Thunder Bay

Lakehead University Student Union focused on supporting students, survivors following sexual assault charges

The impact of sexual assault charges laid against a Lakehead University professor are still reverberating through the student community two weeks after they were announced by Thunder Bay police.

'Small community' of students 'shocked' by charges against professor on March 10

After a Lakehead University professor was charged with two counts of sexual assault involving a student on March 10, the university's student union has been quick to mobilize resources to support other survivors.

The impact of sexual assault charges laid against a Lakehead University professor are still reverberating through the student community two weeks after they were announced by Thunder Bay police.

LUSU, the Lakehead University Student Union reacted quickly to condemn sexual violence, telling survivors that they will be believed and mobilizing supports that are survivor-centred for people that may be affected by sexual violence.

"Collectively, students are definitely surprised and shocked. Lakehead University is a very small community and it feels very safe," said Kasey Egan, coordinator for LUSU's gender equity centre.

Thunder Bay Police Services charged 57-year-old professor Han Chen with two counts of sexual assault involving a student on March 10. Police said Chen was arrested for two alleged incidents that took place in late January, with an investigation starting days later. Chen is expected in court on March 30.

Egan said Lakehead University puts a lot of effort into facilitating conversations and providing training to students and staff about sexual violence. The university also created a new sexual violence policy that is survivor-centred in that it clearly outlines the supports and processes to disclose the violence in late 2016.

"So I think that these conversations are happening on our campus," said Egan. "We were all kind of living in a bubble that this [sexual violence] wasn't happening on our campus."

An increase in students seeking support since charges

The same day the charges were announced by the police, LUSU sent out a public statement saying, "the Lakehead University Students Union condemns all acts of sexual or gender-based violence and believes all survivors of violence. 

The statement also directed people that have experienced, are experiencing, or think they might be at risk of sexual violence to a range of supports offered at the university. That includes:

  • Office of Human Rights and Equity, where survivors can find support and information about sexual violence, prevention and response, including the provision of more information about options and next steps.
  • Gender Equity Centre, which provides a safe space for peer support and advocacy, and can connect survivors with the resources they want.
  • Pride Central, which acts as a resource library and education centre focused on ending discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • As well as other crisis supports and sexual assault centres in the area. 

Egan says it was important for LUSU to put out that statement immediately to make sure that students remained at the centre of the university and the community's response to the charges.

"Often, when publicized police cases come into the community, the reaction can be very focused on victim-blaming, or very focused on waiting for justice or waiting for the police to make a decision, rather than to focus on survivor-centred care or reducing trauma to other survivors on campus."

Kasey Egan is the coordinator of the gender equity centre with the Lakehead University Student Union. (Submitted by Kasey Egan)

She added, "if they're dealing with violence, if they're being triggered by this violence or whatever that might be, we want [students] to know that we are here and we will continue to be here."

Egan says more students have been accessing services on campus since the charges were laid.

"We have noticed more emails, more meetings. Of course, it's all online with COVID, which makes it tricky … but we have seen more students contacting us."

Conversations need to address root causes of sexual violence

A spokesperson for the university, Brandon Walker, wrote in an emailed statement to CBC News, "Lakehead University has supported the student since they decided to come forward. The people, supports, and resources available to Lakehead students, faculty, and staff are woven throughout the university."

He added, "for years, the University and its Office of Human Rights and Equity have established, and continue to develop, various resources that victims of sexual assault and issues pertaining to human rights and equity, can go to for support."

"We can't simply continue to spin our wheels and continue to say 'this is horrible, I can't believe this keeps happening.'​"​​​​​​- Kasey Egan, coordinator for LUSU's Gender Equity Centre

Egan agreed that the university has put forth "a significant effort" to advance supports, but says more resources are needed within the broader community to address "a culture and a system which enables and normalizes and condones sexual violence."

She added, "we can't simply continue to spin our wheels and continue to say 'this is horrible, I can't believe this keeps happening.'"

"Consent isn't just about sexual violence, doesn't only operate with physical violence. It operates with coercion. It operates with abuses of power. It operates with manipulation," Egan said. "And it's going to continue to happen unless we truly start to address the root causes of sexual and gender-based violence."

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