In the fall of 2014, five of my classmates and I conducted a research project on how Wilfrid Laurier University compared to other Ontario post-secondaries in efforts to combat sexual violence. We found that Laurier, located in Waterloo, fell far short of the recommendations provided by the Ontario Women’s Directorate, fulfilling just one of the criteria we reviewed.
While the school’s harassment and discrimination policy did include a specific definition of what constitutes sexual harassment, other vital provisions were non-existent. None of the school’s policies defined consent, or mandated bystander intervention training. There were no recommendations for climate surveys to measure how safe people feel on campus, or an explicitly stated commitment to survivors of sexual violence.
As a Toronto Star investigation revealed in 2014, similar findings stretch right across the province, and are true for the rest of the country. The Star found that only nine of 78 Canadian universities had a specific policy to deal with sexual assault. None of the 24 Ontario colleges surveyed had one at all.
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Lacking policy, universities are failing to support devastatingly large numbers of students who experience gendered violence on campus each day. It no longer surprises me to learn that yet another one of my peers has been sexually violated on campus. The Change Project, a Status of Women Canada-funded project run by Laurier, found this year that about 40 per cent of 570 of the school’s students had experienced gendered violence in the last 12 months.
As students who originally took on this project as part of an issue-based research journalism class, my peers and I saw a broken system. Shortly after we presented the project we founded Advocates for a Student Culture of Consent (ASCC), an organization with an acronym duly pronounced “ask.” Our first mandate was to develop a school policy that better serves survivors of gendered and sexual violence.
As a group of female students who have experienced this type of violence at some point in our lives, we figured people would be compelled to listen to us. Also, the university’s vice-president of student affairs, David McMurray, is chair of the Council of Ontario Universities’ Reference Group on Sexual Violence. Laurier had to step up.
We began by presenting our research and objectives to the Collective for Feminist Action and Research and the Women’s Safety Action Group. These students and faculty informed us of the key players on campus, and how to move forward efficiently. A month later, we presented to the school’s Gendered Violence Task Force steering committee. Although they were dismayed at our research results, they already knew the university’s policies on gendered violence, or lack thereof, needed a complete overhaul. They agreed to work with us to make sure we jumped through all the necessary hoops: writing a policy is one thing, but getting it approved is quite another.
In the months since, we have worked with advocacy and student groups to create Laurier’s first stand-alone gendered and sexual violence prevention and response policy. We also consulted with other Ontario universities on their practices, student organizations, and, of course, Laurier’s legal counsel. We wanted to consult with as many stakeholders as we could to ensure our policy is as inclusive, progressive and effective as possible. We quickly found out how complicated and time-consuming this process can be.
One of the most important commitments in our policy is that Laurier will believe all survivors. When someone discloses having experienced some form of gendered violence, the university will not make the call on whether it seems like what they’re saying is true. Despite popular belief, false reporting of sexual violence is just as rare as it is for other types of crimes.
Our policy also commits to supporting survivors in whatever way they choose, whether it’s having someone accompany them to a sexual assault centre or changing a course deadline. If survivors determine they’d like to pursue a formal investigation, it will be their choice.
In other words: the policy’s focus is on survivors rather than punishing perpetrators. Due to the presumption of innocence, perpetrators cannot be punished without the survivor making a formal report either to their university or the police. Although holding perpetrators accountable is an important part of ending rape culture, forcing a person to report an assault can also remove autonomy — an unjust act that has already been forced upon them. We are working on the protocol that will outline exactly what this process looks like. One thing is certain: thoroughly trained, compassionate people will help survivors understand their options and support them throughout their journey.
Our policy also outlines Laurier’s commitment to creating a culture of consent on our campuses. As The Rape Culture Project and The Change Project recommend, Laurier is dedicated to training faculty, staff and student leaders on how to intervene and respond to disclosures of gendered violence. Laurier also promises to educate its community on what consent is, and how to practise it. Currently, ASCC is partnering with other Laurier groups on a comprehensive campaign called “Consent is Golden: Do you get it?”
Initially, our policy was set to be approved by the university’s board of governors late last month, but the introduction of Bill 132, the Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act, in October pushed the date back. We now have to take this bill into consideration.
I was thrilled to learn that Bill 132 mandates that all universities must have a student-driven sexual violence policy. However, one of the sections in the bill is worrisome. It says information about support services accessed and incidences of sexual violence must be reported to the ministry. If a survivor learns that some of the information disclosed will be reported (the building in which the incident occurred, for example), they may fear they will be identified, and avoid reaching out to a counsellor or other services altogether.
MPPs and ministry officials have told us the government will consult with students and universities to determine what reporting process for this type of information will look like, but at the moment details are ambiguous. ASCC will advise the province on what information should not be reported, by presenting to the Standing Committee on Social Policy at a hearing on January 19. We need to ensure any mandatory reporting does not affect a person’s choice of accessing support, reduce trust in the university’s confidentiality, or result in identification by the public or campus community.
Creating change at the policy level is no easy feat; perfecting this policy and its principles took one year of heart and dedication. And, quite frankly, it’s a drop in the bucket of what needs to happen to eliminate the rape culture that is rampant on Ontario campuses. But we will continue collaborating with the thousands of Ontarians ready for change to transform campus culture into a culture of consent.
Karly Rath is a sexual health and rights community activist, journalist and co-founder of Advocates for a Student Culture of Consent.