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Students Leading Change: A Visit to St. Francis Xavier University

A day trip to St. Francis Xavier University (StFX) in the small town of Antigonish, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Halifax in Nova Scotia. The day trip was organised by the wonderful leaders of Writing Activism  Emma Kuzmyk and Addy Strickland. I did the round trip with Emma Kuzmyk and Holly Foxall from Action Now Atlantic, and we were also joined by their Education Coordinator Sophie Landry.

The day looked like:

  1. An interview with Addy Strickland and Emma Kuzmyk, the co-founders of the StFX Peer Support Program.

  2. A meeting with Alyssa Spridgeon, the Visible@X Coordinator.

  3. A meeting with Heather Blackburn, the StFX Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Advocate.

  4. A meeting with Moraig Macgillivray and Kayleigh Trenholm, the coordinators of the Healthy Relationships For Youth Program at the Antigonish Women's Resource Centre.

  5. An interview with StFX Student Union representatives Naomi Stobart, Sophia Fabiano, Brendan Roberts, Ben Fairhurst and Molly Burke.

Location: St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Camille, Emma, Addy and Sophie standing outside at a wall that states: 'Smile, you're at X'.
Left to right: Camille Schloeffel, Emma Kuzmyk, Addy Strickland and Sophie Landry

The day started with me grabbing coffees for Holly Foxall and Emmy Kuzmyk and jumping in their car for the drive up to Antigonish from Halifax. Foxall and Kuzmyk are such kind and warm individuals who made me feel very welcome. We talked all things activism and sexual violence prevention while driving through the beautiful scenery of northern Nova Scotia. Upon our arrival at St. Francis Xavier University (StFX) they took me on a tour of campus, showing me all the residences, libraries and student hang outs.

Foxall and Kuzmyk lead Action Now Atlantic, a campaign to end sexual and gender-based violence at universities in Atlantic Canada through education, advocacy and community engagement.

An overview of St. Francis Xavier University

The wonderful Kuzmyk and Addy Strickland introduced me to so many people who have played significant roles in changing campus culture over the past couple of years. But first they gave me an overview of the history of activism at StFX and the Peer Support Program they established in 2018 when they were students.

StFX is a very small undergraduate university with around 5500 students. As it is a small community, everyone knows each other and administrators are much easier to access for students than at a larger university. Kuzmyk and Strickland spoke about how the administrators at StFX did not prevent activism and student-led initiatives from happening on campus. 

When Kuzmyk and Strickland were in their first year of university in 2017, activism, resources and advocacy on sexual violence looked very different. In fact, 2018 saw a major uptick in activism when a student victim-survivor left campus because the StFX administration allowed her alleged perpetrator to return without any warning. The university did not inform her, a current student at the time, that he was coming back. Subsequently she saw him on campus, reported it to student life who said there was nothing they could do, so she left. This situation led to an outpour of protests and community meetings across campus which eventually turned into a group called X-Resist. 

StFX Peer Support Program

The StFX Peer Support Program is a student-run resource navigation and support service that Kuzmyk and Strickland started when they were students in 2018. They also co-founded Writing Activism, a creative collaboration dedicated to progressing social change. Their main project, This Wasn’t on the Syllabus: Stories from the Front Lines of Campus Activism Against Sexualised Violence is both a record and an act of protest, progress and survival in Canada’s post-secondary education landscape. The collection, which will be published through Rising Action Publishing Collective in November 2024, features personal accounts which articulate not only the prevalence of sexualised violence on campus, but how these acts inspire students to activism. The book aims to amplify the voices of student activists, who are often among those most impacted by sexualised violence, and who are key participants in driving change.

Now, Strickland works on campus with the Centre for Employment Innovation, supporting career development research. Kuzmyk continues to work on campus sexual violence as Program Coordinator for Action Now Atlantic.

When incidents occurred on campus before 2018 (notably including a high-profile incident within the StFX athletics community), the communications from the university to its staff and students rarely included resources for support. This is exactly why Kuzmyk, Strickland and their peers decided that, since there weren't any resources on sexual violence available on campus, that they should create something themselves. This led to the creation of the Peer Support Program.

The Peer Support Program was established as a centre in the Student Union building on campus that students could drop in to receive support by a trained peer. Strickland and Kuzmyk started advocating for this centre to be established in 2018 but it didn't properly open until 2021. The process of its establishment was long and difficult because of potential liability requirements that needed to be negotiated with the university administration and student union regarding its peer support service. Eventually, it was approved as a permanent service of the Student Union following Kuzmyk's appointment as Vice President of the Union. Kuzmyk and Strickland, alongside friend and collaborator Riley Wolf, created a 100-page council package with policies, procedures, liability and safety requirements.

During the Program’s initial pilot of 3 months in 2020, more than 30 people used the service. This provided the evidence they needed that there was a clear need being met, so the Student Union agreed to keep it as an ongoing service. The way the Program operates is that volunteers are trained in responding to disclosures of sexual violence, mental health support and safety planning, who then staff a comfortable office where students can drop in anywhere from 12pm-5pm Monday to Friday. The service offers resource navigation and active listening, resources, information on seeking support, and helps students to make plans for what they need.

I asked Kuzmyk and Strickland about their motivations for advocating on this issue for their whole undergraduate degree and beyond. I was particularly interested in this as many advocates and activists on this issue in Australia often discontinue after a much shorter period of time.

The main reason for the longevity of their work was that their demands were being met by the university, which meant they were actually seeing progress. For example:

  • The university's sexualised violence policy was revised and reviewed.

  • The sexualised violence prevention and response coordinator position was established and a wonderful person from the Antigonish Women's Resource Centre entered that role.

  • Mandatory training for many staff and students, with a focus on athletes, was developed and delivered.

Since graduating, Strickland and Kuzmyk have been able to work at a pace that isn’t as urgent because they aren’t on campus anymore having to scramble to support their peers and advocate for the institution to do better. 

“Our activism was a sprint as students and now it’s about focusing on what is attainable, sustainable, intentional and ongoing.”

Addy Strickland

Now, they are doing activism differently with Writing Activism as they are less reactive than when they were students.

“We build supports that we wished we had when we were student activists.”

Emma Kuzmyk

Seven women standing smiling in an office.
Left to right: Emma Kuzmyk, Sophie Landry, Heather Blackburn, Camille Schloeffel, Addy Strickland, Alyssa Spridgeon and Holly Foxall

Visible @ X

Visible@X is the university's sexual violence prevention and response office on campus. During my visit, I was able to speak with Alyssa Spridgeon, the Visible@X Coordinator, and Heather Blackburn, the StFX Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Advocate.

In conversation with Alyssa Spridgeon, the Visible@X Coordinator

Spridgeon is an impressive advocate for the prevention of sexual violence, with a particular focus on athletic communities (as she is an athlete herself). Through her role as Visible@X Coordinator, Spidgeon has noticed how a lot of men on campus don't know much about the issue or don't think it happens that often. This is why Spridgeon's role is very outreach-focused and student-focused, so that she can reach as many people in the student community as possible.

Spridgeon is a coordinator of the bystander intervention program, Waves of Change: Creating Campus Responses to Sexual Violence. This program teaches participants to recognise a broad range of sexually violent scenarios that commonly occur on post-secondary campuses, and how to intervene as bystanders or as a community. The aim is for participants to feel equipped to interrupt or stop sexual violence, support survivors, hold those who cause harm accountable for their actions, and transform the culture that allows violence to happen.

Spridgeon wrote her psychology honours thesis on sexual violence and examining the effectiveness of the Waves of Change program a key finding being that women athletes had the perception they were more at risk of experiencing sexual violence than their non-athlete peers. Another theme that emerged in Spridgeon's thesis was how people wanted more education, university communication and accountability. Even though athletes are required to do a bystander intervention workshop every year, the coaches are not, which leads to a disconnect because coaches don't know how to respond to sexual violence or have ongoing conversations about it. As a result, Spridgeon started to develop training for coaches and faculty, and embedding resources on sexual violence in class curriculums and syllabuses to create more awareness.

In conversation with Heather Blackburn, the StFX Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Advocate

Heather Blackburn is the StFX Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Advocate in the Visible@X office. In this role, Blackburn provides support to students who have experienced sexual violence and oversees prevention activities on campus. Blackburn's position was established as a direct result of student activism. Blackburn and Spridgeon work together to coordinate the campus Waves of Change Bystander Intervention program and various awareness campaigns.

“You can create a lot of work intentionally when there is political will.”

Heather Blackburn

The Nova Scotian government has provided funding opportunities to community groups to develop and pilot innovative sexual violence prevention activities. While this funding is integral for grassroots groups to be able to do work in their own communities, Blackburn and I spoke about how these government funding programs are often so focused on specific harm types or contexts that they lack intersectional approaches.

Blackburn started this work in the not-for-profit sector and then applied for this position when it was created. This makes sense as I was pleasantly surprised at how much of a positive relationship she has with students, and particularly student activists. This is because it is such a stark difference to my own experience in Australia where there was never really a genuinely positive relationship between student activists and sexual violence specific staff. Blackburn sees her role as to build momentum to support students who have the passion, energy and ideas without exploiting them.

Blackburn spoke about how she recognises progress and celebrates it, but also doesn't let these small wins slow her down as an activist in this space.

“We can accept the wins but never stop, because the violence doesn’t.”

Heather Blackburn

I admire Blackburn's commitment to remaining focused and not being caught up on one moment for too long. She spoke about how we can all contribute greatly to preventing sexual violence across the community by focusing holistically on the drivers of violence and harmful behaviours. I completely agree that this approach is necessary and is something I acknowledge that I need to do more rather than mostly focusing on university sexual violence in such a targeted manner.

A meeting with the Antigonish Women's Resource Centre

It was great to head off campus to visit the Antigonish Women's Resource Centre and speak with the Coordinators of their Healthy Relationships For Youth (HRY) Program, Moraig Macgillivray and Kayleigh Trenholm. We mostly spoke about their HRY Program, which is focused on educating youth in high school about healthy relationships to prevent sexual violence and promote sexual wellbeing. Their program is youth facilitated, which means that they train year 11 and 12 students to facilitate sessions to year 9 students on topics such as healthy relationships, values, emotions, personal boundaries, consent, and gender norms and stereotypes. This comprehensive program runs over 12 sessions with the aim for participants to become better conflict negotiators, have increased empathy and respect for others. This program is being delivered across 10 schools in the region alongside their other programs, such as consent workshops for all year groups in high school.

The Antigonish Women's Resource Centre has also played an integral role in sexual violence prevention on campus at StFX specifically through providing support to the Waves of Change program. As a result, the Centre is contributing to creating a safer community by delivering prevention education across the whole community and in collaboration with young people.

Seven women standing smiling in an office with a brick wall behind them.
Left to right: Molly Burke, Naomi Stobart, Sophie Landry, Alyssa Spridgeon, Camille Schloeffel, Holly Foxall, Addy Strickland and Emma Kuzmyk

An interview with the StFX Student Union representatives

I was so grateful to be able to meet with five representatives on the 2022 Student Union at StFX. In attendance included:

  • Brendan Roberts, President and CEO

  • Naomi Stobart, VP Academic

  • Sophia Fabiano, VP Residence Affairs

  • Molly Burke, Chair of Council, and

  • Ben Fairhurst, VP External Affairs and Vice Chair of Students Nova Scotia.

One of the Student Union initiatives on sexual violence was their partnership with REES (Respect, Educate, Empower Survivors) to provide StFX students access to online reporting for campus sexual violence. To learn more about the REES platform, you can read my blog here.

I was particularly intrigued by the role of VP Residence Affairs and its importance in connecting the student union to residences. Many universities in Australia do not have this role in their student union, despite having many more students living on campus. A similar role to this at each Australian university would help establish a clear link between the student union and residential halls. While the StFX Student Union doesn't have a role specific to sexual violence (as currently this falls under Stobart's portfolio), they all identified that this is necessary to alleviate the workload of Stobart and also to have a more dedicated person focused on the issue each year. How I see this working in practice in Australia is for Student Unions to establish a role on their committee focused on sexual violence, with a student sexual violence committee supporting them to advocate for student safety and support on campus.

The students I met with spoke about how gender-based violence and physical safety has been a massive concern since returning to campus after COVID-19. For example, there has been an increase in male high school students harassing women around campus at night. This demonstrates the need for early prevention education most of which was cancelled during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving many students further behind in healthy relationships education than they would have been. They also spoke about how they are witnessing an increase in misogyny and hate in the behaviours of young men with the impacts of online influencers like Andrew Tate.

Despite evidence showing the negatives of such programs, the residential life area of the university has banned substance use/alcohol from residences in the form of 'dry weeks', which has led to students being pushed out of residences to drink in more unsafe places. This penalisation of substances has been highly criticised by the Student Union as another move by the university to ignore student voices and ultimately student safety. Although the university may dub 'dry weeks' as a harm minimisation approach, in reality it is all about avoiding liability. For example, groups of up to 150 residents leave their residences into town to drink as alcohol is banned from campus, which means that if anything happens then the university has reduced liability if an incident occurs.

“The onus is often put on student leaders to 'fix' the problem of sexual violence.”

Molly Burke

They spoke about how there is zero accountability by institutions to be responsible for addressing campus sexual violence and keeping students safe. While the Student Union has achieved so much progress for students around sexual violence on campus, they did speak about how the university administration continues to work in a compartmentalised way with a lack of collaborative efforts and linkages between departments on campus. While the student representatives have found formalising connections with some areas of the university difficult, this is mostly due to the high turnover of student representatives.

Another challenge that the students spoke about was that there are increasing levels of apathy from the student body, demonstrated by less people contesting student union roles and less engagement in student matters overall.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to speak with me during my visit. It was certainly jam-packed day which gave me a full picture of sexual violence activism, prevention and support at StFX!

In solidarity,

Camille Schloeffel

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