UBC’s Safewalk took 32 minutes to show up

Testing out the safety service after multiple attacks


Blue emergency phone (Shutterstock)

On Thursday night, I waited at the corner of Main Mall and Agricultural Road at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. It was dark and foggy. Any other night, I might have just braved the six minute walk to the Student Union Building, but after two assaults involving young women on campus earlier this month—a 19-year-old was groped under her skirt at 2:45 a.m. on Sept. 28 and a 20-year-old was attacked on Oct. 13— I wanted to test out Safewalk, the student-run program providing chaperones to those who feel unsafe walking alone at night.

Although I spent four years at UBC and knew about the service from day one, I’d never bothered to call. I’m not the only one.

Safewalk is a student service available across Canada, usually manned by volunteers, although the Alma Mater Society student group that runs it at UBC pays its walkers. After a string of assaults—there was at least one more reported over the weekend when a 17-year-old girl was dragged into the bushes late at night and left with a black eye—I knew there would be renewed discussion about the service, which is used to reassure students that measures are in place to protect them. Indeed, the RCMP recommended on Monday that women not walk alone at night and instead use Safewalk. Last week, I wanted to see: how useful is it?

I called at 8:03 p.m., a few minutes after Safewalk started taking requests for the night. They answered my call right away and said someone would be there in under 30 minutes. Perhaps due to the recent spike in assaults, the service was busier than usual. Regardless, it felt too long to wait.

At 8:35 p.m., a co-ed pair arrived in coordinated red Safewalk jackets, radios in hand, and promptly introduced themselves. They said they had received four calls in the previous half hour which is why they took so long. They were chatty and offered to wait with me at the bus stop too.

Earlier that day, I had met Matthew Duguay, AMS Student Services Manager, who explained that there was only a single pair of walkers (one male and one female) between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. and again between 12 p.m. and 2 a.m. There were two teams from 9 p.m. to midnight. He said the service needs more funding. At the University of Toronto, a similar sized school, escorts are available from 7 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. and it boasts just a five to 10 minute response time.

What do students think? At the Irving K. Barber library that night, I asked Jessica Henry and Evelyn Cranston. Henry, a fourth-year environmental geography student, was alarmed by the spate of attacks and says not enough attention is paid to promoting safety on campus. “I remember my first year, getting interviewed after some similar incident,” she said. “So I just feel like maybe it’s something that hasn’t been addressed the way it should be.” Still, she has never tried Safewalk. Cranston, also in Environmental Geography, said she has started carrying a Swiss Army knife since the attacks. She hadn’t used Safewalk either though, and added, “I don’t know too much about it.”

According to Duguay, the service is well known and well used. “We’ve had some nights where we received upwards to a dozen calls.” There were only 76 requests for walks in September but he expects October to top that. The challenge, he said, is the lack of resources to address the demand. Duguay believes some of the cost should fall to the university administration.*

“Compared to its Canadian and American peers, this kind of program is actually quite weak,” said Duguay, who completed a degree at the University of Colorado. “As you can tell from the previous incidents, something needs to be done.” He told me he wants the university administration to offer funding to Safewalk for vehicles or bicycles that would allow it to respond quicker. In the meantime, Duguay said Thursday, students who couldn’t get a Safewalk quick enough should make use of the blue emergency phones connected to Campus Security. That was hardly reassuring to hear.

On Monday, the AMS heeded the RCMP’s advice and temporarily extended Safewalk’s hours to 4 a.m. with three teams and a vehicle available at all times to allow for quicker responses. The question is, how long will the beefed up service last and, if it does last, who is going to pay for it?

Vivien Chang is a recent graduate of UBC’s English program and is currently an intern at CTV.

*This article has been corrected. The original post erroneously implied that Duguay believed all of the costs of Safewalk should fall to the university administration. In fact, he said, I think more can be done but I don’t think it’s our burden as the AMS. I think it falls more on the university.”


UBC’s Safewalk took 32 minutes to show up

  1. I don’t even know why AMS pays for people to do this. Most universities have volunteers and that’s how it should be. Their budget should be to improve service. At the end of the day the students should be doing this as a way to contribute back not to make a quick buck walking.

  2. It sounds to me like you were either in Koerner or Irving. Other than for the sake of testing, I don’t understand why anyone would need to use Safewalk to get from there to the bus loop on weekday during the term. Even up until the time when the libraries close, there is always a steady stream of students. There is really not much to fear unless. I don’t get why Safewalk would bother to wait at the bus loop where there is always a lot of people around.

    @Kelvin, students are already pretty cash strapped. Giving them minimum wage or close to it isn’t such a bad idea for helping out.

    • @David:
      I don’t know what exactly you mean by “always”, saying ‘I don’t get why Safewalk would bother to wait at the bus loop where there is always a lot of people around’. Have you tried it after midnight in foggy climate?!! I have, and there was absolutely no one in the entire bus loop. Isn’t enough to be scary-to-death for a lone young female?!

      • @Annie. I often go home at about 11:00pm and there is still a fair number of people there. I admit, I have only been there past midnight a few occasions, and it was returning to UBC when I previously lived in residence. I guess if it was close to deserted, Safewalk staying with the student would make sense but it seems like a waste in manpower and hours to offer to wait any time before 11:00pm at least.

  3. Actually queens university pays their Walkhome service staff as well and it’s the number one service in the country. Every night they receive between 75 and 90 calls (on average). The difference at queens is it is anonymous. Employees don’t wear stupid uniforms. That way patrons don’t feel embarrassed to call. Not only that, but there are over 150 employees, and there are always 15 teams walking in a night in four hours shifts starting from 6pm in the winter till 3 am (the late shift being from 11 to 3)
    All schools should model their Walkhome program after queens, there’s a reason it’s so good, and it’s because they use common logic.

  4. I can’t believe this service is paid for… I always thought it was a volunteer program. That said, I’ll join Safewalk for free. I’d like to dedicate some time towards making UBC a safe place again.

  5. Pingback: Critics oppose ‘don’t walk alone’ message – Theecca.com

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