AMS Sexual Assault Support Centre: 20 Years Later

By: Sheliza Mitha

The idea behind what’s now known as the SASC – UBC’s AMS Sexual Assault Support Centre – started with a little more than a few whispered conversations.

It was the early 2000s, about a half-decade before Tarana Burke founded the MeToo Movement. Resources for sexual assault survivors were scarce, despite the numbers. For example, in her 2019 UBC Master’s thesis on the MeToo movement, Erin Eileen Davidson reported that some 460,000 sexual assaults are reported each year in Canada.

Enter Lisa Lafreniere, a UBC student who (at the time) coordinated SpeakEasy – a peer counselling service of the AMS – while also working at Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW). Through her work at SpeakEasy, word (and whispers) spread that Lisa had specific knowledge and training with sexual assault issues. Students sought her out to talk about their experiences, and get support for resources that were not otherwise readily available.

With a clear need for sexual assault support services, an environmental assessment was conducted examining campus support services. The result was two-fold: 1. A support service of this kind would be valuable for the campus. 2. It would be more effective to work with an established anti-violence organization versus developing something new.

What followed was a one-year pilot project in August 2002, whereby WAVAW created an on-campus satellite office – the Sexual Assault Support Centre (SASC) – staffed roughly 10 hours a week through donations and grants (including the AMS). While the AMS also provided space, WAVAW covered much of the renovations.

Some six months later – confirming demand for its services – the SASC attempted to make a home on campus through a referendum that would determine its future.

In February 2003, UBC students took to the polls to decide on whether to pay an additional $1 each per year in AMS fees to support the centre. Why $1? The figure was decided on by the AMS and WAVAW to help SASC in increasing its hours, and its support services.

Lafreniere noted at the time that if the referendum failed, the future of the SASC would be unclear. “The SASC provides support for survivors of sexual assault, but as well to provide awareness and education about sexual assault before it happens.”

The referendum passed, and this fund for the SASC is administered by the AMS to this day. In a second 2003 referendum, the amount was raised to $3 per student per year. In 2008, Student Council raised the percentage received by SASC to 95 percent for its core operating revenue (up from 80 percent). All of which allowed for growth and greater services.

In 2018, new federal legislation dictated that educational institutions must provide sexual support services. As a result of the university’s obligation to offer services, the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office (SVPRO) was created – which led to the immediate closure of the SASC office.

“SASC staff were fired overnight because this university service was created,” explained Aashna Josh, current SASC Manager. “But, because of the student outcry, SASC reopened after just a few months – which speaks to the impact. Our impact is there, even though it’s not always seen.”

Today, the SASC operates with a staff of 11 and about 25 to 30 volunteers during the school year.

“We sit with people when needed, keep them alive and engaged to make sure they feel seen and supported. Our campaigns are visible – but our support services are confidential, and serve anyone who needs them,” Josh said. “We aim to offer services from a place of humility. We’re an anti-violence organization doing this work on occupied Musqueam lands and acknowledge the benefit we derive from working and living on this land.”

Over the past four years, the SASC has supported a growing number of sexual assault survivors: 726 in 2018; 1,145 in 2019; 1,145 in 2020; and 2,028 in 2021.

In a 2017 interview with The Ubyssey, former SASC manager Ashley Bentley emphasized the need for these services is constant. “When I say that sexual assault is an epidemic, I don’t say that lightly. We’re seeing an increase in the number of people accessing services.”

Although the primary mandate is to assist survivors of sexual assault, the SASC also works to educate students and promote prevention with services including emotional support groups, educational and outreach programs, and legal and medical advocacy. The centre also provides free contraceptives and pregnancy tests, and considers itself an all-gender service that aims to provide queer-friendly and gender-affirming services for everyone.

And all of this has been possible through the power of students: creating the SASC, funding it and fighting for it again in 2018. When the SASC went to referendum this year (2022), it was passed again – a testament to the number of services being accessed over the past several years.

The SASC’s survival directly connects to – and impacts – the survival and well-being of thousands more. This much is clear – especially to the UBC students who funded and fought for this important, empowering, and much-needed service for sexual assault survivors.