The Stampede rugby tournament held at the Ottoman Complex for the past three decades is known for a lot of things, but being tame isn’t one of them.
More than 400 athletes and community members have converged on the fields, located about 15 minutes from downtown Williams Lake, every year for the past 39 years to witness competitive men’s and women’s rugby teams from across the province hosted by the Williams Lake Rustlers Rugby Football Club.
In the festival-like atmosphere, alcohol consumption, and nudity, such as streaking, are also a well-known part of the weekend.
Recently concerns were raised by Lindsay King, who used to live in the lakecity and dated a Rustler. She said she has been made to feel uncomfortable, embarrassed and cornered in years past at the event. Two other women sent letters to corroborate King’s allegation that they feel the event breeds a culture of sexual harassment.
Rustlers president Rodger Stewart and treasurer Todd Pritchard, who spoke openly about the topic, said there has never been an issue with the Stampede weekend that they know of, until now.
“We’ve run this tournament for 39 years and we’ve never had any complaints that I know of that went to the RCMP or any other way,” Pritchard said.
“I just don’t think if you went and talked to all the girls in our club, I don’t think they would agree.”
However, King urged others to speak up against sexual harassment and assault when they see it.
“By not, we perpetuate a culture of sexual harassment and raise sexual harassers.”
King recounted an incident in which a man exposed himself to her and others, despite her vocalizing that she wanted no part of that.
“It was just really embarrassing because I said I don’t want to see it. I don’t want this to happen. I just felt kind of cornered and coerced into it,” she said of the experience last year.
“The danger … is the power of having a culture like that and how it can permeate into different areas. I find a lot of the people who contribute to what I believe is a culture of sexual harassment aren’t necessarily Rustlers. I think they just allow for that environment and then it kind of runs away from them,” King said.
“That’s why it’s so important to be mindful of what you’re doing when you’re a social club and there are children around and you have visitors coming. I think there are ways they could address the culture and it might have far-reaching impacts.”
King said she did file a complaint with the RCMP recently regarding her experience at the fields last year, however, did not want to press charges.
Stewart said he acknowledges the club faces “some challenges from time to time,” but they deal with those challenges to the fullest extent that they can.
“We face these problems, and we are also recognizing that … there is activity that goes on between other parts of the community, outside of our actual club, but on our grounds.”
Stewart said there was an incident four or five years ago that impacted female club members.
“That (out-of-town) team doesn’t come here anymore – it was clear their conduct was completely unacceptable and it ended up fracturing their club,” he said. “It involved a very deep measure of concern for our whole community and the club and we needed to address it.”
Stewart said in another incident, for example, derogatory comments of a sexual nature were levied against another club member, and “in those senses a little frontier justice gets meted out.”
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Stewart said families are invited and welcomed to attend the rugby tournament. In the evening, the Rustlers host a licenced dance from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. where minors are not allowed.
“We’re the hosts, we’re very watchful,” Stewart said, noting if anything happens it would get dealt with immediately, and that the club also has a good relationship with police who are present during the event.
Stewart said some of the “raucous,” “Neolithic” behaviour the rugby tournament is known for is being carried out by adults “on their own prerogative.”
“When it gets to a point where someone is uncomfortable, we want to be able, to the extent we can see or it’s reported to us, we can step into that,” Stewart said.
King said the atmosphere of tournament attendees chanting for women passing by to take their shirts off, or the many streakers throughout the day, flourishes at the fields.
“More can and should be done to protect non-consenting tournament attendees,” she said.
Both fathers, Pritchard and Stewart said the last thing they would want is to see somebody assaulted or concerned for their safety in any way at the Ottoman Fields.
“This is just not acceptable.”
Stewart said the club will be ensuring attendees understand the code of conduct expected.
“This is a reminder for us. We have to … be able to respond to that measure of social awareness that’s building out there and to be able to adopt maybe a more forward stance.”