By: Aleena Esmail and Andy Crosby 

The University of Ottawa’s reputation has been tarnished this month by accusations of sexual violence.

The university men’s hockey team was suspended in early March pending an investigation into a sexual assault in Thunder Bay. At the same time, four male elected student representatives were forced to resign from their positions after a Facebook conversation, in which they and another male made sexually threatening comments in regards to student leader Anne-Marie Roy, went public.

In a statement, the undergraduate students’ association said the incidents were not isolated cases, but “public examples of the ways in which rape culture can manifest itself within our community.” It described rape culture as “the social attitude that allows for rape to be normalized, trivialized, even celebrated, and these attitudes often go unchallenged, both on and off campus.”

The undergraduate and graduate students’ associations have created a Taskforce Against Rape Culture. A meeting will be held on March 21 to discuss and develop a plan to fight rape culture at the university.

This initiative was in part a response to the creation of a Task Force on Respect and Equality by Allan Rock, the University of Ottawa’s president. Rock stated at a March 6 press conference that “all forms of sexualized violence are unacceptable and profoundly repugnant,” yet asserted that “our campus is safe.”

At a news conference on March 11 Seamus Wolfe, external commissioner with the graduate students’ association explained the deeper work that many students would like to see undertaken.

“What we would like to do is not to see some sort of PR stunt by the university but rather a widespread participatory and deep discussion that happens on this campus,” he said. “To make sure that everybody – professors, staff, students – have a chance to direct this task force, to engage in this task force, and to really make sure we collectively come up with a set of recommendations and tools to combat rape culture on our campus.”

Organizations off campus have also contributed to the discussion.

Ottawa’s Sexual Assault Network, the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women, and Hollaback! Ottawa issued an open letter addressed to the five men involved in the Roy incident.

“You have hurt women in Ottawa, because every single one of us who read your conversation felt the fear we often feel as women in this culture,” the letter read. “You’ve reminded us that when we are in positions of power, we are even more at risk, because misogyny ensures we will always be sex objects, and never taken quite as seriously as men.”

The Carleton University Academic Staff Association also released a statement of support for Roy. “Resorting to sexist or racist remarks about one’s opponent is unacceptable under any circumstances, both in public debate and in private conversation. Offensive, insulting and misogynistic personal remarks cannot be tolerated on a university campus.”

The issue of sexual violence at Canadian universities has received mainstream media attention over the past year due to sensational examples of rape culture on campuses.

The Carleton University Students’ Association, under the leadership of “A Better Carleton,” was immersed in scandal in April 2013 for organizing a concert for Rick Ross, a rapper who promotes date rape in his lyrics. The association was forced to cancel the concert and refund tickets after public outcry.

In September, two other universities came under scrutiny for pro-rape chants during frosh week activities. At Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and at  the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, frosh leaders bellowed variations of a chant promoting non-consensual underage sex.

This article first appeared in The Leveller Vol. 6, No. 6 (Mar/Apr 2014).