Today, to honour the 32nd anniversary of the École Polytechnique shooting in Montreal, students on campuses across the country took part in a walkout to advocate against the culture of gender-based violence at Canadian universities. The nation-wide action was co-organized by the Safe Campus Coalition, the same group of students who planned the walkout at Western University back in September after more than 20 students were drugged at Medway-Sydenham Hall residence during orientation week, according to multiple on-the-scene accounts.
Back on Sept. 11, at least one student reported being restrained and assaulted inside the building, while multiple students were seen stumbling around or passed out outside. (Their Soph leaders, second-year students responsible for welcoming new students, were unable to accompany them inside because of COVID safety protocols.) Stories about what was happening first circulated on TikTok and then other social media channels.
The same week, police responded to three separate reports of sexual assault on campus, making it an especially violent O-Week, though not totally unexpected at Western, where the school’s party reputation has long served as a cover for rape culture. “Is this what ‘party’ reputation means? Like, if you’re going to come to Western, you’re probably going to get roofied?” says Hayden Van Neck, a founding member of the Western Walkout committee which has since rebranded as the Safe Campus Coalition.
Here, Van Neck, a 20-year-old third year psychology and sexuality student, and some of her fellow walkout organizers share the story of how a group chat became a 10,000-strong walkout and a nation-wide movement to address gender-based violence on campus.
Hayden Van Neck: I had been out on the Saturday night that everything happened, so on Sunday morning I was lying in bed scrolling through TikTok. That’s where I first saw the Tok about what had happened at Med-Syd. I started scrolling through the comments and saw 30 girls got roofied and someone died. [Editor’s note: A first-year student named Gabriel Neil was killed in a separate assault off-campus the same weekend.] I was shocked and so upset. I’m in third year now, so a bit removed from all of the craziness of O-Week, but I have friends in first year. Earlier in the week, I had been sharing advice: Be careful at frat parties, try to stay in groups. These are just the kind of things you learn as a woman on campus here. You know that sexual assault is an issue and you do your best to protect people. But this story about 20 people in the same building being drugged just felt like oh my god, okay, enough!
Paula Gomez Ocampo, 20, third year global studies student: Hayden and I met through mutual friends a few days before everything happened. Like so many of us who present as women, I have experienced gender-based violence, so hearing about everything that happened was hard. I think that’s how a lot of people felt, like what happened at Med-Syd brought a lot of emotion and trauma to the surface. I was texting with Hayden as well as some of my friends from Huron [a Western affiliate school] and we all wanted to do something, so I connected Hayden with Emily who is at Huron.
Emily Poirier, 21, third year global health student, Huron: It’s funny because coming back to school this fall I thought COVID was going to be the thing that was so scary. You know sexual assault is an issue on campus. You know the statistics — more than 70% of students report being harassed, more than 30% are sexually assaulted— but it’s just kind of how things are. Not that it should be like that, but there is this sense of like, oh, well that’s Western.
Van Neck: Before I came here I would tell people where I was going and they’d be like, "oh, you have to be careful. It’s not just Western, but definitely the school has a 'reputation.'" I remember I was getting my eyebrows done and the woman doing them told me, never to go to a frat party — those guys are not your friends. I had a friend who was drugged in first year. And then, after what happened at Med-Syd it just felt like, is this what “party” reputation means? Like, if you’re going to come to Western, you’re probably going to get roofied? Maybe that's a bit extreme — and of course I would never put the onus on women to prepare for these kinds of experiences — but it just felt like how is this being allowed to happen?
A spokesperson for Western University told Refinery29 in an email: “Sexual violence will never be tolerated on our campus and combatting gender-based and sexual violence requires immediate and collective action from across our campus community. The safety of our campus community remains our top priority. We know that changing culture is a complex undertaking, but is one that the University has acknowledged needs to be prioritized. This is not just a problem on university campuses – it affects our whole society."
Gomez Ocampo: I am from Mexico, so I had no idea about the school’s reputation before I got here. I chose Western because of my program and my scholarship. I remember being at some of the events during my O-Week in 2019 and just being really shocked by all of the very intoxicated women and a lot of creepy guys. Like, is this normal?
Poirier: People talk about how we need to keep students safe, but this idea of the party school is so ingrained and there is still a lot of pride taken in that fact. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with partying, and obviously students should be able to get drunk without worrying that they’re going to be attacked, but there is a point where it gets really problematic. You have these Instagram accounts that glorify that aspect of student life like being a passed-out woman at a bar is supposed to be cool or funny. And then we’re supposed to be surprised by what happened at Med-Syd?
You have these Instagram accounts that glorify that aspect of student life — like being a passed-out woman at a bar is supposed to be cool or funny. And then we’re supposed to be surprised by what happened at Med-Syd?
Emily Poirier, 21, third year global health student, Huron
Van Neck: I was so upset. I couldn’t concentrate on schoolwork. I went on Facebook to see if anyone else had started something — I didn’t want to step on toes if there was already a plan in the works. I thought a walkout was probably the best way to bring people together and make a statement. I ended up connecting with a group of graduate students who had something similar in mind, so we just came together.
The next day I started an Instagram account which was called @SGBVWalkout* at the time (*sexual gender-based violence). I wanted to get as many followers as possible so I went on the account of the UWC president and followed all of the people that followed him. After that I took a break — I went to see Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which was great, by the way. By the time I turned my phone back on the account had blown up. The first post had something like 500 likes.
Poirier: There were about 20 of us on the committee. I think we did one big Zoom, but mostly it was all messaging. Because of COVID we had all gotten so used to planning things virtually, so that was helpful.
Van Neck: We were able to split up the work, like okay, this person will handle tech, this person will get ahold of ANOVA, which is a local women’s shelter that provided on-site crisis counsellors the day of the walkout. We worked closely with Teigan Elliott, who is on the Red Zone Research Team.
Teigen Elliott, 21, third year psychology student: The Red Zone is a term to describe the first ten weeks of university which is when a majority of sexual assaults on campus takes place. My team and I have been researching these realities and sharing them with students in an effort to bring about change and keep students safe. Western has the highest rates of sexual violence of all Ontario universities. Perpetrators feel they can get away with committing sexual violence in part because our culture allows them to, so the goal of the walkouts and the Red Zone research is to change the dialogue surrounding violence, consent, and rape culture.
Effie Sapuridis, 32, PhD student in media studies: I’m 32, so it’s been a minute since I was an undergrad. Danica, who is also a PhD student, and I wanted to get involved. We thought being a bit older we might be able to bring some professional experience and connections to the group, but honestly, by the time we joined they had already thought of most of those details. They had brought on a sign language interpreter and crisis counsellors. The Society of Graduate Students offered to do a water station — we knew it was going to be hot and we wanted to have a presence at the event to show our support, so that was my domain.
Danica Facca, 28, PhD student in media studies: I’m in my tenth year at Western, so I’ve been exposed to the culture here over a long period. I went to frat parties, I lived that undergrad life back when it was totally normal to see signs like “Queen’s girls spit, Western girls swallow” or whatever. It’s not that I didn’t know on many levels that it was wrong, but it used to be that this was just kind of the way it was. Or maybe I didn’t have the courage to speak out. To see these young women so confident and so equipped with the language to talk about these issues, that was really cool. Like, nothing is going to get fixed overnight, but it felt like a real opportunity to make change.
Sapuridis: As the story of what happened at Med-Syd spread on Twitter you saw a lot of alumni tweeting about their own experiences at Western. As someone who has experienced sexual harassment I have wanted to be involved in this sort of thing for a long time. Being around these young women was like, okay, look at what they are capable of. What’s my excuse?
On September 13, Western president Alan Shepard responded with a message to the campus community stating that “Sexual violence will never be tolerated on our campus” and explaining that the school was working closely with the London Police to investigate the allegations about what happened at Med-Syd as well as separate allegations of sexual assault. No charges have been filed yet.
Sapuridis: We weren’t particularly impressed with the statement. It just felt like your typical talk-no-action response. It highlighted how much the walkout was necessary.
Van Neck: We posted our calls to action on the Instagram account on the next day, which included mandatory sexual violence education for all incoming students and faculty and transparency around the way these assaults are reported. We really wanted to emphasize the importance of taking a proactive approach to addressing this issue.
For so long, the default way of dealing with sexual assault on campus has been reactive. Like, how do we handle these issues in the aftermath rather than how can we prevent them from happening in the first place. By the middle of the week, word was definitely getting around. I remember hearing people talking about the walkout in the line to get into class, and thinking, okay, word is getting out.
Gomez Ocampo: The day before the walkout, we hosted a poster-making session at UC Hill, which is the main outdoor gathering spot on campus. We brought a bunch of markers and poster board. The mood was pretty intense. I think because we were nervous about how everything was going to go and also because the pain of everything that had happened was really raw for so many people. At one point I started talking with a first year who lived at Med-Syd where everything happened. She was making a sign that said “My body, my choice.”
Facca: We were all working on the posters when we saw this older security guy approaching. We were a bit worried like, oh wait, is he coming over to tell us the march is in violation of some safety code. We had been conflicted about having any sort of security presence at the march. Just because when you look at the history between survivor communities and law enforcement, there is a lot of distrust there for good reason, just like with Pride or BLM demonstrations.
The man who came over ended up being the head of campus security and actually the former police chief of London, so he has seen some stuff. He was very warm and supportive. He said that they wanted to be able to provide protection in the event of a counter protest and just in terms of making sure that the route was safe.
Van Neck: He told us they were expecting up to 1,000 people, which felt like a very optimistic estimate at the time. Only about 15 students showed up at the poster-making session, at least when I was there, so that wasn’t exactly the most encouraging sign.
Poirier: I think the moment we realized that this was maybe going to be bigger than we expected was when we heard that the president of the university wanted to see us in his office right away. We still hadn’t heard anything from the administration in terms of an official response, so we had no idea what we were in for.
Sapuridis: President Shepard was very supportive. He told us how much he admired the work we were doing, how he wanted to help and how much he was looking forward to attending the walkout, which is when things got a bit awkward. We had decided that we weren’t inviting the administration to participate in the march. No offence, but the administration’s failure to provide a safe campus was what the walkout was in protest of, so that was our position going in. I said as much and we had a long conversation where President Shepard explained that he felt like the response had to come from everyone.
He made a good case and eventually we agreed, so he did attend the march and he also pushed the timing of a university Senate meeting so that everyone could attend the walkout. Later that same day, just before 8 p.m. an email went out to all students laying out Western’s response, this time with specific actions. I think it’s fair to say the pressure from the walkout was instrumental in making that happen.
Poirier: We arrived at U-Hill early on Friday, the day of the walkout. Still wondering what to expect. At one point a few of us from the organizing committee saw another group of students approaching. I assumed they were coming for the walkout, but I wasn’t sure. Like, maybe they just really like the colour teal.
Van Neck: We asked everyone to wear teal because it’s the colour of sexual assault awareness. If you don’t have any teal, you can wear blue or turquoise or whatever. Most people wore the colour. Some groups even came in T-shirts they had made for the day. Before the march, everyone met at U-Hill location where we had organized some speakers including remarks from survivors.
Elliott: I am a survivor and the whole day was incredibly cathartic. Probably the biggest moment for me was when I called out President Shepard asking him if he knew what it was like to walk by the site of the most traumatic event of his life every day just to get to class. I broke down in that moment, but the crowd cheered and I was able to get through it.
Gomez Ocampo: Another thing we did was an installation called “Love Letter to Survivors” where we set up a clothesline and provided paper and pens and people could write letters of support and pin them up. It’s based on something that we do in Mexico where you survivors write what happened to them, which is very powerful, but can also be a bit of a trauma dump, so we decided to do love letters instead. It was really beautiful.
Van Neck: There were probably a couple of thousand people at U-Hill which was already way more than we had expected. And then when we started the march it was like, oh wow, the cavalry is coming in!
Facca: I was perched up on the hill talking with security on my walkie talkie, so I was probably the first person to see the full extent of the turnout. You know those scenes in like Game of Thrones where you have the original army and that seems like a lot of people, but then you look over the hill and you see thousands more people. It was just like that. Like a tidal wave of blue coming across campus. I was in shock, but we had to react quickly. We had to rejig the route otherwise there would have been a massive collision.
For so long the default way of dealing with sexual assault on campus has been reactive. Like, how do we handle these issues in the aftermath rather than how can we prevent them from happening in the first place.
Hayden Van NEck, Protest Organizer
Van Neck: 10,000 people! It was overwhelming. Five days ago we were a group chat. And now...
Sapuridis: And we didn’t have a single injury. I think there was one person who passed out because it was so hot. We ran out of water pretty early on. I think we thought we’d be covered with 500 bottles, which — obviously not. And then one person got a bee sting. So all in all, pretty successful. The other thing that was so cool was to see so many people showing solidarity on Twitter. Jagmeet Singh and Andrea Horwath tweeted support. Justin Trudeau mentioned the walkout during a campaign stop he was making that day.
Van Neck: And from our march came other solidarity marches at Queen’s and Waterloo. Gender-based violence on campus is a serious problem at Western, but it’s not just Western. That’s why we have rebranded as the Safe Campus Coalition, which is a national, student-run non-profit. Of course, there is so much to be done. The walkout on December 6 was a way to keep momentum going and we have a lot of initiatives planned for the future. On that day though we were all so excited and proud of what we had accomplished. And also exhausted. After the walkout was over some friends and I went to McDonald’s and ordered chicken McNuggets. And then I slept for five days.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please visit Shelter Space.