For the nearly 400 Saint Mary's University students participating in a chant about rape during their orientation week, it was more about the rhyme than the words, according to the student union president.
Jared Perry told reporters Thursday that he knows now repeating the chant – celebrating non-consensual sex with underage girls – was wrong.
This is his second year as student president. He said he has been repeating the chant since he first came to the Halifax university in 2009 – and never thought anything about it. He has never received any complaints about it.
But that and his attitude changed quickly after a video of the Labour Day event surfaced this week and sparked a huge controversy on the campus. In less than 24 hours, student leaders and university administrators apologized and investigations were launched, including one by the student leaders who participated in the event.
Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter called the incident "disturbing" but hopes the university will be measured in its response to the students. Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay, who is a Nova Scotia MP, called the chant "offensive and dangerous."
"As somebody who has sisters, nieces who are currently in university in Atlantic Canada, it's deeply troubling," he said.
Mr. Perry now characterizes being involved in this incident as "the biggest mistake" of his life.
Although there have been some calls for him to resign, he said he will not.
"It's a mistake. It's definitely the biggest mistake I have made throughout my university career and probably in my life. … It's the biggest one I have definitely ever made and I feel terrible about it," he said at a news conference on the campus Thursday.
The 80 facilitators – volunteer returning students – who led the first-year students in the cheer, were also there. They refused to speak to the press. One of them was crying.
Mr. Perry says that these student leaders are ashamed now – but he could offer no real explanation as to why no one pointed out the inappropriateness of the chant, which took place just days after the student leaders had met with police and university officials to talk about sexism and sexual assault during the frosh week.
The chant was just one of several. The others, Mr. Perry said, were mostly focused on Saint Mary's rivalry with nearby Dalhousie University.
The questionable cheer is based on the word YOUNG – "Y is for your sister … U is for underage, N is for no consent … Saint Mary's boys we like them young."
"The lyrics are disgusting, they are terrible," said Mr. Perry, who said the cheer was repeated in the "heat of the moment" at an event called "Turf Burn."
"Like I said, it's been going on for years," he said about the chant that was written down and passed along to him through a facilitator. He wouldn't say who that person is. He didn't know how many years the chant has been used.
In a statement, Dr. Colin Dodds, Saint Mary's president, said he and his colleagues "were shocked by this incident and are deeply sorry that our students, and now the community at large, were exposed to disturbing sexually charged material." He said university administrators failed in their responsibility to "oversee and guide student leaders." He is calling the students to his office so that they can "account for their actions."
The student leaders will be taking sensitivity training this month and are attending a conference at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish on sexual assault and consent.
"We didn't see the message," Mr. Perry said. "As odd as it sounds we didn't see the message … we now realize that it's extremely serious and we don't want it to happen any more."
With reports from Kim Mackrael and The Canadian Press