A frosh chant that endorsed rape and had become part of an "oral tradition" for first-year students has convinced administrators at the University of British Columbia to pursue cultural change, not only on their campus but across Canada.
At a news conference on Wednesday, University of British Columbia president Stephen Toope said the rape chant – and new allegations that some frosh also engaged in a chant insulting aboriginal people – has stirred soul searching at the university. And he promised significant changes will follow.
"I know that I speak for all of my colleagues here at the university and the vast majority of the university community when I say that I am extremely sorry that our first-year students at the Sauder School [of Business] were subjected to this completely inappropriate frosh activity," he said of the chant sung by students. "I am not sorry, however, that this has come to light. I think that we are given an opportunity now to seize this moment to strike at the casual indifference to sexual violence and intolerance which still marks pockets in our society."
The reports of the anti-aboriginal chant are under investigation, said Dr. Toope, who this week is speaking before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission now holding events in Vancouver.
"We don't know a lot about it yet. We're trying to investigate it as quickly as we can. We don't know whether this was endemic, as it appears the rape chant was, [or ] whether it was a one-off," he said.
The rape chant occurred on the Labour Day weekend as first-year UBC students celebrated frosh week. The incident surfaced just a few days after controversy erupted at St. Mary's University in Halifax where students had been using an almost identical chant.
At St. Mary's, the president of the students' association resigned and the administration struck a special council to study the issue of sexual harassment and violence.
UBC has gone farther than that. Some 80 students who participated in frosh events have been ordered to do community work, and the university has promised curriculum changes to put a greater focus on respect and inclusiveness training.
The Commerce Undergraduate Society, which sponsored the frosh activities, will make a $250,000 donation to fund counselling services; CUS leaders, four of whom have resigned, will undergo sensitivity training about sexual violence, and the association will make a public apology.
Dr. Toope, who was joined at the news conference by Louise Cowin, vice- president students, and Robert Helsley, dean of the Sauder School of Business, said UBC has also established a task force to determine what's needed in the long term "to support the kind of transformative, robust change that we do believe is necessary on university campuses, including our own."
He said the UBC investigation revealed the rape chant had become an "oral tradition" at the Sauder School of Business, and that some students had heard it or similar chants at other institutions.
Dr. Toope, who serves as chair of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, said he'll raise the issue there because it needs a national response.
"Given that we've now had incidents at St. Mary's and here, and from what we've heard there's a chance it may actually have been used at other universities and high schools in Canada, I do think there's an opportunity [for a national action program]," he said.
"I want to be very clear about one thing," Dr. Toope added. "The measures that we're taking today will not of course reverse the strong cultural forces and trends at work in our wider society. But we do believe that we can … start making a difference for UBC and our society, from right here."
Dr. Toope said that, although he was dismayed by the incident, he hasn't lost faith in students.
"I really don't believe that what happened represents the ethos of our student body," he said. "We're in a society where casual acceptance of sexualization and acceptance of violence is very much a part of the popular culture. Students are part of that and we have to address it. But in their hearts I actually don't believe this is what most of our students think or believe."