Students’ Union president speaks with The Xaverian Weekly
Evan Davison-Kotler and Bowen Assman interviewed Rebecca Mesay on October 11, 2018.
BA: You came out with your statement yesterday?
BA: What do you hope to accomplish by putting these new policy measures in place?
RM: Well, the statement that the Students’ Union released… So, policy when we talk about in the context of Students’ Union is like a bylaw or something that speaks to the governing body of the Students Union in of itself. So, the recommendation that we offered yesterday were things that we have been talking about actually for a long time because sexual violence prevention was already on the list of priorities for the Students’ Union. The one’s that we stipulated yesterday were based on the response that the university administration had to this case in particular; we sat down and tried to identify where in the gaps in the process would have existed, and therefore made our recommendation in a way to try and mitigate those gaps moving forward.
BA: Why did you decide to put out your statement yesterday, in comparison to earlier on in the week, as I was hearing from students that they were waiting for a response from Rebecca. I understand it takes time to garner input from people, but why was the decision made to put it out yesterday?
RM: Well, the statement from the Students’ Union isn’t done unilaterally, so Tuesday was the first day that all of us were back in office, so you could say in terms of timeline, Monday was when the decision was made that a statement would need to be released, the statement was then written in the evening, and then we need approval from the executive team. We have to show the student representative council, because obviously they are the ones who are the voice of the students, on the table and elected to do that job. Once the student representative council has received the statement, it is set to the marketing team and released immediately after the fact. Part of it is the process in and of itself, but we needed to be together in order to make a statement like that happen. In order for a statement to be representative of the students, the councillors need some time to oversee and review whatever is being put out on behalf of the Students’ Union as well.
EDK: Do you know if the councillors have done any outreach with students?
RM: I think the councillors, there role in moments like this is to act in the best interests of students. At that point in time, the article was released just a few days prior, so they had an opportunity to sit with it before a statement was released in that time. In moments like this, definitely the time is an important aspect, but we have to be able to ensure that we have checked off all the boxes and that a statement like that also is indicative of a broader sentiment. We don’t want to put out a statement without any action items affiliated and what those items were and how they are going to be processed and how the union is going to make sure those things happen also all have to be considered when we are making a public statement like that, right? Because we want to make sure that we are able to follow up and that there are measures in place before it goes public, if that makes sense?
EDK: Have you been following the X-Resistance page, or the X-Resist movement?
RM: In fact, I was at their meeting last night.
EDK: How did you find that?
RM: The meeting was very interesting. I think that it was indicative of a broader sentiment among the student body, the discussion was really important; I mean I would have attended as a student at large regardless, because in moments like this there needs to be an ability to support. It also provided me with an opportunity to see that perspective. There was a lot of survivors in that audience, there was a lot of experts, in terms of sexualized violence prevention, this type of thing, who all offered their perspectives during the course of that meeting.
was So, I think it was very important for myself, and my Vice President Academic, we were also there - sitting, listening and trying to get a broader understanding of what the students would like to see to come, the steps they would like to see moving forward.
EDK: There's talk of a planned call to action or protest. Will you, the union, be assisting them at all with some of their protest movements?
RM: I think right now, we are waiting to hear back from the group in terms of what they would like to see from the union specifically. We have already published our list of recommendations and there were a lot of students in that room that would like to be a part of that broader involvement. It will really depend on what the group would like to see from the union moving forward.
EDK: So, if they reach out?
RM: We will definitely have a conversation with them, of course. I mean, there is a reason we were in that room, right?
BA: So, you had a lot of recommendations in your statement, one was “Formally request the university and Senate review the community code of conduct.” How much do you feel a review will impact the code of conduct? Do you think the union can do something else, besides a simple, "We want to ask you to review this policy?"
RM: Well, this is the thing. With any public statement, the language of it has to be very concise. The spirit of that recommendation is to ask for a review, a formal review process. The objective of the formal review process would be to ensure consistency among all of the policies and procedures of the university. If you are examining the community code as it stands, it needs to be consistent with the recommendations of the sexualized violence policy. Our policy is a very important tool and we need to be able to use it effectively in instances such as these.
EDK: The second article by Global indicated that the Nova Scotian Education Minister was shocked at the response by the university. Have you read this article?
RM: There was an article wherein minister Kousoulis, who is the Labor and Advanced Education Minister, was contacted by the CBC and he offered his remarks, I did see that article.
EDK: Within that article, he said he was surprised that the individual was allowed to come back to university, and the universities response was essentially that we cannot limit an individual’s access to education. A lawyer’s response to that was that they could suspend the individual until the criminal due process was complete. Are you in favor of a policy that would mirror these sentiments, where if there is a criminal investigation that’s been opened, the individual who’s been accused is suspended from education until the criminal process is complete?
RM: So, the remarks were made by Elaine Craige. She’s a Dalhousie law professor. I think this would have to be a part of the broader revision of the sexualized violence policy. So, it would have to be through that due procedure that a mechanism like that would take place. Obviously, we are in favor of any actions that would maintain the safety and security of students, but more importantly, be survivor centered and maintain the safety of the individual that harmed.
BA: Would you outright recommend that idea?
RM: I do not have a background in Women and Gender Studies, so I would recommend whatever is survivor centric and whatever is upholding the best interests of students. Whatever it is the harmed party wants in that point in time, because at the very forefront, we want our policy to reflect the needs and the input from the survivor, based on their case in particular.
EDK: Tiffany Maclellan, your VP Academic
RM: That’s correct. (laughs)
EDK: She referenced Ryerson’s policies as something that should be held on a pedestal, and they were some of the best in the country. Have you read over Ryerson’s sexual violence policies?
RM: Um, I have not read over Ryerson’s sexual violence policy. I believe what Tiffany was referring to was that Ryerson has a sexual assault support centre, where students have access to resources and are given the support they need once an assault has taken place, from my understanding, and it was just a brief discussion this morning with Johanna. But my understanding is that that group also helps with educative and preventative measures on Ryerson campus. But to speak more to that I would have to do more research.
EDK: Do you think the University has done enough with regards to the individual who was assaulted, who has now had to leave the university. Have they, in your mind, made proper amends with the individual?
RM: I do not know if that is for me to say, that would be from the perspective of the survivor to say whether or not they feel that amends have been made and whether they feel that justice has taken place.
BA: You did post a wonderful piece on the Xaverian last year, about your incident of sexual harassment…
RM: It wasn’t an instance of sexual harassment, it was an instance of attempted physical assault.
BA: Sorry, that’s my bad, but with that coming out, and people publicly knowing your story, do you still believe that it is not worth, you can’t speak for if the accused has, that the University has done enough?
RM: So, you spoke to my own instance, it was an experience that I went through personally, and I can speak to the experience that I had going through that process, but I do feel that it would be remiss of me to speak on behalf of the survivor, as to what her experience with the university administration was. I do not believe that it is my place to say, because I do not know, I do not know who the individual is, and I have never spoken to her. As relating to my experience, I think the sentiments that I expressed were very clear within my article.
BA: And going back to the requesting of the review of the community code of conduct and the appeals process, is any, is the WMGS involved in that process at all?
RM: So, our objective as outlined in our recommendations was that we would create a working group, and we would definitely would want the experts, meaning professors of the WMGS department to be a part of that working group that looks at the internal policy review.
BA: So that working group would be the one reviewing the community code of conduct and the appeals process? Or would that be someone else?
RM: So, we are talking about two recommendations so first we are gong to put forward a formal request, but the objective of the working group is to review the sexualized violence policy and other policies that are brought to their attention. For example, what would be ideal in this situation is to create a working group with the experts on this campus, as you mentioned the women’s and gender studies department, the students union and the university administration to review the community code of conduct, as well as to understand and review the appeals process to ensure that it is consistent with a survivor centric approach. Does that make sense?
Because, the fact of the matter is, these are university policies, so as a Students’ Union, we can advocate on behalf of students to revise the policies…
BA: But you do not have the power to do it as an official decision?
BA: That is important to know I think, OK.
RM: And we can make proposals, and proposals can move through senate, but it would have to be done in cohesion with the university administration, to work on policies. And certainly, these policies, as do all of the university polices have a direct impact of students, which is why we are calling for the creation of a working group. It’s going to be a number of different stakeholders on campus.
EDK: In your opinion, was the university negligent in the way they dealt with this?
RM: Again, I am not certain that it is my place to comment on that, you know, in keeping with cohesion of the statement that we released, we are looking at a survivor centric approach, so the comments I make have to be in considering what the harmed party would want at this point in time. So again, it would be to the harmed party to speak as to whether or not they felt they were dealt with fairly throughout the entirety of the process.
BA: So then, you are referring to the harmed party, so what you are saying is, if an instance occurs again, it would be specific to what the harmed party wants every time?
RM: That is correct, it has to be a survivor centric approach, so a survivor centric approach means that the survivor is pushing, I shouldn’t say pushing, but the survivor has a voice at every single step of the process. It will be up to them whether they decide to report to the university administration. It will be up to them whether they decide to report to the police, and in what capacity they decide to do so. And then after the fact, it is there opportunity to decide whether or not they would like to lay charges and continue in that fashion, and it should work that way for every single case, that it is the voice of the survivor that is at the forefront of the decision making, or, I should rephrase that better. There should be mechanisms in place wherein the survivor has a chance to voice their perspective and their desires at every single point in the process.
EDK: Can you speak to any discreet changes you would like to see within the sexual assault policy as it stands right now, because the university published its sexual assault policy as something that they deem was survivor centric, and a much better policy that they had previously. The response from the students and the Union’s release that was just published makes clear that people would like the university to review the policy. Can you point to anything discreet within the policy that you would like to see changed?
RM: I do not think that I can speak to it yet, our working group is set to be established, well, let me correct myself, we already have an internal working group, myself, the vice president academic whose purview this is, and the vice president external. once we have the scope of professionals, once we have the university administration, once we have students at large of our committee, I think I can speak to that more broadly.