Student suing Université Sainte-Anne alleges school failed her after sexual assaults

A student at Université Sainte-Anne is suing the school for failing to protect her from physical and emotional harm following a series of alleged sexual assaults on campus.

Plaintiff Marissa Williams, whose name was previously protected by a publication ban that she had lifted, has studied arts and education since 2019 at the small francophone university in Church Point, N.S.

In her statement of claim, she outlines that she was raped in separate incidents on campus in 2021 by two fellow students — one who played on the men's volleyball team and another who was employed by the university as a residential adviser.

The lawsuit, filed in Nova Scotia Supreme Court on May 29, claims Sainte-Anne was negligent in protecting Williams from the harms allegedly committed by the two men, both described in the court documents as ambassadors of the school.

Williams said the school fostered an environment where abusers knew they wouldn't face consequences and it has yet to take accountability.

"I don't want future students to have to go through what I went through ... because it's just horrible," Williams said in an interview.

"It's almost as if the victims and survivors that report are punished more than the perpetrators ever are."

Campus safety 'top priority'

University spokesperson Rachelle LeBlanc said in an email that campus safety is a "top priority," adding that university officials are aware of the lawsuit and will respond to it through the court process.

As of Tuesday, Sainte-Anne yet to file a statement of defence. It must do so within 15 days of being served with the lawsuit.

The civil suit seeks unspecified damages, but Megan Ross with PATH Legal, one of the lawyers representing Williams, said it's also about challenging some of the "toxic cultures" that exist within universities and other institutions.

"The story of this client is like so many other women who have experienced harm and then get blamed for it," said Ross.

"Who try to speak out and then get told that they're being too sensitive, that they need to stay in line … instead of standing up for their rights and saying, 'I have a right to be heard and I have a right to the processes that are set out in law.'"

Williams first spoke to CBC in November 2023, when her identity could not be published due to a court publication ban. She has since insisted the publication ban be removed so she can take ownership of her story.
Williams first spoke to CBC in November 2023, when her identity could not be published due to a court publication ban. She applied to the courts and had the lifted to take ownership of her story. (Robert Short/CBC)

In 2021, Williams reported being raped to the university's administration, and she said instead of being met with compassion and support, the situation was completely mishandled.

Williams said she experienced victim-blaming by university staff and officials, was denied adequate academic accommodations and was the target of hateful rumours being spread around campus.

Throughout the school's reporting and disciplinary hearing processes, she was forced to recount and relive her experience several times in front of a committee of her peers. She even had to face the man she'd accused face-to-face over a Zoom call, causing her to spiral into a panic attack.

Feeling unable to cope with the trauma, Williams said she attempted to end her life in April 2022. She was hospitalized and subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, allegations that are outlined in the civil suit.

The volleyball player was initially charged with sexual assault, but the Crown later dropped the charges.

Sainte-Anne's internal hearing continued until February 2023, when Williams said she felt defeated by the process, and ended her complaint knowing the accused would graduate that spring.

'Why would I report it?'

While Williams was dealing with the aftermath of the initial assault and the complexities of Sainte-Anne's disciplinary process, the lawsuit alleges that she was subjected to "several instances of sexual assault and battery" by one of her residence advisers, someone who had become her confidant throughout the university's hearing process.

The man encouraged her to report being assaulted by the athlete and he then acted as a liaison between her and the school through the complaint process.

"I thought he was someone I could trust ... but really he was using that against me," Williams said.

Despite multiple encounters with the man, Williams decided not to report him to the university or police.

"Why would I report it to the university after what I went through the first time? That first time almost destroyed me, so I knew it wasn't worth going through it again and I knew nothing would come of it anyway," said Williams.

She ultimately moved off campus in January 2022.

The lawsuit argues that Sainte-Anne is "vicariously liable" for the actions of its employees. It claims that the university placed the residence adviser in a position of trust and authority, yet he abused this position knowing Williams was in a vulnerable state.

"Universities absolutely have a duty of care toward these students and they need to take it seriously, particularly when it comes to sexual harm, discrimination, bullying and harassment," said Ross.

"These are insidious, insidious things that can really poison a learning environment and make it a lot more difficult to succeed."

That's been the reality for Williams, who was supposed to graduate this spring with a combined bachelor of arts and bachelor of education. She said because she wasn't given sufficient academic accommodations while she tried to cope with the trauma of being assaulted, she wasn't able to complete her degree as scheduled. As a result, her dreams of becoming a French teacher have been delayed.

Feels stuck in 'place of trauma'

She must now return to the small campus of about 350 full-time students in September while this lawsuit unfolds, wary of how she'll be treated by staff, professors and fellow students.

"I shouldn't have to be stuck in my place of trauma anymore, but it's kind of like I was sentenced to another year and my release date was just pushed back," said Williams.

But she's pledged not to let this situation hold her back, and said she wants to spark meaningful change — not just at Université Sainte-Anne, but at all academic institutions.

"It's work that is controversial, but it's work that is really important and we're really proud to be doing it with her," said Ross, her lawyer.

She also continues her advocacy through an online campaign against sexual violence, and said she hopes to see the day when students can feel safe on campus.

For anyone who has been sexually assaulted, there is support available through crisis lines and local support services via this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. If you're in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.