NS government refuses to hear students on campus sexual violence


Aidan McNally dared to criticize NS cabinet minister

THEY’RE YOUNG. THEY’RE WOMEN. THEY NEED TO BE PUT IN THEIR PLACE. That’s probably not the message the Stephen McNeil government in Nova Scotia had in mind. But, that’s how it came out when it recently refused to meet with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS-NS).

The CFS has been campaigning hard for stronger sexual violence legislation in Nova Scotia. The Liberals recently voted against such legislation for the fourth time since 2015.

Aidan McNally, CFS-NS Chairperson, wrote an opinion piece in a Halifax newspaper complaining that the Liberals had again “stonewalled legislation that would support survivors of sexualized violence on post-secondary campuses.” The government decided the uppity students needed to be put in their place:

  • a scheduled meeting with the minister of Labour and Advanced Education, Labi Kousoulis, was cancelled
  • a scheduled meeting with the Liberal caucus was cancelled
  • all contact between the federation and the department was banned

In addition, the minister ruled that he would not consider re-establishing contacts with the federation until they had met with his deputy minister to discuss the lack of deference the minister detected in the open letter.

Students want more than lip service

The minister’s high-handed behaviour toward the students is not unusual. Rather, it illustrates the root of the problem: namely, the persistent refusal of the government to move beyond lip service on the issue of sexualized violence on campus—despite the deep concerns of students, backed up by their years of diligent work on the issue.

The CFS letter to the minister following his refusal to meet reminds him: “We have used every channel available to us to advocate for survivors of sexualized violence, including presentations to your department, policy submissions, petitions, direct action, and media.

Liberals are always among the first to praise and even use student work and research on this issue. Yet, they will not move to back up their fine words with the kind of legislation the students say they need to feel safer on campus. Namely, laws that would require all universities to:

  • have robust stand-alone sexual violence policies, and
  • to keep accurate public records of all incidents of sexualized violence on campus.

Four different bills to do that have been placed before the NS legislature since 2015. The Liberals have voted each one down every time.

It is behaviour that Aidan McNally sharply criticized in her opinion peace. She wrote: “To use feminist rhetoric taken from grassroots organizations to acknowledge rape culture on campus, and then block legislation that would support survivors is liberal hypocrisy at its finest.”

McNally also took aim at Minister of Labour and Advanced Education Labi Kousoulis, for his decision to “prioritize this government’s relationship with university presidents over ensuring that our post-secondary institutions adequately address sexualized violence.”

Trust administrators to do the right thing

The province has directed universities to develop sexual assault policies through non-binding memos of understanding with school presidents. The MOUs also don’t require any mandatory training for faculty and administration, nor the collection and reporting of sexual assaults numbers—both considered benchmark policies in other jurisdictions.

McNally points out: “The reality is, universities have an abysmal track record in responding to sexualized violence on campus. Instead of giving university presidents the benefit of the doubt, we need government to give students tools to hold administrations accountable in the form of legislation.”

Trusting university administrators is an approach that falls far short of the mark. So short, students at Dalhousie University began paying a levy to fund the student-run Sexual Assault and Harassment Phone Line because president Richard Florizone and the Dalhousie administration refused to do so.

Still not welcome

The CFS-NS was left on the outside looking in again on April 17. They were told they were not welcome to attend a meeting of the Sexual Violence Prevention Committee.

“We really are the experts on sexual violence on campus,” said CFS-NS chairperson Aidan McNally. “And to be prevented from representing our members around that table and bringing those issues to their attention is incredibly concerning.”

McNally thought her organization had already cleared the air after meeting with deputy minister Duff Montgomerie.

“Now we’ve been told that we must meet with the minister to further discuss the op-ed,” McNally said. The necessity and usefulness of such a meeting is not clear to the CFS.

The purpose, according to Kousoulis, is to discuss what they disagree on.

Kousoulis said he would meet the group and “address the misinformation that’s come out in every one of their press releases” and “tell them the disappointment I’ve had.”

McNally and Kousoulis have a meeting scheduled for early May.

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