Sexual assault on campus
A Metro special focus
The improbable five: Uniting to fight against campus sexual assault
A motley and somewhat unwilling quintet of young women from across the country just might be Canada's best hope to make post-secondary schools safer
|Report an Error|
Share via Email
To the casual eye, there was nothing intimidating about them.
The five women, dressed for a midsummer heatwave in tank tops, dresses and short shorts, sat behind fold-out tables and passed around a single mic on a too-short cord.
It could have been any panel discussion, on any topic, on any campus across the country.
The bland, grey room at Ryerson University in Toronto lacked any gravitas. They were not, for the most part, skilled public speakers.
But the room was nonetheless gripped. And so, too, should be every university president in Canada.
These five women drawn from across the country, this somewhat unwilling motley crew of survivors and witnesses shut out from justice, this ragtag power group thrust together by rape and assault in a space they thought would be safe.
These are the five unlikely women taking on a $40-billion university industry and demanding an end to the ineffective and alienating treatment of sexual assault victims on campuses — the women who actually stand a chance of winning.
The most nationally known might be Mandi Gray, 28, a PhD student in sociology at York University in Toronto, whose convicted rapist was recently sentenced to 18 months in jail (a conviction he’s appealed). She spoke first, in a blend of shy body language and blunt words.
Then there’s Paniz Khosroshayis, 20, a swift, staccato-talking third-year women’s-studies major at McGill University in Montreal, prone to long tangents.
The poised and eloquent Ellie Ade Kur, 24, a PhD student in geography at the University of Toronto, preferred to stand up and pace, commanding the room like a Ted Talk regular. There was Glynnis Kirchmeier, 28, a sharp, pragmatic alumna of the University of British Columbia, now skilled at navigating university bureaucracy.
And, finally Tarrah McPherson, 38, a former student at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax, a mother of four, and the most reluctant public figure of the five.
They had organized this event themselves, in early August, calling it “What are Canadian Universities Actually Doing about Sexual Assault?: A nation-wide panel discussion.” About fifty people, mostly women in their early 20s, filled a few rows of plastic chairs. It was the culmination of a week-long make-shift conference, where the women and some of their lawyers shared stories, traded legal tactics, and began plans for a new, national hub of activism.
The panellists had been drawn to one another over the past few years as their stories hit the news: four women who complained to their school of sexual assault, and found their schools wanting; and one woman who witnessed sexual harassment and became an outspoken activist against her school’s response. Like a growing number of women across the country, they each chose to go public with their experiences.
But then they went even further.
Some started anti-sexual-assault organizations on their campuses. Some filed freedom of information requests against their schools, seeking to better illuminate their largely curtained and bureaucratic processes.
And, most significantly, three women have filed human rights complaints against their schools that could change the legal landscape for sexual assault in the country.
Previous known human rights complaints dealing with campus sexual assault and harassment have centred on the assault itself, and argued that the incident was an infringement on human rights.
But McPherson, Kirchmeier and Gray are each alleging their schools directly discriminate against women through their sexual assault practices, policies and protocols. It’s the very systems themselves who are violating human rights.
It’s a unique legal tactic with no known precursor. And if any one of them is successful, they could set the new high bar for how universities handle sexual assault.
But the complaints represent an even more direct threat to the status quo at any school in this country. They set out a clear template that women and assault victims could copy, at any university, in any province or territory. Their three cases could be just the beginning.
Gray’s case was the first, filed with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal in June of 2015. It was the culmination of what she described as a “very long battle” with York University after she was raped by a fellow PhD student that January, 2015.
“I just wanted to return to campus without having to run into him,” Gray told me. But that proved challenging. Gray’s complaint alleges, among other things, a failure of school policies, a lack of any centralized place to report and get information, a lack of adequately trained staff, and a requirement to enter a school-administered tribunal process without her consent. In essence, she says, the school discriminated against women – overwhelmingly the main targets of sexual violence – in the very way it handled her complaint.
In response, York has defended its support for sexual assault survivors, including counselling, emergency financial support and housing. It’s also in the midst of developing a new, distinct sexual assault policy to comply with Ontario’s new Bill 132.
But Joanna Birenbaum, Gray’s lawyer, told Metro the human rights complaint goes much further and is far more specific than the new legislation in detailing exactly what kind of sexual assault policy is required.
“Women bear the brunt of this policy failure, sometimes at the cost of their education and careers,” Birenbaum said.
Meanwhile, in Halifax, Tarrah McPherson had been facing similar institutional challenges at Mount Saint Vincent University, after claiming sexual harassment by a professor. She alleges the school dissuaded her from filing a formal complaint, that support and advice was delayed, and the school did little to help her as she struggled academically. MSVU didn’t have a separate sexual assault policy at the time of her complaint (it has since created one).
“I didn’t even know (a human rights complaint) was an option for me,” she said, until she did some research. In looking for precedents, she discovered Gray’s case. Months later, in October 2015, McPherson’s complaint was accepted by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. Part of her claim asks for the school to improve its sexual assault policies.
When Glynnis Kirchmeier, the UBC alumna, heard about Gray’s case, it gave her a few ideas. Unlike Gray, she had not experienced sexual violence and then tried to get help from her school. But she had played a critical and visible role in excoriating UBC for sexual assault policies that impacted her fellow students. She filed a freedom of information request first, looking for details on UBC’s policies and privacy rules. It was a strategic move: “I wanted to get them before they knew how serious of an enemy I was,” she said.
Then she hired Clea Parfitt, a lawyer with experience litigating against universities. Together, they wrote the complaint as a kind of road map, a detailed account of all the support and process that both believe a campus should have, in order not to discriminate against women. Kirchmeier’s complaint — filed in March, 2016 to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal — is also different in its third-party status. Sexual assault survivors will testify as witnesses, if necessary, but the complaint opens up the possibility for anyone to challenge a university's sexual assault protocols, whether or not they’ve used them.
For all three complaints, this fall will be pivotal.
On Oct. 24, Kirchmeier’s case will enter mediation in B.C., where lawyers, UBC administrators and Kirchmeier will sit down to figure out if a deal can be struck, without further litigation. (UBC wouldn't comment on specifics, beyond its participation in the process.) If that fails, the next step is to schedule a hearing. Sometime in November, Gray’s case is expected to enter a similar mediation. Nova Soctia’s Human Rights Commission is investigating McPherson’s case, and the decision about whether to move it forward to a board of inquiry, similar to a hearing, is expected in the coming months. (Mount Saint Vincent University did not comment on the case but will "comply fully with any investigative process.")
But the larger political project, as Gray describes it, lies in this new national network the women are forming: “We’re drawing the linkages between these cases to demonstrate this is, in fact, a systemic level issue, and there needs to be some kind of oversight, an external body to hold these universities accountable.”
When Paniz Khosroshayis was raped by a fellow McGill University student in Sept. 2014, she felt the lack of just such a group.
“I had no idea what was going on in other schools, because there’s no centralized group that’s sharing all this information,” she said. “That’s one of the problems we want to hopefully address, getting more funding and making it more visible and centralized, and sharing what’s happening.” She envisions a website that shares stories and educates students on the laws in their provinces.
For Ellie Ade Kur, who was sexually assaulted while an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, this kind of grassroots community organizing holds the best hope — far more than any revised policies or legislation — of giving sexual assault survivors the support they need.
And, if necessary, the legal tactics.
Already, other women connected to the group are considering human rights cases of their own.
At that first national meeting that hot summer evening, few of the women had kind words to say about consent education, the posters and buttons and campaigns the swept across university campuses last month.
Gray has dubbed it “the fetishization of consent education,” an easy out, a PR tactic that is far less expensive and time consuming than creating a comprehensive response to sexual assault.
“My attacker knew what consent was,” Gray said, as the panel was winding down.
“I don’t need a hashtag,” Ade Kur said. “I need help.”
More to come in Metro's series on campus sexual assaults
The U.S.'s federal anti-discrimination laws and directives from the White House combine to create more rigorous requirements for American post-secondary schools to protect students. Meanwhile, in the U.K., the government is only beginning to look at a national directive on how schools should handle sexual violence.
Thursday | Dearth of data
There is no national database on campus sexual violence. We don't know how big the problem is because no one is incentivized to find out.
Friday | The way ahead
We have a problem; we need a plan.
Join the fight: Canada needs a national plan for campus sexual assault. Tell your story and pressure your MP on social media using the hashtag #safercampusnow