Sexual violence and harassment protections strengthen for Ontario university students

The proposed changes are to be implemented across all Ontario college and university campuses. (Courtesy of Sarah Garofalo)

The Government of Ontario is proposing changes to further protect students alleging instances of sexual violence or harassment in post-secondary institutions. New policies will forbid colleges and universities from inquiring about alleged victims’ sexual history, and from punishing said students based on their intoxication levels at the time of the alleged incident.

These changes would allow for an additional layer of protection for students coming forward with instances of sexual violence or harassment on college and university campuses. Julia Pereira, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) adds that the proposed changes would make it easier for “survivors to report instances of gender-based violence.”

“No one who reports an instance of gender-based violence should be subject to irrelevant questioning about their sexual history — these questions are irrelevant and therefore hinder the fairness of the investigation. Survivors may also experience barriers to reporting if they feel they would be penalized for lesser policy violations (such as drug or alcohol use) when reporting an instance of gender-based violence.

“Ultimately, these changes allow for more trauma-informed and survivor-centric responses to reporting gender-based violence,” she says. 

These proposed changes are a result of OUSA’s recommendations for a reworking of post-secondary sexual violence policies in hopes for creating safer campuses. 

York’s Centre for Sexual Violence Response, Support & Education (the Centre), which has been a part of the York community since 2017, supports members of the community while providing education or other services needed surrounding sexual violence or harrasment. 

Debbie Hansen, executive director of community support and services at York, which oversees the Centre, explains that the university will be looking to integrate the proposed protections into its current policies on sexual violence. 

“We are currently taking a closer look at the changes proposed by the provincial government on January 27, 2020,” says Hansen. “As a leader in progressive policies, some of the elements of the announcement are already incorporated in York’s existing policies, but we are using this proposed change by the government as an opportunity to reflect further on our existing language in our current policy.

“It is important that individuals do not face unnecessary barriers when they choose to come forward,” she continues. “Where possible, we must eliminate the fear and stigma of reporting incidences of sexual violence or harassment. We do so by increasing awareness about our work at the Centre and highlighting the different modalities of support that are available to survivors and helping them to navigate what would work best for them in the time and space they determine.”

Joanie Cameron Pritchett, director of community support & services at York, explains that with these proposed policy changes, intersectionality plays an important role in combating sexual violence. 

“Some acts of sexual violence are motivated by sexism, racism, colonialism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia, as part of a wider societal context that includes patriarchy, whiteness, and colonization as contributors to acts of sexual violence.

“We also recognize that we need to continue to address systemic issues that contribute to sexual violence and to challenge rape culture and other forms of discrimination and hate whenever they arise,” Pritchett says. 

“There is still a lot of work to be done, and it is still unclear in the amendment on the role, scope, and procedure institutions play in the investigation of responses to sexual violence,” explains President of York Federation of Students (YFS) Kien Azinwi. “We need to bring this conversation outside of the silo of administration and government and have policies, procedures, and practices informed by the lived experiences of students.”

Pereira now looks to the future for the next steps to ensure protection of survivors, and prevention of gender-based violence. 

“We need a comprehensive framework to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, one that is survivor-centred and trauma-informed.

“Students and student associations have played a critical role in the prevention of, and response to, gender-based violence on their campuses,” she continues. “They are not only survivors, but they are also on the frontlines, providing programming, training, and support in response to the persistence of gender-based violence in the post-secondary context. It is therefore essential that students are heard on their campuses and at the provincial and federal levels as we work to end gender-based violence.”

“As much as these amendments are a step towards the right direction,” Azinwi explains, “we need to continue focusing on student voices and ensuring students are being consulted in the drafting of such policies to make it more holistic, as well as continue to support and fund the centres created to tackle these issues on our campuses.

“To conclude, we need more actionable policies, funding, and more momentum to get better results for those experiencing sexual violence,” she says.

About the Author

Sarah Garofalo

By Sarah Garofalo

Assistant News Editor

asstnews@excal.on.ca

Sarah is in her third year of Film Studies at York University. She is passionate about using writing as a tool to educate herself and introduce others to hidden stories and new ideas. In the future, she hopes to continue her studies in film and merge it with her love of writing and journalism. You can always find Sarah sketching, painting or endlessly watching films while waiting to get back into movie theatres.

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