For the last two months, the University of Alberta has largely suspended services offered at the U of A Sexual Assault Centre (UASAC). The university ultimately terminated three employees and put all volunteers on-leave, according to documents and emails obtained by The Gateway.
Their terminations, which occurred on January 23, 2024, follow that of Samantha Pearson. She was let go from her role as director of the UASAC on November 18, 2023. Pearson was terminated after signing an open letter calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. The letter sparked controversy for calling reports of sexual violence during the Hamas October 7 attack unverified.
The Gateway spoke to one of the terminated staff members. Because of their concerns regarding safety and harassment, The Gateway granted them anonymity and will refer to them as Davis. Following the closure of the UASAC on November 20, 2023, an investigation into allegations against the three terminated staff members began.
Currently, the UASAC only offers scheduled appointments and has stopped offering drop-in services. This comes after the release of a report showing that 64 per cent of U of A students surveyed experienced sexual and gender-based violence (SBGV) since attending the university.
On February 1, 2024, the U of A posted an update regarding the services offered by the UASAC. The update said that community educational programming is currently unavailable. This includes the volunteer program — which previously had over 30 volunteers — workshops, and awareness campaigns.
On January 24, a petition created by some UASAC volunteers began circulating, calling for regular UASAC operations to resume. As of February 3, the petition has garnered over 500 signatures. On February 1, the U of A Students’ Union released a statement, calling for the university to “restore full functionality to UASAC.”
In interviews with The Gateway, Davis and a UASAC volunteer described the period following the centre’s closure as a time of uncertainty.
The Gateway reached out to the U of A for comment on the limited services offered by the UASAC on January 26. On February 1, the university shared the update posted that same day with The Gateway, saying to use that as it’s comment. On February 3, The Gateway reached out to the university for comment on the termination of the three UASAC staff members. In response, the university said it “cannot comment on personnel matters.”
“There [were] no answers to our questions. No accountability about why the decision had been made,” former UASAC employee says
In-person services moved online following concerns surrounding staff and volunteer safety, according to an email sent to UASAC staff on November 17, 2023 from Kevin Friese, assistant dean of students. As well, Friese told staff that all Dean of Students (DoS) social media accounts, including the UASAC’s Instagram, were temporarily suspended. This was the result of a “series of troubling social media posts” that targeted DoS and the university.
That same day, a staff member emailed UASAC volunteers to cancel their November 20 volunteering shifts. In the email, they said the cancellation was because of harassment toward UASAC staff and volunteers — in the form of phone calls, emails, and in-person encounters at the centre. This was a result of a post made on the UASAC Instagram regarding a student-organized Palestine solidarity event.
On November 19, Friese told staff in an email not to see clients, unless not seeing them would “pose a safety risk to the client.” If necessary, they were to refer clients to Counselling and Clinical Services or the Wellness Supports team.
Davis said that UASAC staff were “never consulted” on the decision to move online or pause regular operations.
As well, they said UASAC staff were given updates through “last-minute scheduled meetings … with no paper trail.” On November 18, an emergency meeting was scheduled for 2:30 p.m.. Friese sent invites to staff at 2:21 p.m., according to messages obtained by The Gateway. In this meeting, staff were told that Pearson, the former director, had been let go, but weren’t given a reason as to why, Davis told The Gateway. Davis said that staff voiced their concerns that the decision to terminate Pearson’s employment felt reactionary, which in turn made them feel “unsafe.”
“There [were] no answers to our questions. No accountability about why the decision had been made. It was just … the decision had been made, and that’s that.”
In another meeting on November 21, Tim Tang, associate vice-president (student experience), was announced to staff as the interim director of the UASAC. UASAC staff were told to direct volunteers to Tang if they had any questions regarding the centre, Davis said.
At 5:36 p.m. on November 21, Tang emailed UASAC staff members information on “workplace expectations and safety resources.”
The workplace expectations included not conflating personal beliefs with that of the U of A; keeping personal beliefs out of the workplace, especially when engaging with colleagues, staff, students, and clients; assessing behaviours and what is and isn’t appropriate to share in the workplace; conducting behaviour in a “respectful and professional manner” in the workplace; and following “all directions provided by leadership that pertains to [their] work including the modality in which [their] work is conducted.”
Prior to their termination, Davis said that they and other staff members had reached out to Friese and Tang with questions that were “integral to the work that [they] did.” However, Davis said that provided answers were vague, or there was “no answer whatsoever.”
UASAC staff members created a Signal chat to communicate with volunteers, which led to their termination, documents say
On December 11, Davis was put on a non-disciplinary leave of absence with pay, according to letters obtained by The Gateway. Davis was under investigation for an issue which “potentially [affected their] ability to perform the duties of [their] job,” one of the documents read. Davis said that they didn’t find out what the issue was until they were terminated. They received a summary report of the investigation upon termination.
There were two allegations listed on the summary report. The first occurred on November 24, when Davis allegedly invited UASAC volunteers and staff to talk on Signal Messenger for the “purpose of leading and continuing conversations on the Israel-Palestine conflict outside of the knowledge of [UASAC] management,” the report said. The second allegation was that Davis participated in the chat.
The investigation found that the allegations were partially substantiated. According to the report, Davis had invited UASAC volunteers to join the chat, and “on the balance of probabilities,” likely started it. As well, the report found that Davis had participated in the chat. However, the purpose of the chat “was not expressly for the purpose of continued conversation on the Israel-Palestine conflict,” the report said. Investigators also found intent from Davis to hide communications with volunteers from UASAC management, the report said.
The report lists further findings of the investigation, including dishonesty and insubordination. According to the report, Davis acknowledged that they weren’t meant to engage with volunteers after November 21, but did so anyway. As well, Davis denied knowledge of the group chat and other staff members’ involvement in it until evidence was presented, the report said.
Davis told The Gateway that during the investigation they were asked if and how they communicated with volunteers, and if they were “sharing [their] personal beliefs” about the violence in Israel and Palestine.
Davis said that discussions around the conflict did come up at the UASAC. However, this was because it was so “intimately tied to the harassment that [they] had faced, both online and in-person,” Davis said. After Pearson was let go, Davis communicated with volunteers to provide them with support, they said.
“It was a really stressful and confusing situation. The volunteers, for most of it, were being kept in the dark,” Davis said.
“I just felt like, as their mentor, it was my responsibility to at least offer them a chance to connect. Some of them took me up on that offer, and some didn’t. It was totally up to them.”
Conversations in the centre surrounding the violence in Israel and Palestine were not official programming, Davis said. However, volunteer training often touches on issues relating to current events. As a result, these conversations were not “out of the ordinary,” Davis said.
On January 23, 2024, Davis received a termination of employment notice, effective immediately, from Tang. The notice cited dishonesty and insubordination as the reasons behind Davis’ termination.
Davis said that right after Pearson was terminated, they felt like the university didn’t “want [them] there.”
“They didn’t want us on campus. They weren’t answering our questions. We weren’t allowed to do our work,” Davis said. “To me, it really felt like the writing was on the wall.”
Davis said that they likely would have reached out to volunteers regardless.
“It really did feel like my responsibility to just reach out and say, ‘I’m thinking of you. You haven’t done anything wrong,’” Davis said. “I don’t regret creating the chat.”
DoS discusses future of centre in meeting with volunteers, no clear timeline to centre re-opening
On January 26, UASAC volunteers were invited to an in-person meeting on January 30 with Friese and Ravina Sanghera, vice-provost and dean of students, according to an email obtained by The Gateway. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the future of the centre and answer volunteers’ questions, the email read.
Tang was not in attendance at the meeting. Carrie Smith, vice-provost (equity, diversity, and inclusion), and Deb Eerkes, the sexual violence response coordinator, were in attendance. The Gateway obtained a recording of the meeting from a volunteer, who was granted anonymity. This was because of their concerns of professional repercussions.
Friese told those in attendance that while the centre remains closed, clients are still able to book virtual and in-person appointments through the UASAC’s psychological support program. He said that the safety of volunteers and survivors of SGBV is their priority.
While the centre is closed, Friese is working with the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton (SACE) and Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services to see what supports can be made available right away.
When asked what the path forward for the UASAC is, he said the focus of DoS is to re-open the centre “when it is appropriate to do so.” He said there is no timeline as to when UASAC will open yet. He added that with Sexual Violence Awareness Week approaching, DoS is working on getting the “word out there about the services [they] can offer.”
As well, Friese said that volunteers are “crucial for the support” offered to students. As a result, it’s important to DoS to reintegrate them into the UASAC, he said.
DoS is working with SACE to begin re-offering support through the Alberta One Line for Sexual Violence, Friese said. The Alberta One Line provides immediate support through chat, text, or phone calls to those who have experienced SGBV. He added that this will involve volunteer support.
Smith said that the UASAC has a “powerful legacy” at the U of A. She thanked the volunteers for the work that they do.
When asked why Friese and Sanghera had waited two months to reach out to volunteers, Sanghera said communication is important to maintain trust. She also said that going forward, there will be more communication with volunteers.
“I agree we need more touch points with our volunteers, and I am committed to doing that now,” Sanghera said. “I’m sorry that it wasn’t done before. I acknowledge that I don’t have a good reason.”
When asked, Sanghera said the next steps are bringing the feedback she heard at the meeting to Tang.
“I’m just so disappointed in the administration,” UASAC volunteer says
A volunteer who spoke with The Gateway and wanted to remain anonymous said the UASAC was their safe space. Now that the centre is closed, they feel “lost and betrayed,” they said.
“We didn’t get a say in our safe place being taken away from us,” they said.
The volunteer also said that UASAC volunteers don’t feel heard by university administration. As well, the communications they have received have made the volunteer trust the university less, they said.
“They have said that they care about us. But, they haven’t reached out to us to ask how we’re doing,” the volunteer said. “They say that they care about us, but they haven’t shown any of that with their actions.”
The volunteer said that they don’t think they can go back to volunteering at the UASAC “following everything that’s happened.” When working at the UASAC, there’s risk involved that volunteers accept, they said. Before the centre closed, volunteers knew they had support from staff if they felt unsafe. The volunteer said they don’t feel this is the case anymore.
“I don’t think I can provide meaningful support to survivors if I am affiliated with a centre that’s run like this,” they said.
The volunteer said that they previously trusted the university, and expected administration to put “the most vulnerable populations first.” Instead, the volunteer said they worry about the future of the centre.
“I really don’t know what’s going to happen,” they said. “As far as I’m concerned, this was a life-saving service that has been taken away from the community. I’m just so disappointed in the administration.”