There’s far more to consent than “no means no.”
That’s the message more than 200 participants wanted to get across to people in positions of influence, as they rallied outside Western Canada High School on Monday.
Consent education is only in the official curriculum of half of Canada’s provinces and territories.
Two students from Calgary’s Western Canada High School have sparked a movement across Canada, named Walkout 4 Consent. They are calling for consent education in Alberta.
Eliza Kalinowski and Hayley Bryant began their movement in November. They and other students were frustrated with the dismissal of rape culture within schools.
Kalinowski and Bryant organized a walkout on Nov. 15, which spread across Calgary. Other schools joined in the movement and students organized their own walkouts. The first walkout at Western Canada High School gathered roughly 300 students. Attendees made signs calling for more action.
“We thought we might as well see if we can bring this issue to light nationally,” said Bryant.
Kalinowski said they wanted to rachet up the pressure with this latest rally.
“Especially since not a lot has happened since our last walkout. We figured we’d try to put that momentum back on and put the pressure back on so that we can see more change,” said Kalinowski.
Seventeen schools connected with Bryant and Kalinowski for this month’s walkout. Walkouts occurred on April 4 at 10 a.m. across the country. Eight schools in Calgary, three in Ontario, four in BC and two in Manitoba participated.
Consent education trending downward
A 2018 study from the Canadian Women’s Foundation found that Canadians’ understanding of consent has decreased. Only 28 per cent of Canadians fully understand what it means to give consent, compared with 33 per cent in 2015.
The survey also revealed that 50 per cent of women in Canada have felt pressured to consent to unwanted sexual activity. Also, 71 per cent of Canadian college and university students have either witnessed or experienced unwanted sexual behaviours.
Nearly half of the respondents agree that education on consent is the next important step.
Bryant and Kalinowski have been friends since middle school. They said they bonded over their shared love of feminism and social justice. The pair began noticing the prevalence of rape culture in Grade 8. It was when the #MeToo movement amplified the voices of victims.
“Going into high school and seeing my peers become a part of statistics and seeing my peers become the ones who were being assaulted, it was really upsetting,” Bryant said.
“It’s very hard to watch yourself and the women around you be constant survivors or victims of the attacks and of gender-based violence. It’s very hard to witness that, and it’s even harder to live through it,” she said.
Bryant said there needs to be systematic change. The issue is not just concentrated in Western Canada High School. It’s in high schools and universities across Canada.
Kalinowski said they have been trying to make the conversation as open as possible. Involving administration, as well as the Calgary Board of Education, has been a challenging process.
“It’s really difficult to make change when the system hasn’t changed with us,” Bryant said.
Walkout 4 Consent demands consent curriculum
The movement has four demands.
The first is a safe learning and living environment for all students. Bryant said this can look like students having an understanding about consent and how to enter relationships respectfully and safely. Consent is not mentioned in Alberta’s sexual education and career and life management curriculum. Abstinence is mentioned four times.
It would also include teachers having access to trauma-informed training to better support students.
The second demand is a responsive and accountable administration. Bryant said that when there are issues of sexual assault or harassment, there needs to be a better system to support students. Students need to be aware of their options.
“Sexual assault can be an extraordinarily traumatizing thing for students to deal with and navigate, especially when they’re not getting the support from administration or the student body around them,” Bryant said.
The third demand is mandatory consent education from K to post-secondary. Bryant and Kalinowski said it’s important to have age-appropriate conversations on consent continuously throughout a student’s education.
“Consent is something that we use on a day-to-day basis, it’s not necessarily just in relationships or in regard to sexuality,” Bryant said.
Kalinowski said children learn so much at a young age and mirror the behaviour of adults. Practicing consent in the classroom by saying no to hugs and other forms of physical touch allows children autonomy over their own bodies.
The fourth demand is to collect and publicize data regarding sexual assault and how schools deal with it.
Bryant said that finding data on the problem was a challenge and worries it’s being kept behind closed doors. Kalinowski said that has to change.
“We’re trying to provide transparency to families who are sending their kids to school, because everyone should make an informed decision about where they live and learn,” Kalinowski said.
Action will continue until action is taken
Bryant said a walkout sends the message that students aren’t just united, but they’re also fed up. Students want to see accountability and change. Especially on a national scale, the walkout shows that students are aware of the issue. They have the ability to communicate and take initiative.
“If the students can take initiative while they’re managing midterms and finals and extracurriculars, but they’re still able to organize this walkout and mobilize themselves, then administration and school boards and government should be able to do the same thing,” Bryant said.
The movement has been an ongoing battle to spark change and actually see it implemented. The pair will continue to advocate for a better system to deal with rising sexual assault statistics.
“Even if this walkout doesn’t go anywhere, which fingers crossed that’s not the case, I think that it still sends a message,” Kalinowski said.
“I still think that we’ll continue to practice and preach the values that we hold so close to our hearts in our everyday lives. It’s what’s important to us.”