One in four women have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces in Canada
In early December 2020 Olivia Siamro, a 19-year-old sports media student, decided to go ice skating alone. She bundled up in her winter clothes and walked to Lake Devo on Ryerson University’s campus. She tied her figure skates, shed her parka and headed to the ice.
It was a rather slow day with about 20 people on and around the ice. The onlookers sat on the rocks and benches watching their friends as they glided along the rink, while colours from the Ryerson Image Centre’s light display reflected on the dewy ice and bounced back into dusk.
But someone else was watching Siamro, and he was not a friend. He was a stranger.
Siamro skated alone, she was practising her tactical spins and jumps, while wearing headphones. She came to the ice about three times a week to play hockey with her friends and practise figure skating. Across the rink, the man followed her movements on the ice, snapping pictures of her as she moved around the rink as the flash of his camera turned on.
After a while, Siamro noticed the burst of light every time she or another woman skated by him. She began to feel a sinking pit in her stomach as waves of discomfort rolled over her.
“If he charges me I’ll roll onto my back and kick him with the blade of my skate,” Siamro said, as he continued to watch her through the lens of his camera. She headed off the ice and began to unlace her skates to leave. The man noticed and made his way over to her slowly. “He saw that I had gone to go take off my skates and he came up to me,” she said.
Siamro recounts that when he came up to her, he was slurring his words as a bottle of liquor in his jacket spilled out and splashed at her feet. “Sir, I think your bottle’s leaking,” she said. He replied incoherently. “I couldn’t tell what he was saying, but it was making me feel very uncomfortable.”
With her skates still partially on she grabbed her bag and fled to the other side of the rink and called her friend, Samuel O’Brien, to walk her home. She told him about the man who, even as they spoke, was staring her down from across the rink. He ran from Pitman Hall to escort her home.
Siamro arrived home safely that night, but many women who have similar stories do not.
On March 3, Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive, went missing while walking home from a friend’s house in London, England. On March 12, Wayne Couzens, a police officer with the London Metropolitan Police, was arrested and charged for her murder. The last footage captured of Everard is from a security camera that features her walking alone through a London park around 9 p.m.
By traditional safety standards she did everything right to avoid harm on her walk that evening. She called her boyfriend and stuck to well lit roads, and she followed the precautions women are forced to know at an early age.
Everard’s death sent shockwaves of grief around the world, becoming too familiar of a story. On Twitter, the hashtag #SarahEverard and #notallmen were trending with women giving accounts of their experiences of sexual harassment and assault.
A vigil in London was held by the organization Reclaim These Streets in honour of her life and all other women who had lost their lives to violence. The event was cancelled after London police deemed it would break COVID-19 restrictions. The organizers encouraged those who would have attended to instead donate or shine a light on their doorsteps at 9:30 p.m. that night, in honour of Everard. Hundreds of people gathered at Clapham Common against the organizers warning of possible legal fines and implications. The event turned sour after dark when police deemed the gathering “unlawful” and began using physical force against female protesters.
The tragic circumstances of Everard’s death and the events following, showcase the violence that women face at disproportionate rates not only in London, but all over the world. In Canada, one in three women and one in eight men aged 15 or older have experienced unwanted sexual attention or behaviour that made them feel “unsafe,” according to a Statistics Canada report.
One in four women experience unwanted sexual attention in public and 75 per cent say the perpetrator was a stranger. Half of those women said it changed their behaviour after their experience, including the way they dressed in public, or their routines and actions.
As of Canada’s latest census, more than half of the people living in Toronto identify as visible minorities, and in Canada, women with intersecting identities face a higher risk of violence. Women with disabilities, Indigenous women, single women, women who are unemployed or have low incomes and women who are institutionalized are more at risk of being sexually assaulted, according to Statistics Canada.
It’s impossible to fully acknowledge Everard’s murder without also recognizing the ongoing nationwide epidemic of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in Canada. Indigenous women are killed at six times the rate of non-Indigenous women, and Canada has systematically failed in addressing this issue and bringing justice to Indigenous communities. As these incidents continue to go unaddressed, a bigger threat is created for Indigenous women in Canada and Indigenous students on campus who, as of the latest data available, make up two per cent of student enrolment at Ryerson.
Farheen Khan, a women’s rights advocate in Toronto, says women of colour, including Muslim women and women with intersecting identities, are often more vulnerable when it comes to violence against women because they are on the receiving end of both misogyny and discrimination. As a survivor of gendered Islamophobia, Khan says violence was perpetrated against her because of her intersecting identities as a visible Muslim and a woman.
Factors such as age, race, disability, immigrant status and sexual orientation can all impact risk factors, as well as access to protection and support with regard to experiencing violence. Studies show that when women of colour report violence, their experiences are often taken less seriously within the criminal justice system and their perpetrators routinely receive less harsh punishments.
“We all know that violence against women is about dominance and power over another,” said Khan. “People will try to target women of colour and women from marginalized communities because it gives them an excuse to actually perpetuate more violence over them.”
Khan said the fears that come from walking alone at night can arise in other parts of women’s lives, particularly when it comes to feeling unsafe around men. “I think one of the big things a lot of women share is that inability to trust men in spaces where they are alone, because of the kind of safety issues we’ve experienced ourselves and the potential threat that we continue to see and feel in society,” she said. “This is why it is important for women to feel safe on the streets and on campuses.”
Everard’s story resonates with so many women because it’s a shared fear, says Danielle Hulan, a therapist and clinical social worker in Toronto.
“Women know the fear of walking home alone — the practices of vigilance, of checking surroundings, the safety measures, the heart racing and then the sending of the text to let the friend know you are home safe,” she said in an email to the Ryersonian.
In the heart of downtown Toronto, Ryerson’s campus is not immune to gender-based violence and harassment. Catcalling, wandering eyes, inappropriate comments and being followed are part of the university experience for women and people affected by misogyny on campus.
Devon Harvey, a non-binary student, said the way they present themselves impacts their feelings of safety when walking alone at night.
“When I’m walking on campus, I’ve always had a bit more confidence and sense of security when I’m presenting in a more androgynous or masculine way,” Harvey said.
They recall using Ryerson’s WalkSafe program in their first year of university, when they were presenting more traditionally feminine. It was fine, Harvey said, until they reached the end of the program’s boundaries and the security guard escorting them told Harvey they had to walk the rest of the way alone. “I wasn’t really prepared for that,” they said. “I turned to this dark street and was like, ‘you can do this.’ I don’t think I’ve ever walked so fast in my entire life.”
Months later, a few blocks away from where the WalkSafe program’s boundaries are, Harvey said they were followed by someone. The incident inspired them to take self-defence classes, but they still have anxiety walking alone at night.
Cassandra Earle, a third-year journalism student, says she used the WalkSafe program regularly while living on campus in 2018-19. Earle moved into Pitman Hall from a small town in British Columbia and she took every precaution to keep herself safe while living on campus. “In order to be safe I familiarized myself with the blue WalkSafe towers on campus where you press the button and security is called. I learned where all of those were and I carried an alarm on my keys.”
“I started spending less time at my apartment and more at my friends’…which is not far from Pitman, but it was far enough that I was uncomfortable walking alone at night, especially when it was really late or after a party where I had been drinking.”
Earle called the WalkSafe program often to walk her home when she was out late on campus. Now that Earle lives just off campus in the Church and Wellesley Village, she takes even greater precautions to stay safe — from purchasing additional locks for her apartment to contemplating which shoes she can run faster in before she leaves the house.
Everard’s murder hits home espeically hard for Earle. “It could be me. Even if you follow every single precaution, it can still be you… That’s the scary part. You hope that your tool box will be enough to keep you safe, and sometimes it is, but in Sarah’s case it’s not,” she said.
While the WalkSafe program is an asset for students on campus, it is not without its faults. When Siamro was being harassed while skating, she looked for a WalkSafe tower, but she says the one closest to her was out of order. Knowing that a WalkSafe tower could be shut down in the case of an emergency makes her feel uncomfortable and unsafe, she said.
Siamro lives in residence at Pitman Hall and while walking alone on campus she experiences discomfort often. “There have been a handful of times I have been made to feel uncomfortable. Because of the pandemic, I haven’t been out as much but the times I have been, it happens more frequently than it should,” she said. “If there were the normal amount of people on campus I would feel a lot safer because I would have more people who could step in or say something if they saw something happening.”
For students like Siamro, Harvey and Earle, feeling unsafe on and around campus at night has led them to deeper feelings of anxiety. Hulan says this type of anxiety can seep into other areas of life, and can have students searching for threats and fearing for their safety at times when they shouldn’t be. For example when sitting in class, talking to friends or writing a final paper.
According to Hulan, combating this feeling is complex, but it comes from the basic understanding and recognition that all people deserve to feel safe and secure when navigating the world around them. “Ultimately, we need women to feel safe walking alone anytime and especially at night,” she says. “Safety is not and should not be a luxury.”
Ryerson’s WalkSafe program is offered 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Students can request an escort by calling 416-979-5040 or emailing email@example.com.