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Breaking the silence

James JacksonLooking to encourage others to talk about sexual assault and report it on campus and in the community, the Theta Psi chapter of the Sigma Chi fraternity at the University of Waterloo — including Michael Wideman — has produced a video, Break the Silence.
Chronicle Staff
Published Dec. 17, 2014

The brothers of the Theta Psi chapter of the Sigma Chi fraternity at the University of Waterloo know the stigma. Wild parties, binge drinking and hazing rituals are just some of the negative stereotypes associated with frat houses.

They’re challenging that perception with a powerful message against sexual assault in a video they’ve produced called Break the Silence, which they posted online about a month ago.

The 90-second public service announcement features nine brothers of the 30-member fraternity speaking out against rape and sexual assault on campus and in the community by stating, “if there is no explicit, clearly-communicated consent, or if the person is not fully conscious, it is sexual assault.”

“The whole vision of the video is not to make it seem like we’re experts on the topic,” said Michael Wideman, who has been a member of the Theta Psi fraternity for about a year. “We just wanted to create a video that shows we’re breaking the silence and getting the discussion going.”

The video is the result of the fraternity sitting down and taking a hard look at themselves and their role within the Waterloo community. While they admit they do participate in some of the traditional activities of fraternities — like hosting parties at their chapter house on Albert Street, just a few blocks from UW — they aim to go beyond that and work to make the community a better place as well.

The fraternity is built on personal growth, male bonding, social growth, leadership and philanthropy. Each brother must complete at least 10 hours of community service each semester, and they raise money each year for the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Utah ($17,000 last year alone), but they wanted to go beyond that.

“What’s on TV is TV, it doesn’t show the whole image or the whole truth (about fraternities),” said Andrew Smith, who joined the Theta Psi chapter almost two years ago. “Yes we have parties, but that’s not the whole aspect.”

They were inspired by a similar PSA last year called 1 is 2 many, which features U.S. President Barack Obama and actors Benicio Del Toro and Daniel Craig, among others, speaking out against sexual assault.

“We started writing a script on getting the discussion out, that’s the hardest thing. There’s no easy solution but the more people talk about it and think about it, that’s a start,” said Smith.

They also had an expert from UW provide a workshop at the fraternity on what sexual assault is, how to identify it and ways to encourage people to talk about it.

In 2013, there were only three reported sex offences on the UW campus, up from one the year before. There were also 34 reports of unwanted contact, up from 31 in 2012, two reports of indecent acts, down from seven in 2012, and eight reports of criminal harassment, up from seven.

At Wilfrid Laurier University, four sexual offences were reported between 2012 and 2013 and two cases of indecent acts (one at the main campus and one in Brantford).

Those statistics are not always reliable, however, and as Dan Anderson, director of university police at UW wrote in an email, “they only reflect what has been reported directly to UW police.”

The fraternity wants to break that silence and encourage people to report incidents of sexual assault.

“I have friends who have been through (sexual assault) and part of it is they don’t want to re-live that experience and bring it up again or feel like they’re going to be blamed for it,” said Smith. “The statistics related to rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, are very grey … people don’t want to talk about it or report it.”

The universities are also working to foster a safe and supportive climate on campus.

“We continually strive to raise awareness about sexual violence and develop wide-ranging practices to address sexual violence on our campus,” said Nick Manning, director of media relations at UW.

The issue of sexual assault has made headlines across Canada and around the world in recent months as several high-profile celebrities and politicians have become embroiled in sexual assault cases.

From former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi, who was fired earlier this year and has been charged with four counts of sexual assault, to actor and comedian Bill Cosby, who has had numerous sexual assault and rape allegations leveled against him, some as many as four decades old.

Allegations of sexual harassment have even made their way to parliament hill as Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has suspended two MPs, Scott Andrews and Massimo Pacetti, from the party’s caucus pending an investigation after two New Democrat MPs alleged they were harassed.

The Waterloo Regional Police Service had 583 reported cases of sexual violations last year, including sexual assault and sexual exploitation, resulting in 180 charges.

Given the fraternity’s high turnover rate each year, when as many as half of the brothers graduate or head off to co-op placements, they’ve committed to holding a sexual assault workshop every semester.

They plan to help educate other fraternities throughout the province as well. The UW chapter is hosting a provincial Sigma Chi conference next month, and the five chapters of the fraternity — UW, Laurier, Toronto, Windsor and London — will be meeting in Waterloo and the UW chapter will host more workshops to discuss the issue of sexual assault.

“We’ve agreed as a chapter we also want to do an awareness talk on campus and potentially make more videos in the future,” said Smith.

Break the Silence has more than 2,600 views and is available online at: