Graphics by Katarina Brkic, Screenshots C/O Jess and Jane
CW: Discussions of sexual violence
For Jess*, a veteran Maroons representative, Welcome Week used to be a positive experience, with the Maroons team offering a sense of community. But following a series of sexual assaults by fellow representatives and a varied response, Jess and others in her position continue to feel unsupported by their student union.
The Initial Assaults
Back in April 2017, Jess was hired as a general volunteer for the McMaster Students Union Maroons team. The Maroons are a unique service at Mac; its main role is to serve as an official voice for the MSU, making its volunteers ambassadors for the union.
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Jess was first assaulted by a fellow representative in September 2017 during Rep Night, a thank-you party offered to all reps following Welcome Week, held in TwelvEighty.
At the time, Jess did not bring up the assault with anyone else, worried how accusing her well-respected perpetrator would come across to the rest of the team.
“I was just worried that my position on the team would be jeopardized because I was so new to it,” she said.
In addition to the assault during Rep Night, Jess experienced similar assaults by other representatives at team-building events, particularly at the Maroons’ annual Blue Mountain trip, which occurs in January.
Jess ended up joining the Maroons again, citing that she did ultimately enjoy working with the team.
As Jess spent more time with the Maroons, other representatives began disclosing similar experiences to her, with fellow representatives sharing a similar story.
“… It kind of made me realize that this problem was more ingrained in the Maroons than I thought,” she said.
During the August training for Welcome Week 2018, Jess noted that multiple representatives were clearly distressed as others unknowingly praised their perpetrators.
After witnessing that distress and noting how many others had already disclosed to her, Jess decided to come forward and take action, in hopes that no other Maroons would have to experience this again.
In September 2018, Jess and Jane*, a fellow Maroons representative, began a series of meetings with Kristina Epifano, the MSU vice president (Administration) to address the pervasive rape culture that exists within the Maroons.
Both Jess and Jane wanted to do a full service audit of the Maroons, with a keen focus on the sexual assaults going on within the team; the pair were only aware of the survivors who disclosed to them, but theorized that others may have had similar experiences as well.
Since the MSU is technically a separate organization from McMaster University, the sexual violence response protocol cannot address issues of harassment within the student union and does not have the authority to remove perpetrators from their positions.
It was of utmost importance to the pair that the service review be completed before January, since the bulk of disclosed assaults occurred during the annual Blue Mountain trip.
Trips like the Blue Mountain trip are unsanctioned, unofficial trips not technically under the purview of the MSU. According to Epifano, the MSU does not pay for trips such as Blue Mountain directly. With that said, Maroons expenses are initially done through their budget, with the expectation that individual Maroons reimburse the cost.
Following their meetings with Epifano, the pair created a feedback form as a part of the regularly scheduled service audit. Their anonymous survey, meant to be sent out to all Maroons, focused on gathering concrete data concerning the number of sexual assaults occurring within the Maroons team.
By late October, the pair had created a final draft of the survey. The survey would have asked Maroon representatives if they felt safe at Maroons events, whether they had experienced gender-based violence and how those incidents were handled.
Epifano decided to go another route, focusing the resultant service survey on general comfort levels as opposed focusing on sexual assault.
“It shouldn’t be in the overarching review of what the service is operationally and structurally due to the sensitivities and the fact that this is a large priority for me,” said Epifano. “I wanted to take on the role of being able to evaluate this and putting in the reporting tools necessary in order to make sure that Maroons did feel comfortable disclosing and also to make them aware that there is this sense of uncomfort within the team.”
Instead, Epifano implemented a feedback form in November, sent out every two weeks. According to Epifano, no Maroons reported any assaults following this year’s Blue Mountain trip.
The Maroons have yet to receive the official service review survey, outside of the biweekly form.
The MSU’s policy in cases of sexual violence is housed under their Workplace Anti-Violence, Harassment and Sexual Harassment policy. For those who file a complaint through that policy, one would be expected to write a formal complaint, to which the accused party may make a statement.
An investigation would commence, and the MSU would be obligated to inform both parties of the result within 10 business days of reaching a verdict, deciding whether harassment had occurred. Punishment may come in the form of counselling, a formal warning or dismissal.
The policy itself does not have a specific section on sexual violence, but does have sections pertaining to workplace violence, domestic violence and sexual and/or gender-based harassment.
Epifano states that her current policy is to remove any perpetrators from positions they hold within the student union upon receiving disclosures of sexual violence.
For Jess and Jane, however, this was not a satisfactory response. They questioned Epifano’s qualifications to address such an endemic issue, believing her to be cutting out survivors.
Both women were concerned that Epifano had taken over the changes to any sexual assault policies, arguing that someone fresh out of their undergraduate would not have the appropriate knowledge to create such policies.
The two were also concerned about how Epifano cut out survivors, since she stopped consulting the pair in November, despite being the ones who brought up the concerns.
“Like not to shit on young people or student employees, but she has no qualifications,” said Jess.
The pair were also concerned with the lack of vulnerable sector checks within the student union; no one on the Maroons team, in addition to any part-time managers or the board of directors, are expected to complete a VS check.
VS checks are a form of police check reserved for those working with vulnerable persons. Jane reasoned that if Maroons are expected to receive disclosures and work with those under 18 years, it would make sense they receive a VS check before repping.
“It’s not fair that people are going on these trips like Blue Mountain, participating in Welcome Week, going to these social events under these sort of impression that this is a very safe, very protective group of people when in reality it’s not,” said Jess.
Jane in particular raised concerns over the funding of the Maroons, believing the service receives too much money given the rate of assaults occurring. According to the MSU proposed budget, the Maroons were slated to receive $20,110. The funding mainly goes toward paying a part-time manager to coordinate the service and pay for events the Maroons put on throughout the year.
To contrast, the MSU Pride Community Centre was slated to receive $16,055.
“You’re paying for other students to be assaulted,” said Jane.
Epifano is currently in the process of updating the harassment policies in place, consulting university officials to make it more in line with McMaster’s own sexual response protocol, while also consulting other postsecondary institutions for guidance.
As the next cohort of Maroons are hired, it is unclear whether past perpetrators will be disciplined; to Jess’s knowledge, her perpetrators were not. And while Epifano and future boards of directors may do the work, Jess and Jane remain wary of what progress will be made without the direct consultation of survivors.
*Names were changed to preserve identities