By: ALISON SANDSTROM
Carleton’s new Sexual Assault Support Centre invited community members to an open house on September 17, marking a hopeful change in the university’s focus on this important issue.
Plans for the centre were announced in January 2012. It’s opening was originally scheduled for September 2012, but after multiple delays the centre opened its doors in late April 2013, as most of the school community left for the summer.
“We wanted to do something now that everyone’s back on campus to sort of officially open it, mark the opening and invite the community to come and see it,” said Carrolyn Johnston, equity advisor and co-coordinator of Sexual Assault Services for Carleton University.
The day began with around 30 people filling the centre’s multi-purpose room to watch an aboriginal smudging ceremony performed by a male and a female elder. Smudging involves the burning of herbs to purify and bless a space. The elders spoke about the importance of working together to end sexual violence and support survivors.
The Coalition for a Carleton Sexual Assault Support Centre has been campaigning for a student-run, administration-funded centre since 2007. A response to a high-profile attack on a female student that year.
Julie Lalonde, co-founder of the coalition, says she is cautiously optimistic about the new centre. She says there’s no budget for the centre, meaning they won’t be able to hire more staff.
“For us, the opening of the centre, on the surface, is great news. It’s an indication that our seven years of lobbying on campus has made a difference. It’s just unfortunate that it’s still run within the administration … there’s no recognition that this is part of a years long struggle,” said Lalonde.
Carleton’s administration has been reluctant to fund programs addressing sexual violence in the past, said Lalonde, and she wonders “has Carleton’s viewpoint on sexual assault changed at all? We don’t know, and we’re concerned about that”.
Despite their differences, the centre and the coalition are committed to working together. The coalition operates a sexual assault support line and refers callers to the centre when they are looking for in-person support. It also plans on hosting events in the centre’s space.
Abir Gebara is one of eight peer-educator volunteers working at the centre who are trained to do information tables and attend events. “We want to promote the centre in a way that we can tell people that if you need help or anything, this is here for you, this is a service for Carleton students,” said Gebara.
The Sexual Assault Support Centre is located in 503 Robertson Hall. The facilities include a multi-purpose room, a quiet room with a small library, and a space for counselling. The centre will have a busy fall with workshops and presentations set to take place, as well as the training of peer support volunteers.
“Unfortunately, there’s so much shame and self-blame associated with sexual assault,” said Johnston. “We need people to know that they don’t need to sit with this alone, there are resources that are there to support them.”