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.”