was ostracized on campus after reporting what had happened to her. 

“I was so stressed and (had) anxiety, throwing up, which had never happened to me, and I did not know how to handle it,” Lauren said. “I didn’t want to step out of my room because I knew all the eyes were on me.”

Lauren’s hope is that the campaign forces the university’s administration to make changes, especially when it comes to ensuring that future committees have at least one member who’s trauma-informed. 

“I’ve heard so many people in the same boat that wouldn’t say a thing because they know they (administration) won’t do anything about it,” she said.

“So you just live with it.”

Another professor speaks out

A stone landmark Université Sainte-Anne sign sits on green grass with blue sky above and university buildings behind it.
Université Sainte-Anne’s campus in Church Point on Aug. 28, 2023. Credit: Yvette d'Entremont

A Université Sainte-Anne professor who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of reprisals told the Halifax Examiner that she realized there was a problem after hearing directly from students and seeing firsthand how badly complaints about sexual violence were being handled.

“A lot of us knew that there was a problem. We’ve been talking about it with the union and everything,” the prof said in an on-campus interview, adding that a union subcommittee was set up to tackle the issue about two years ago.

“The process is so deeply flawed that I think it prevents a lot of people from coming forward,” she said.

Over the years many students have sat in her office and in her classrooms discussing their concerns about sexual violence on campus.

“I firmly believe that a person is innocent until proven guilty, but I think at one point, we also have a duty to protect the victims and protect future victims,” she said.

Knowing students whose lives have been impacted by sexual violence, the professor said she became very familiar with the university’s policy. While it contains “a lot of what you’d want to see,” she said it’s unfortunately being handled by people who have no training.

“I think people that are in place right now are doing the very best that they can. But I don’t think they’re equipped to do it. And I think it’s also very unfair to put people in that position,” the prof said. 

“Speaking from my own experience, I find myself doing stuff that is not what I studied. And I do it because I care deeply about our students. But I’m also really afraid that I’m doing the wrong thing.”

Communication concerns

Like the students who spoke with the Halifax Examiner, the professor said the make-up of the people sitting on the committee is “problematic.” She said they’re involved with student life in ways that often lead to potential conflicts of interest. 

“The trauma-informed piece is very lacking…The policy has things about ‘you are believed’ and stuff like that. But then when you get into it, it’s like,” her voice trailed off.

Recalling one student who went through the process alone and with no support, she said something as basic as ensuring survivors are immediately put in contact with a counsellor would be helpful.

“We don’t have a counsellor on site. The person that we do have is fantastic…but she’s not on site. And she came after the fact, and the student had to contact her,” she said. “It wasn’t a thing of ‘We’ll put you in contact with this person,’ and ‘We think you should talk to this person even if you don’t want to go through with it later on.’”

‘Dark and terrifying’ at night

The professor also believes there’s not enough emphasis on overall student safety on campus. There is no designated security office, and no emergency telephones.

In addition, at night the campus is plunged into “pitch blackness.” Because some of the buildings are also accessible and open to the public, she said you never know who might be wandering around. 

The prof said she figured out years ago how to hold her keys when going to the parking lot after sunset because it is “really, really, really dark and terrifying.”

“None of the parking lots have any lights. I think one year, it might have been a student initiative, but they had party lights out between the residences,” she said. “It was really quite nice. Finally there was lighting. But not official lighting, right? They were Christmas lights or party lights.”

One of the five reforms laid out in the SA Change Now website is a call for more outside lighting on campus. She described this as a “very basic” request that students and employees have been pushing for over the years. 

“At one point a student told us when they raised the issue and said we need more lights on campus, they told her ‘Well, this is one of the best stargazing sites,’” the prof recalled. 

“And I’m just like, ‘Great, you get to stargaze while being raped.’ And there’s this weird beacon light that’s on top of this whole three-building complex, but it’s actually shooting upwards. It’s not illuminating the grounds.”

‘Should be easier to do better’

Sainte-Anne, she said, does many things well. Its primary selling features include small class sizes and a more personal experience and family-like atmosphere. She believes because it’s so small (fewer than 500 students), it should be “easier to do better.”

She hopes the new campaign and petition encourages people to put pressure on the university’s administration and demand accountability and more transparency.

“We need to know what they’re actually doing to address this, because so far it’s been, ‘Yes, it’s very serious. It’s a delicate problem. Every single university is dealing with it,’” she said. 

“Yes, every single university is dealing with it. But we’re dealing with it really badly.”

Far removed from other universities

Getting outside help, having professionals in place, and adopting a trauma-informed approach are just a few of the things she believes need to happen. 

The prof said when she looks at what other smaller universities are doing, she can’t help but wonder if Sainte-Anne is consulting with them and looking for solutions. She doesn’t feel that’s happening, and doesn’t understand why their proceedings “seem to be so far removed” from what other universities are doing. 

“Other universities, when the cases are really complex, they have trained staff and that’s their area of expertise…But sometimes these cases are so complex and so delicate that they rely on outside help,” she said. “And that has never happened here. I think the only outside help that they rely on is from their lawyers.”

The SA Change Now website does highlight what other small universities are doing to prevent, address, and confront sexual violence on campus.

Examples cited include the University of King’s College, which has a sexual health and safety officer, and Acadia University, which has a sexualized violence response and education coordinator.

Aware of and looking at what other universities are doing

University spokesperson Rachelle LeBlanc said Sainte-Anne is aware of – and looking at – what other small universities are doing to address issues of sexual violence. 

“As members of the Council of Nova Scotia University Presidents (CONSUP), we are aware of what other universities and the province are doing. We participate in discussions and share best practices, one of which is offering the Bystander Program,” LeBlanc wrote in an email. 

“We believe in a collaborative approach to tackling this issue and are open to learning from the experiences of other institutions to enhance our own strategies and initiatives.”

LeBlanc also said students have access to counselling services onsite and online.

During orientation week, she said various sessions are offered to students and staff to inform them of available resources and on the process to disclose or report sexual violence. As an example, she referred to the Bystander Program that they translated into French and offer to students and student leaders. 

“Our sexual violence prevention policy is currently being revised. A new page on the Université Sainte-Anne website is under construction to replace this one, which guides students to available services,” LeBlanc wrote. 

LeBlanc also said a sexual violence prevention committee representing the university community is in place.

‘Don’t want that to be our reputation’

Because she loves working at Sainte-Anne, the professor said she’s sad that the issue of sexual violence is now going to be tied to the university. 

“But I know that it’s tied to it for so many of our students. I don’t want that to be our reputation, but at the same time, something needs to be done,” she said.

“I’m really, really sad that we now have personal stories enough to fill a whole month. I see it as a real failure on our part. But I’m glad those stories are getting out there (through the website), because something needs to get done.”

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

Leave a comment

Only subscribers to the Halifax Examiner may comment on articles. We moderate all comments. Be respectful; whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims. Please read our Commenting Policy.