From Student To Federal Politics

Former CSU President Wants to Bring Consent to the Forefront of Canadian Politics

Melissa Kate Wheeler, 25, will be running for the Green Party of Canada in the riding of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Westmount, in the upcoming federal election. Photo Brandon Johnston

With five years of experience in student politics, Melissa Kate Wheeler, 25, is ready to make the leap to federal politics, running for the Green Party of Canada in the riding of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Westmount.

She served as the Concordia Student Union President from 2013 to 2014 and now sits on the executive of the Green Party of Quebec.

Wheeler keeps a level head despite the fact that she’s running against some high-profile candidates such as Marc Garneau (Liberal), the incumbent MP of Westmount—Ville-Marie, James Hughes (NDP), and Richard Sagala (Conservative). At 25 years old, she’s the youngest—as well as the only female—candidate in the riding.

“I feel fine about it. I’ve been politically active for five years and have been going up against the same type of successful, older-than-I men,” said Wheeler. “I’m a very authentic person. […] I’m here to do a job. It’s not about me, it’s about being a sincere representative.”

Institution building and creating cooperatives are skills that Wheeler learned about during her time at the CSU. Her team signed off on the construction of the new Reggie’s Bar, which is now slated to open in October 2015.

“It will be the bar that students deserve, not dingy like it used to be,” she said in an interview with The Link.

During her campaign, she hopes to mirror the current CSU’s culture shift which focuses on sustainability by starting more food cooperatives in her riding, supporting local businesses and promoting sustainability in NDG and Westmount.

The Green Party is the only federal political party to oppose all pipeline projects proposed by the Conservatives, including the Energy East Pipeline, aiming to pump solid bitumen from Alberta and Saskatchewan to New Brunswick. The raw bitumen is mixed with a diluent that enables it to run through the pipeline, but also makes it “impossible to clean up in case of a spill,” according to the party’s website. A 2010 spill into the Kalamazoo River of diluted bitumen from Alberta oil sands proved difficult to clean up, since its components split, most diluent solvents evaporated and the bitumen sank.

Wheeler seems to be optimistic about her chances of winning, saying that if she gets elected as MP of the NDG—Westmount riding she would like to bring the issue of consent in universities to parliament in order to get a national conversation going about sexual violence, as well as increasing funds for sexual assault resources.

Wheeler has also been an outspoken figure on the topic of sexual assault for years, creating the Facebook page Not Safe at Concordia after student Mei-Ling (a pseudonym) came forward this spring with allegations of sexual harassment against a student association and its executives.

Not Safe at Concordia is “a collective whose aim is to destroy the toxic, sexist, racist environments of many Concordia student associations,” according to their Facebook page, which encourages victims of sexual violence at Concordia to submit their stories to be published anonymously.

During her presidency, Wheeler also helped get Concordia’s Sexual Assault Resource Centre open in the 2013 to 2014 year, sitting on the hiring committee for the coordinator.

“Since then, I’ve been critical about the implementation of programs—certainly not of the people working there because they are fantastic, I try to make that distinction,” she said, while mentioning that the Centre lacks resources that would allow it to be more accessible to student needs. The Centre hosts drop-in services and workshops from Monday to Friday during business hours.

“[Concordia] just released a report that sexual violence is a reality and that it’s a reality for a lot of students, which is a great step forward,” she said.

In April of 2015, she was quoted on CBC’s Daybreak radio show saying that “sexual harassment was part of my job” at the CSU. As a survivor of sexual violence, Wheeler said that most of her experiences happened during her time there and has been vocal about her own experiences while denouncing Concordia’s “toxic environment” of discrimination.

“The more people that I speak with about it, the more it becomes an acceptable thing to acknowledge and to talk about,” she said.

“I’m comfortable doing it. I understand that not everybody is, but I am. I will try as much as I can to create a space for others to talk about it and break down the taboo,” Wheeler said. “I talk about sexual violence with my 87-year-old grandpa. I don’t care. It’s a reality.”

She experienced inappropriate comments on the way she dressed and was also a victim of unwanted touching while an executive at the CSU. “That kind of thing was disrespectful and underrating of my capabilities and of my role as a human,” Wheeler said.

During her three years at the CSU, Wheeler said that creating boundaries in order to keep a professional relationship with people who had harassed her was “an art.” The fact that many are not aware of the prevalence of sexual harassment—especially for women—is something that Wheeler would like to see change. “Most of it was pretty subtle but the problem is that it’s institutional—it’s in the culture, it’s engrained,” she said.

Unfortunately, it sometimes takes an occurrence of unchecked sexual violence to finally have the issues of consent and sexual violence raised in a serious way in Concordia’s administration, and in society in general. “Often it takes something like what happened to Mei-Ling for things to change,” Wheeler said. “Which is why what she did was so important and brave.”

The rebranding of ASFA—and its orientation activities, specifically—from “Frosh” to “Launch Week” with less emphasis on drinking during its activities, has come a long way since Wheeler’s days as a frosh leader, where she felt pressure to adhere to binge drinking traditions. “It definitely creates this sense of insecurity if you’re not down to party 24/7 […] so I’m really happy that the focus is shifting away from getting wasted.”

She’s glad to see ASFA “clean up its act” and thinks it’s now “on the right track.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated the Energy East pipeline will stop at terminals in Quebec and New Brunswick. As of April 2015, TransCanada updated it’s plan to no longer have a terminal in Cacouna, Quebec. Some information was also added to clarify the Green Party’s stance on bitumen mixed with diluent.