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Sexual assault on campus

A Metro special focus

Canadian schools need to start treating sexual-assault survivors less as victims and more as experts

In our week-long series, Metro has attempted to frame this ongoing crisis in a new way, to articulate how campus sexual assault is a national issue.

"It’s ridiculous that nobody’s stepping up, so that’s what we’re doing."
Paniz Khosroshahy, women’s-studies major at McGill University and sexual-assault survivor.

Calvin Sit/For Metro

"It’s ridiculous that nobody’s stepping up, so that’s what we’re doing." Paniz Khosroshahy, women’s-studies major at McGill University and sexual-assault survivor.

Five days is nowhere near long enough to talk about campus sexual assault.

In our week-long series, Metro has attempted to frame this ongoing crisis in a new way, to articulate how campus sexual assault is a national issue — even international — and to point out the gaping holes in our national response.

But there were many aspects we did not get to cover. We did not investigate how racism and sexual violence intersect. We did not talk about how gender identity and sexual orientation impact violence, opting for a mostly heteronormative stance as a way into the problems.

We did not report on harassment and sexual violence experienced by professors and employees, a group often left out of the discussion; nor did we investigate the role of men and boys in finding solutions.

If colleges, universities and our communities at large are ever going to be made safe, all of these must be taken into account. Which means no simple solutions but plenty of opportunity for improvement.

For Farrah Khan, one overriding question is how to tackle campus assaults as part of the larger culture of sexual violence.

“We need a continual commitment from every level of government that sexual violence isn’t tolerated in Canada,” said Khan, the co-chair of the Ontario Provincial Roundtable on Violence Against Women and the inaugural co-ordinator of sexual-violence education and support at Toronto’s Ryerson University.

Khan is particularly concerned with creating more accountable responses, across sectors and workplaces and communities. It’s lacking almost everywhere you look: in the military, in the RCMP, in medicine and, of course, in post-secondary schools, which often lack any one person tasked with accountability and oversight, leading to a dangerous dilution of responsibly.

But Khan worries schools  will respond to mounting public pressure and provincial legislation by moving to a criminal model for adjudicating complaints, despite its abysmal track record, both in encouraging women to come forward to police and testify in trials and in meting out punishment against assaulters.

Meanwhile, it’s clear universities and colleges need to start treating survivors less as victims and more as experts.

They know the schools’ shortcomings better than anyone.

An encouraging step in this direction was Lucia Lorenzi’s inclusion on UBC’s Sexual Assault Panel. An alumna and sexual-assault survivor, Lorenzi has become a vocal activist.

“It doesn’t send a good message when universities continue to have antagonistic relations with survivors instead of welcoming the critique and work they’re doing,” she said.

Indeed, when Metro asked five different schools if they specifically sought the input of survivors in their new sexual-assault polices, none had.

Lorenzi wants to see basic, across-the-board standards for sexual-assault policies at all post-secondary schools in Canada, elements that can be adapted to fit each campus — large or small, with or without residences, urban or rural. And, like Khan, she wants accountability.

“I think it can be a two-step thing,” she said — an arm’s-length, provincial oversight committee, which reviews campus policies and responses, and a federal level to “make sure policies aren’t just approved by people serving the interests of the university.”

Lorenzi also criticized the draft policies released by many campuses in B.C. and Ontario this year, noting that no significant outside input from experts, students or survivors was sought.

Janet, a woman who spoke to Metro on condition of anonymity, wants to see administrators dismissed for not acting on complaints. She’s an employee at an Ontario post-secondary institution, and four years ago, she said, she was sexually assaulted and harassed by two men, one of whom was and remains a colleague. Her school administration’s response? Six weeks of inaction, and then this: “We’re concerned you’re too upset to work,” she was told. “I got the threat,” she said. “It was swept under the rug.”

“Any incident needs to be reported to an independent third party,” she said. “That gives accountability.”

Janet was among many people who reached out to Metro this week, keen to talk, keen to help find solutions.

So it’s not a question of public appetite for change, or action among grassroots groups. It’s a question of leadership.

Who is going to take a stand at a national level? Who is going to co-ordinate the vast amount of experience and expertise and input out there? Who is going to hold universities, colleges and other institutions to account?

Right now, the answer is no one.

Metro's series on campus sexual assaults

Monday | Uniting to fight against campus sexual assault

Tuesday | A federal vacuum

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

Thursday | Dearth of data

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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