Creating cultures of consent

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A group of people of diverse ethnic background, ages, and genders all standing together in a big hug.
Consent isn’t ‘sexy,’ it’s non-negotiably required before action BFlores via Wikimedia Commons, manipulated by lee lim

Consent is paramount on campuses across Canada

According to a study conducted by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, only approximately 28 per cent of Canadians fully understand what it means to give consent. Addressing this gap in knowledge starts with awareness and accountability.  

From September 18-22, 2023, organizations, students, and educators celebrate Consent Week. Consent Week is an opportunity for campus communities to engage in thoughtful and meaningful conversations focused on consent and building consenting cultures. Responding to rejection, articulating boundaries, and respecting bodily autonomy as important life skills wrapped up in consent and beyond. Consent Week is an opportunity to reflect and affirm consent as a cornerstone of all relationships – not just intimate ones. Student leader Aubrianna Snow explains that “Consent goes so far beyond just the bedroom. It can be between friends; it can be between family members. It’s so varied and it’s a lens through which to see everything.”  

Occurring simultaneously to gaps in knowledge around consent, Canada has an ongoing crisis of sexual and gender-based violence. Last month the country’s new Justice Minister wrote in a public letter that gender-based violence “has no place in our country.” The six-page letter dated August 14, 2023 includes the federal government’s response to an inquest to a triple femicide in rural Ontario and indicated Canada’s intentions to criminalise coercive control – a form of intimate partner violence. In 2022, a rural community in Ontario made a series of transformative recommendations following the violence, calling on the government to “formally declare intimate partner violence as an epidemic.”  

Consent Week was strategically chosen to occur during the first six weeks of school, which are known as the Red Zone. The Red Zone is a time of statistically heightened occurrences of sexual violence and gender-based violence during the first semester of university and college. Should Canada formally adopt Consent Week, it would be the first country in the world to recognize this significant week with the aim of systemic change in schools, workplaces, and communities.  

According to the Courage to Act initiative run by Possibility Seeds, social locations like race, ability, gender, sexuality, and class shape the ways individuals, groups, and communities give and receive consent. As such, this is an opportunity to explore and inquire into the ways that consent is mandatory in all relationships, though it may appear differently, and its foundation to liberatory relationships. Moreover, critical interrogation into the ways that the violent and existing systems of dominance influence how, when, and what consent looks like is critical.  

In 2014 a partnership between Women’s Earth Alliance and Native Youth Sexual Health Network published a report titled “Violence on the Land, Violence on our Bodies” that traces how the landscape of consent has been impacted and codified by settler colonialism and “by the intense invasion of [Indigenous] lands and bodies themselves.” Through group discussion and community forums the connection became clear, systems of settler dominance have dually worked to assert power over lands and bodies.  

Since these are intimately linked, so too is consent and the consent process. The report, focused on building Indigenous responses to environmental violence, states that “in order to increase the recognition of free, prior and informed consent over Indigenous territories, we need to simultaneously build up the ways that consent is supported around people’s bodies.”  

Last year, as part of the larger national Consent Week, campuses across Canada hosted the #WeBelieveYouDay on September 20. The day was intended to share support for survivors, connect co-conspirators, and build cultures and networks of care. The #WeBelieveYouDay comes from the diligent and transformative work of the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services, Survivor Love Letter Project, and the Ontario University Sexual Violence Network.  

Students, educators, and community members alike are invited to participate and continue this work by following the hashtag, creating and printing posters with the message, and spreading the word about consent week and the importance of consent as a pillar to all types of relationships.  

When consent is not understood, as illustrated by the above-mentioned stats, the epidemic of gender-based violence continues. Consent Week calls on students, educators, and communities to locate themselves within these larger conversations and adopt practices of consent in their everyday lives, all relationships, and as means to address larger systemic and colonial violence like violence against Indigenous lands.  

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