Content Warning: Mention of sexual harassment, assault
Walk Them Home Montreal, a McGill student group dedicated to tackling street harassment in Montreal, began sharing students’ anonymous testimonies of harassment over Instagram on March 16. The group reports receiving over 100 submissions since January 2023.
Students submit their stories using the testimony link on Walk Them Home’s Instagram page or by messaging the organization directly. The student group then posts the stories anonymously on their page.
The posted stories have included accounts of chasing, stalking, cat-calling, racist comments, aggressive shouting, unwanted sexual gestures, and physical groping. One individual wrote that their experience was just “one of hundreds.”
Walk Them Home Montreal President Laura Voermann, U2 Arts, founded the group in October 2021 after her friend encountered street harassment late at night. Initially, the group provided educational resources and volunteer services, such as walking people home. Now they focus on prevention and increasing awareness.
Voermann said they started sharing stories to platform student experiences similar to her friend’s.
“Whenever I hear stories like this, it just kind of makes me think, what if that was my friend, what if that was me? What if that was one of my family members?” Voermann told The McGill Tribune. “It’s just terrible. It happens so often. And a lot of women have no idea what to do, or a lot of women have said they’re used to it and they kind of just play it by ear and understand it’s something they have to be concerned about. It’s just weird to me how normalized it is.”
The initiative follows similar efforts in the U.S. and U.K.—such as Everyone’s Invited, which exposed rape culture in some 3,000 U.K. schools in 2021.
Walk Them Home Montreal—who are not affiliated with McGill or the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU)—previously shared anonymous testimonies in early 2022 but re-launched the initiative this year with the help of Spotted: McGill, a student-run culture and meme page, who posted about the initiative.
Spotted: McGill told the Tribune via Instagram that it is important for student groups such as Walk Them Home Montreal to tackle sexual and street harassment.
“We think any initiative aimed at lending visibility towards sexual harassment & prevention is so vital to the McGill community,” a representative wrote. “Most women [and] BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour] can relate to a lot of the responses the page has been getting, and it’s really disheartening to see how many of us have gone through scary incidents of harassment on the street.”
In a statement to the Tribune, McGill media relations officer Frédérique Mazerolle did not comment directly on the Instagram posts but outlined how McGill’s Campus Public Safety Department works with the community to promote student and staff safety. She pointed to the services the department provides, such as safety escorts available 24 hours a day, at both the downtown and Macdonald campuses.
“Agents patrol the campuses, manage access, transport students and staff with disabilities as well as respond to incidents and emergencies. Ensuring the safety of the McGill community is our ultimate and continuous goal,” Mazerolle wrote. “The Campus Public Safety department’s Night Route Maps also outlines recommended routes for navigating the campus in the dark and locate[s] emergency phones for contacting additional security.”
Other initiatives to tackle harassment around McGill include SSMU’s WalkSafe, a volunteer-led service that walks students home. The Office for Sexual Violence Response, Support and Education (OSVRSE) and the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS) also provide free support, educational tools, and sexual violence sensitivity training.
OSVRSE had to close in mid-October due to staff shortages—the Tribune found that the office had only one employee at the beginning of Fall 2022. Services were re-routed through the Office of the Dean of Students to ensure continuity for ongoing cases. OSVRSE reopened in January at a limited capacity.
McGill also mandates the sexual violence education program “It Takes All of Us,” which was re-launched earlier this year. The program seeks to educate students and staff on the bystander effect and how to prevent sexual harassment and violence.
Walk Them Home Montreal vice-president Lily Marchand, U3 Arts and Management, however, believes that the testimonies highlight how McGill is still not dealing with street harassment sufficiently. She noted that the emergency phones around campus, which have a blue light at night, need to be more readily available.
“I have mostly discovered how unequipped McGill is to deal with this sort of stuff,” Marchand said.
Voermann also feels that McGill needs to take street harassment more seriously.
“McGill and SSMU need to do […] more to prioritize street safety as a major issue that affects McGill students,” Voermann said. “[They should] read the testimonies of so many students who have encountered street harassment and feel unsafe.”
Gabrielle Adams, U1 Arts, was recently harassed in the metro by a man who followed her around the car and made unwanted sexual gestures at her. Bystanders made no effort to intervene.
She told the Tribune that there needs to be more awareness at McGill and that men, in particular, must listen to those who have experienced harassment so they can learn to intervene in the moment.
“Girls get it. I don’t think I know one girl who hasn’t been at least cat-called,” Adams said in an interview with the Tribune. “Talking to guys, it’s kind of different. It’s more like focused on what consequences he should face rather than listening and saying, ‘oh, how are you feeling?’”
Adams also believes McGill needs to publicize its security services more effectively and take action to prevent street harassment in general.
“The school needs to be prepared at all times to be able to deal with their students that go through this,” she said. “I’m sure it happens every single day, multiple times a day […] we’re 40,000 students.”
In 2018, a Statistics Canada study of gender-based violence and unwanted sexual behaviour found that one in three women had experienced sexual harassment in public places in the previous 12 months. The most common types were unwanted sexual attention and unwanted physical contact.
The posts on Walk Them Home Montreal started just before McGill’s latest Policy Against Sexual Violence annual report was presented to the McGill Senate on March 22. The report detailed 105 sexual violence disclosures in 2022, with the definition of sexual violence including actions of sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking, sexual exploitation, indecent exposure, and distribution of sexual images. Of the 105 disclosures, only 15 individuals chose to file a report.
For any member of the McGill community in need of support regarding sexual violence, OSVRSE can be reached at 514-398-3954 or [email protected]; SACOMSS can be reached at [email protected] or over Zoom using the instructions on sacomss.org; the Office of Mediation and Reporting can be reached at [email protected]; and the province-wide Sexual Violence Helpline can be reached at 1-888-933-9007.