Nova Scotia

Dalhousie University's sex-assault helpline altered by funding dispute

The sexual-assault helpline at Dalhousie is being reduced from 24 hours a day to 12 hours a day and will only operate for the first two months of the school year following a funding dispute between the student union and administration.

Student union wanted funding increase, administration wants to maintain existing support level

A funding dispute between administration at Dalhousie University and the student union means a helpline for sexual violence will operate at a reduced capacity this year. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

A helpline for sexual violence at Dalhousie University will operate at a reduced capacity this year after the student union and administration couldn't agree on a funding arrangement.

The union says the university isn't providing enough support, while the university says it offered an amount of money that made sense based on last year's helpline costs.

Rhiannon Makohoniuk, vice-president internal for the Dalhousie Student Union, said the projected cost to operate the line 24 hours a day from September until April and have two full-time people working on administration and outreach was $60,000.

Last year it cost about $45,000 to run the phone line.

Questioning Dal's level of commitment

"They offered us an insufficient amount of funding to run the service, which is the same as not supporting it because it meant it couldn't run to the same capacity," said Makohoniuk.

The student union will now fund the line itself and operate it from noon until midnight each day from Sept. 3 until Nov. 3, the time period when Makohoniuk says most sexual assaults happen on campus.

"We knew that we needed to support survivors on our campus and over the next two months that is one of the ways that it will look like."

Dal willing to pay half

Makohoniuk said last year's pilot project was successful, with more than 100 people trained in active listening skills and how to respond to sexualized violence. The helpline also increased awareness of the issue on campus, she said. The student union wouldn't say how many people called the phone line.

Arig al Shaibah, Dalhousie's vice-provost student affairs, said the school agreed to the same funding arrangement as last year: half the cost of operation. Last year the school put up $30,000 and the phone line ended up costing $45,000 to operate. So this year the school offered half of $45,000, or $22,500.

Al Shaibah said the school reviewed a report on the service, which included qualitative and quantitative results, and based on that it made sense to keep the arrangement the same this year as the service gathered more experience.

'We needed to learn more'

She said it would be difficult to rationalize such a large increase based on the report from the first year.

"We needed to learn more about whether more should be invested into the program," she said.

"The first year isn't always sort of indicative of how a program, how impactful it might be."

A second request was presented by the union for less money, but was still more than Dalhousie was offering. That offer remains on the table, should the union change its mind, said al Shaibah.

Strained relations

Dalhousie's administrators and students representatives have clashed in the last few years over sexualized violence on campus. There were multiple protests on campus in response to the school's handling of a group of dentistry students involved in a misogynistic Facebook group.

The creation of al Shaibah's role is perhaps a recognition on the university's part that it needed to do more and she said Dalhousie is taking a comprehensive look at how it supports prevention, support and response for sexualized violence.

Including students in policy development

That means broad-based education, support for victims and consistent policies. Dalhousie needs to do everything it can to build good relationships with students and make them feel included in the process of developing supports, said al Shaibah.

"We will continue to work with them in the area of sexual violence and include the student voice."

Makohoniuk said it's important for the two sides to work together on this issue and for the school to make students feel they are included throughout the process, as opposed to being an afterthought. But she questioned the administration's level of commitment on that effort.