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Sexual assault on campus

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Campus sexual assault is a national problem, but no one’s pursuing a national solution

With no central accountability or oversight, the provinces and schools are on their own.

A student wears a “No means no” badge at a rally at Saint Mary’s University in 2013.


A student wears a “No means no” badge at a rally at Saint Mary’s University in 2013.

One of the defining elements of the fight against campus sexual assault in Canada is what it lacks: a national strategy.

To some degree, this is by constitutional design. We have no federal education minister, no federal responsibility for post-secondary education. Politically speaking, it’s not a national matter.

In this vacuum, the provinces are left to negotiate a new era of sexual-assault legislation.

In Ontario and B.C., new bills passed in the last year require every post-secondary institution to have a standalone sexual-assault policy (by January and May, respectively). An opposition MLA in Manitoba has put forward a similar bill, as has the Conservative opposition in Nova Scotia.

Meanwhile, Nova Scotia’s ruling Liberals signed a memorandum of understanding with universities this summer tying the development of sexual-assault policies to increased funding.

In Alberta, the minister of education has directed all schools to have standalone sexual-assault policies (expected to be in place by the spring). And in other provinces — at the University of Regina, University of Saskatchewan and Memorial University in Newfoundland — schools are shouldering the initiative themselves.

But while these efforts have been greeted with hope and some praise (most notably by politicians and university administrators), critics argue the legislation doesn’t go far enough.

In each province, schools are given broad autonomy over what exactly the policies should look like — a significant vote of confidence in a sector roundly viewed as having failed on the issue for decades.

None of the new or proposed legislation establishes centralized responsibility for ensuring the policies operate as they should. That’s striking, since institutional accountability has been at the heart of numerous complaints about university responses to sexual assault.

Dawn Moore, a Carleton professor and the lead investigator for a major research report on campus sexual assault released this summer, was among 20 colleagues who wrote to the university’s president this spring, expressing concerns the school was “embarrassing” itself by not consulting from the beginning with academics whose research deals with sexual assault. Similar complaints were registered at other schools with experts in the field.

A flyer that's part of the University of Winnipeg's sexual consent awareness campaign.

Lyle Stafford/For Metro

A flyer that's part of the University of Winnipeg's sexual consent awareness campaign.

These patchwork efforts are not the only option.

Provincial education ministers do have a national body, the Council of Ministers of Education, that co-ordinates on “pan-Canadian education initiatives.” In a meeting this summer, they talked about a range of issues including indigenous education and funding, but sexual assault appeared nowhere on the agenda.

Meanwhile, the minister for the status of women, Patty Hajdu, has been tasked with developing the Federal Strategy Against Gender-based Violence, which she told me will include campus violence. But Hajdu’s staff took pains to reiterate that campus sexual assault is the jurisdiction of provinces, and Hajdu said her ministry’s role could only be one of support.

“We’re working very closely with the provinces, the territories, looking at how can we actually support the work that has been happening across the country and where are the gaps at a federal level that we can actually fill in,” she said.

Hajdu said consultations with campus sexual-assault survivors brought up the example of the U.S., where there has been a far more aggressive national push to tackle the problem.

“There are a number of pieces of legislation and actions the president himself has taken and been very clear about. For example, making sure that campuses that he visits have strengthened policy and legislation around sexual violence and insisting that exists before he visits those campuses,” Hajdu said.

President Barack Obama indeed makes a striking contrast to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the subject. While one has made an end to campus violence a pillar of his administration and tasked Vice-President Joe Biden with the file, Metro found no evidence that Trudeau has spoken publicly about campus sexual violence since winning office.

Wab Kinew, Manitoba NDP MLA and a proponent of a bill to require sexual-assault policies on campuses in that province, suggests that a public statement from Trudeau could be a useful start.

“Potentially there’s room for federal intervention, but before that it would be great to see the prime minister weigh in and say consent culture is important,” he said.

Any federal strategy — like Hajdu’s — will take time, he noted, but a statement like that could happen “right away.”

More to come in Metro's series on campus sexual assaults

Wednesday | The U.S. and U.K. example

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

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