Ward 27 Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam speaks to the assembled crowd at Take Back the Block. PHOTO: MARISSA DEDERER

Campus sex assaults spark protest

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By Luc Rinaldi

To the hundreds of Ryerson students who call Pitman Hall home, the gathering at the base of their residence on Saturday night likely didn’t seem all that remarkable. There were no signwielding protestors, impassioned chants or strident marches. Instead, there was, in the words of organizer Kasia Mychajlowycz, “just a bunch of dudes and chicks hanging out and listening to some music.” Dudes and chicks with a serious purpose, that is.

The group of about 50, which included Ward 27 Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, came together for Take Back The Block, a community event set on reclaiming public spaces from sexual violence. The “block party,” along with a similar gathering in Kensington Market, was a more jovial extension of Take Back The Night, an internationally established rally and march against sexual violence.

“We’re just here to take up some space and be a community,” Mychajlowycz, a recent Ryerson Master of Journalism graduate, told the group in a casual welcome speech in the Pitman Hall quad.

The event stemmed from a mutual frustration between Mychajlowycz and her friends, including co-organizer Stephanie Guthrie, over the recent string of sexual assaults on and around the Ryerson campus. In the past three weeks, four have been reported, the latest in a pattern of sexual violence that plagued the Christie Pits and Kensington Market neighbourhoods over the summer.

“We wanted to counter the feeling of powerlessness that we all had because of these sexual assaults,” said Mychajlowycz. “And so the best way we knew of doing that, and the most inclusive and accessible way for everyone, was to just invite people to take up space.” It wasn’t a lofty goal. The small crowd, sporting nametags and handing out flyers with tips on creating safe environments, occupied space well enough.

So did the bar-bound first-years who took those flyers. Nearly within earshot of the event, a line extended out of the Ram in the Rye, north on Church Street, eventually curving onto Gould. Hundreds had shown up for a traffic light party, where revellers dressed according to relationship status (green translated to single, red was taken, and yellow meant things were complicated).

Only two weeks earlier, that venue witnessed the first of Ryerson’s recent sexual assaults. The incident involved two students on the Ram patio and was the only one to occur at night. The other three, which took place on Sept. 4, 5 and 8, each occurred in the morning or midafternoon. In all four cases, the assaulted women reported unwelcome grabbing.

“I think we’ve seen with these sexual assaults, you can think that– because you’re at Ryerson–you’re invulnerable, but that’s really not the case,” said Mychajlowycz.

The logic of Take Back The Block, rooted in Torontonian writer-activist Jane Jacobs’ urban planning theories, is that people are more likely to notice, report and intervene when things are amiss–like in the case of a sexual assault–if they know their neighbours, whether a few doors down the block or across the dormitory hall.

“Things are a lot more communal in a residence,” said Mychajlowycz. “But at the same time, there seems to be the same kind of culture that allows sexual violence to stay not talked about, which also perpetuates it.”

Councillor Wong-Tam also noted that stigma. In a short speech between musical sets from local acts Patti Cake and Maria Bonita & The Band, she said that, with only 10 per cent of sexual assaults being reported, our awareness of the issue is still incomplete.

“If we are to eradicate violence against women, each and every single one of us has a responsibility,” she said. “We have to speak up… Great neighbourhoods in Toronto are comprised of great streets, and great streets will only be great if they’re safe and accommodating for everyone.”

On the night of Take Back the Block, another female student reported being sexually assaulted at the Ram in the Rye. Toronto Police Services were called to the scene and took a report. No arrest was made.

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