Oct. 24, 2018

Fifteen experts rise up to address sexual violence at Canadian universities

Western Canada community of practice brings institutions together to tackle this pervasive issue
Cari Ionson, sexual violence response and awareness co-ordinator at Mount Royal University, joins forces with the University of Calgary's Carla Bertsch to jointly lead the Western Canada Community of Practice.

Cari Ionson, sexual violence response and awareness co-ordinator at Mount Royal University.

Cari Ionson

On Sept. 28, 2018, 15 experts representing 12 post-secondary institutions met for the first time, cultivating the future of sexual violence prevention and awareness.

While many in the world were focused on the outcome of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, UCalgary was hosting the inaugural meeting of the first-ever Western Canada Community of Practice (WCCP), a group dedicated to tackling sexual violence prevention at post-secondary institutions.

Led by UCalgary’s sexual violence support advocate, Carla Bertsch, and Cari Ionson, sexual violence response and awareness co-ordinator at Mount Royal University, the WCCP provides a space for universities to work collaboratively, combining decades of expertise to more effectively address the pervasive issue of sexual violence.

“Because sexual violence prevention and response in post-secondary institutions is still an emerging area, there is not a lot of research available to provide and guide best practices,” explains Bertsch.

“Cari and I decided to create the community of practice out of a need to support one another in this work and I’m excited about what we can accomplish as a collective. Prevention and awareness strategies that include four provinces speaking in unison carries strength and demands attention that is hard to ignore.”

Even though the University of Alberta’s Sexual Assault Centre has existed for 25 years, director Sam Pearson views the WCCP as a promising step for post-secondary institutions to support one another in developing a united approach.  

“As part of a sexual assault centre that has always been involved in crisis intervention support work, I see this as a forum for all of us to come together and talk about issues we’re facing, strengths, share knowledge, refine processes and work towards speaking with a unified voice and advocating with government and private institutions,” she says.

Carla Bertsch, UCalgary's sexual violence support advocate, explains how the initiative brings 12 post-secondary institutions together to address sexual violence prevention at universities.

Carla Bertsch, UCalgary's sexual violence support advocate.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

“I’ve seen the benefits of having the right people around the table with experience in different contexts — we come up with initiatives that are really strong, well-thought-out and save the resources of any one institution. I’m excited to see what sort of research, best practices and common initiatives we can come up with by opening the channels of communication professionally.”

Throughout the jam-packed day, the group addressed strengths, challenges and ideas to better incorporate trauma-informed frameworks on their respective campuses. Topics included everything from data collection to reporting processes, prevention and response approaches, handling disclosures and identifying opportunities to collaborate.

“There is an opportunity for collaboration to make our workloads more manageable through co-ordination and solidarity — best practices emerge in these kinds of environments,” says Leah Shumka, sexual violence prevention and education co-ordinator at the University of Victoria.

“All of our institutions have evolved in slightly different ways with varied strengths in terms of sexual violence prevention and education. Many of us are working in very small, or in some cases non-existent, teams at our institutions, so having people to call on to leverage their diverse expertise will enable us to do more.”

If you think you have experienced sexual violence, or know someone who has, visit the Sexual Violence Support website for campus and community resources. You can also arrange a confidential consultation with Carla Bertsch, the university’s sexual violence support advocate, by confidential email