TORONTO - A student union leader at the University of Ottawa says an online conversation among five fellow students in which she was the target of sexually graphic banter shows that "rape culture" is all too prevalent on Canadian campuses.
Anne-Marie Roy, 24, is going public despite being threatened with legal action by four of the male students, who say the Facebook conversation was private.
Nonetheless, Roy — who received a copy of the conversation via an anonymous email — said she felt compelled to speak out, especially since the five individuals were in positions of leadership on campus.
"They should be held accountable for those actions. Actions have consequences and I think that this is certainly something that can't go unnoticed," said Roy, who heads the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa.
"Rape culture is very present on our campuses...I think that it's very shameful to see that there are student leaders who are perpetuating that within their own circles."
The incident was first reported in the Fulcrum, the university's English language student newspaper.
Roy said she was sent screenshots of the Facebook conversation on Feb. 10, while student elections were being held on campus.
The online conversation — a copy of which was obtained by The Canadian Press — included references to sexual activities some of the five individuals wrote they would like to engage in with Roy, including oral and anal sex, as well as suggestions that she suffered from sexually transmitted diseases.
"Someone punish her with their shaft," wrote one of the individuals at one point. "I do believe that with my reputation I would destroy her," wrote another.
After confronting a member of the conversation in person, Roy said she received an emailed apology from all five men which emphasized that their comments were never actual threats against her.
"While it doesn't change the inadmissible nature of our comments, we wish to assure you we meant you no harm," the apology, written in French, read.
"We realize the content of our conversation between friends promotes values that have no place in our society and our campus, on top of being unacceptably coarse."
But Roy felt the apology wasn't enough.
"I was very torn up by the conversation," she said. "I also think there needs to be a level of responsibility taken for the words that were said in that conversation."
Roy decided she would bring it up at a Feb. 23 meeting of the student federation's Board of Administration, which oversees the affairs of the student union.
Her plan was to distribute copies of the conversation to the board's members while asking the board to move a motion to "condemn" those who engaged in the discussion, two of whom were board members. The other three were involved with organizing campus events.
After learning of Roy's plan, four of the five individuals sent her a letter warning her that the conversation was a private one and that sharing it with others would amount to a violation of their rights.
After consulting with a lawyer, Roy chose to go ahead with sharing the conversation with the board, but received a cease and desist letter during the board meeting.
The letter — which identifies the four participants as Michel Fournier-Simard, Alexandre Giroux, Alexandre Larochelle and Robert-Marc Tremblay — threatened legal action against Roy if she did not "destroy" her copy of the online conversation and stop sharing it with others.
The letter also alleged that Roy, through an intermediary, had initially considered not sharing the conversation if the four participants would promise not to run for student leadership positions in the future. Roy told The Canadian Press that she never considered that.
After learning of the letter, the board decided to shelve the motion introduced at the meeting, but Roy said she wasn't ready to drop the matter.
"It was kind of like getting a double whammy, you get put in a very difficult situation and to have these men try to take all power away from me by telling me that I need to be censored and that I can't take action," she said.
"This is also incredibly frustrating and I think speaks to the fact that rape culture does not get challenged enough."
The one participant in the conversation who is not threatening legal action said the entire incident has been a huge learning experience.
"There was some conversation with some pretty violent, like, some pretty demeaning words," said Pat Marquis. "I didn't say much in that conversation, but I didn't stop it either."
Marquis was a vice-president in the student union until he resigned this weekend, reportedly after receiving hate mail and threats related to the conversation. He said he planned to meet with Roy to "discuss ways to move forward."
"There's a lot of boys' talk and locker room talk that can seem pretty normal at the time, but then when you actually look back at it, it can be offensive," he said.
"I would never say that kind of thing out in the public but when it was a private conversation I guess it slipped my mind that that's really not acceptable."
Another member of the five, who did not want to be named, said the conversation was private and obtained illegally. He said the participants didn't believe they promoted rape culture, but "didn't stop it," and now wanted to "promote the end of rape culture together."
Meanwhile, a lawyer for Larochelle said his client was to meet with Roy on the weekend to defuse the situation.
He also provided The Canadian Press with a copy of a letter he sent to the author of a blog which has discussed the matter openly.
"Nothing in my client's statements are misogynistic, "slut-shaming", or refer to "rape," wrote Michael D. Swindley in that letter.
In a statement issued on Saturday, the University of Ottawa said it was "appalled" by the online conversation which it said demonstrated attitudes about women and sexual aggression that had "no place on campus, or anywhere else." It said it was working with Roy to develop "an appropriate response."
The entire incident has at least one observer saying it's clear universities need to have a more open discussion about how students talk about each other, even in private.
"I do think it's a form of cyberbullying even though she wasn't a direct recipient of those messages on Facebook," said Wanda Cassidy, associate professor at Simon Fraser University who researches cyberbullying in schools and universities.
"There needs to be a lot more conversation around those kinds of behaviour and comments that are made demeaning towards women."
The footprint that such comments can leave on the Internet should also make individuals think twice before sending demeaning or hurtful messages, she said.
"Whereas 20 years ago those guys might have been out sitting around having a beer and talking in that way, it is quite different when you're putting in print, because it's there as a record."
Roy's experience comes about four months after outraged complaints surfaced over student chants at universities in Halifax and British Columbia.
The president of the Saint Mary's University students' association stepped down in September after a frosh-week chant glorifying the sexual assault of underage girls was captured on a video that made national headlines.
And the University of B.C.'s Sauder School of Business cut support for annual first-year orientation activities after a similar chant was sung on one or more buses during events sponsored by the Commerce Undergraduate Society.