Ontario tells post-secondary schools to update sexual violence policies as Western students plan walkout

Ontario is demanding that colleges and universities update their sexual violence policies to make it easier for survivors to come forward, as Western students plan a walkout to protest “the prevalent threat of rape culture on campus and connected underlying issues” at the London university. 

The government has given post-secondary schools until March 2022 to update their policies with provisions that ensure those reporting sexual violence aren’t asked “irrelevant” questions about their sexual history, and so students who do report don’t get in trouble if they’ve violated the school’s alcohol or drug policies. 

The president of Western University, where four sexual assaults were reported last week to police and multiple others have been talked about on social media, said he welcomes the announcement from the minister of colleges and universities. 

“Sexual violence and assault on university campuses is unacceptable and protecting complainants is critical to addressing these issues. Western has a strong policy in place that is in line with the requirements set out by the government today,” president Alan Shepard said in a statement. 

“Western is focused on addressing the culture of sexual violence on campus and will be sharing more information on further changes we are making to ensure our campus is a safe place for all students and our entire community.”

A student walkout is planned for Friday, to show support for survivors of sexual violence, address “the prevalent threat of rape culture on campus and connected underlying issues such as misogyny and queerphobia,” and demand better resources for student leaders, according to organizers of the protest. 

Western University in London, Ont., is trying to speak directly to students in residence and is encouraging people to come forward with any information they might have. (Kate Dubinski/CBC)

Western’s sexual violence policy, revamped in the past few years, is progressive and survivor-centred, said Annalise Trudell, a spokesperson for Anova, the London, Ont., agency that helps those dealing with gender-based violence. 

“Overall it is a good policy,” Trudell said. “It is really centred around putting the control into the survivor’s hands. You want to make sure that nothing is done outside of the survivor’s control, because that really is what the experience of rape is — it’s one of losing complete control and having power done to you.”  

More work with young men

“We know that the best practice is that we want survivors to completely drive the process, and that’s really the ethics of that policy. Does that mean that there’s been enough work done on the topic of sexual violence? No. There’s much more work that’s needed.” 

Western University’s gender-based and sexual violence policy came into effect on May 1, 2020, after months of consultations. 

But no matter what policies are in place, most survivors of sexual assault don’t make formal complaints ot universities or to police, Trudell said. 

“We need to keep pushing and getting a better understanding about where our gaps are, particularly in engaging young men,” she said. “We’ve done a good job on campus of making people aware of what consent is, but how are we holding young men accountable? How are we engaging sort of a peer culture where young men are calling other young men out? Those are areas where we need to be doing more work.”

It’s important to remember that those who do disclose sexual assault usually do so to friends or family, or on social media, and not to officials such as university administrators or police, said Katreena Scott, director of Western University’s Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children.

COVID-19 prevented important discussions

“There are many reasons that people choose to and not to disclose, and many reasons that people choose to and not to make an official report,” Scott said. “Just because something has been disclosed on social media and not through more official channels doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.” 

This September could be particularly difficult because first-year students who normally would have had a year of senior high school talking to their teachers about the transition to post-secondary education didn’t get that opportunity because of remote learning, Scott said. Similarly, second-year students who would have had last year’s orientation week and the full school year to discuss gender-based violence were learning from home. 

“That is in no way an excuse for behaviour, and it’s not an excuse that they haven’t had in-person experiences and therefore don’t know how to be non-violent, but it is the case that many important conversations that happen in high school might not have happened last year,” Scott said. 

“Those experiences and conversations, with teachers and with peers, about what is safe in relationships, what is healthy in relationships, what do unhealthy relationships look like, what does healthy masculinity look like, what does unhealthy masculinity look like — all of those conversations have been less possible. All of those experiences have been less possible, so this group of students is coming to university at increased risk because of not having all of those experiences and conversations to build from.”

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