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Halifax university changes frosh week, a year after incident shone spotlight

HALIFAX — Keeping frosh week activities fun and engaging for students while at the same time respectful and inclusive is a pressing challenge facing Canadian universities, says a leading expert who helped a university last year in the aftermath of a chant that glorified non-consensual sex with underage girls.

Prof. Wayne MacKay led a three-month study into campus-based sexual violence at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax after a video surfaced showing student leaders singing a chant about underage, non-consensual sex to about 400 new students at an event during orientation week.

“(Orientation) still has to be fun, but in a way that’s respectful, that’s safe and that’s appropriate,” said MacKay, a law professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax who has also served as executive director of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission and headed a provincial task force on bullying and cyberbullying.

“This is an issue on every campus and I think people are looking at the issue of frosh week and orientation in a different way, trying to make it more substantive.”

In response to a series of recommendations outlined in MacKay’s report, Saint Mary’s announced Wednesday that it is naming the events surrounding the arrival of first-year students as Welcome Week.

It’s part of a redesigned orientation program that will see student leaders undergo a two-day training session and sign a charter outlining what is expected of them. The school is also developing online educational modules that deal with issues of consent, sexual assault, and alcohol and drug use.

“We’re not taking any fun out,” said Steve Smith, the school’s dean of science and member of a team responsible for implementing the report’s recommendations.

“There’s lots of fun activities that are going on any day of the week, so we’re not worried about that at all.”

The incident at Saint Mary’s, as well as a frosh chant sung during an orientation event at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, highlighted a broad societal challenge that needs to be addressed, MacKay’s report says.

But MacKay said Wednesday the incidents last year have brought attention to these issues at universities across Canada.

“At least we recognize the problem and are doing some things to make it better,” MacKay said, adding that it was still too early to tell whether the action being taken would have an impact on campus culture.

Beyond recent changes introduced by university administrations, some student groups have already taken steps to provide alternative options to traditional alcohol-centred orientation events.

Since 2010, the McGill Outdoors Club at Montreal’s McGill University has offered Outdoor Frosh, which this year includes backcountry hiking, whitewater kayaking and cycling expeditions.

“The focus is on exploring the outdoors, getting to know areas around Montreal, getting to know each other (and) getting active — sort of a healthy start to university,” said Julia Hamill, the club’s recreation executive.

While none of the events are explicitly alcohol free for participants who are of legal drinking age, Hamill said the orientation is for people who aren’t really interested in alcohol-focused frosh events.

“I think people are becoming aware that there are other alternatives,” said Hamill. “We’ve got an unbelievable turnout this year.”

The growth in interest might be the result of increased awareness about the potential negative effects of traditional frosh weeks, said Hamill, particularly after what happened last year in Halifax and Vancouver.

Changing campus frosh culture needs to come from university administration but also from students arriving with the expectation of a party-focused orientation experience, she added.

“Everybody has to buy in and everybody has a role to play,” said MacKay. “It won’t happen tomorrow. But there are important changes being made.”

 
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