As the demand for specific measures to address sexual assault on Canadian university campuses grows, initiatives by students at the University of Toronto are gaining recognition.

This past year saw the formation of several student-driven initiatives: a petition to the administration, letters sent to U of T president, and an in-depth survey about the various campus resources available for victims of sexual assault. The petition called for an inclusive and collaborative policy drafting process, a responsibility that would fall under the purview of the Advisory Committee to the President and Provost on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence, which was struck in the winter of 2014.

Internal structure and function

The Advisory Committee to the President and Provost on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence had its first meeting in February and was created in response to increasing media attention and changing legal regulations regarding sexual assault policies at Ontario universities.

The committee has been collecting information regarding U of T’s current policies on sexual assault, and gathering feedback on student concerns in an effort to ensure a safer campus, support for victims, and to address reports of sexual violence.

Members of the U of T central administration, deans, and professors, as well as four undergraduate students and one graduate student, sit on the committee. The committee is split into three working groups: Policy & Procedures, Services & Programs, and Community Engagement, on which several additional non-at-large Committee members also sit.

The committee is developing recommendations for U of T president Meric Gertler and provost Cheryl Regehr for improving the university’s sexual violence policy. There have been several signs of progress to date, the most recent of which was the release of a questionnaire for staff and students.

Questionnaire gathers limited student feedback

On May 29, U of T released a Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Questionnaire, designed to help inform the work of the committee — it stemmed from the working group committee.

The questionnaire is anonymous and specifically gauges a student’s understanding of different types of sexual violence. It does not, however, request feedback regarding the quality of the university’s response system and services already in place.

“I am disappointed by the lack of questions asking for feedback on the quality of existing services and responses,” admits Ben Coleman, an undergraduate student on the at-large Committee and Policy & Procedures working group, and president of the UTSU. He adds, “I will definitely be bringing this up with the committee chairs.”

The development of the questionnaire was criticized for lacking student input and comprehensive representation, a criticism that was also levied when the committee, comprised of students, staff, and faculty, was struck.

Communication and representation challenges

While the committee is clearly making strides at addressing student concerns, the effective incorporation of student consultation and intersectional representation are still challenges.

These were main concerns for several students, including Celia Wandio, who founded Stop Sexual Violence U of T, a student coalition that petitioned the university in January 2015 to revise and update their sexual violence policies.

“My original concerns were mostly around the creation of the committee — how members were chosen (still unknown to us); the fact that there were so few students; and the fact that we had no indication those who formed it recognized the importance of including, for example, women of colour, trans* women, disabled women, etc. These concerns have largely been validated,” states Wandio.

According to Najiba Ali Sardar, an undergraduate student on the at-large committee and Services & Programs working group, “committee members were selected by an unknown process, there was no application process. Meetings are also closed unless a request is submitted and approved. Students have no direct say in what takes place beyond the minimal representation we have on the committee.”

One of Sardar’s chief concerns is the narrow portion of the student body represented on the committee. “The lack of representation of racialized people, trans folks, indigenous folks, indisputably hinders the validity of the process and will inevitably ignore and leave out important themes due to the overwhelming lack of diversity,” Sardar says.

Sardar emphasizes that, of the 22 members comprising the at-large committee, few are racialized. “Many qualified racialized students requested to sit on the committee, and were not granted permission,” she says.

Althea Blackburn-Evans, director of news & media relations at U of T, states, “As is true with any committee, not all expressions of interest resulted in committee membership; however, if an individual was not provided with a seat on the committee or one of its working groups, they were invited to make a submission to the committee.”

Indeed, according to Blackburn-Evans, student groups and experts in the area of sexual violence have presented to the committee working groups. Additionally, Stop Sexual Violence U of T collaborated with the U of T Thrive Initiative, a collective of U of T students advocating for safer spaces and better resources for those affected by sexual violence, and HERE, a feminist letter-writing group, to send 93 letters addressed to U of T president Meric Gertler.

Blackburn-Evans confirmed that Gertler has received the letters. “President Gertler acknowledged the letters received from the group and advised organizers that the letters will be included in this process,” assures Blackburn-Evans.

Attempts to alleviate challenges

In an effort to increase student consultation, the committee executed a series of focus groups on all three campuses, 26 of which have been held to date.

According to Blackburn-Evans, the focus groups have provided “insightful and robust feedback” and “are led by professionals who have experience in sexual violence and trauma, with a particular attention to ensure safety and support for those participating.”

Sardar, however, says that the feedback from the groups has not been entirely positive. “There have been dozens of complaints coming out of the focus groups, including the idea that the university failed to ensure the space felt safe for participants,” she says.

The working groups of the committee formulated the focus questions and discussion topics.

However, while Coleman states that the “committee got to review the questions used and make suggestions and additions,” Sardar expresses that the committee was not consulted on the hiring of the facilitator, the questions posed during focus groups, nor the spaces chosen to have these conversations. “Essentially, we were not consulted at all,” she says.

Upcoming initiatives 

The discussions have centred on defining sexual violence and consent, preventive measures the university should be taking, creating centralized programs and services for survivors, developing a clear and safe protocol for reporting, and ultimately seeking effective means of communicating services to students and of gathering information from students.

“What’s definitely emerged so far is that U of T policies need a lot of fixing and the way we offer and communicate services to students who have experienced sexual violence needs to be overhauled, so that we get to the point where most students know what services are available and feel safe using them,” explains Coleman.

According to Sardar, students should expect the launch of the website as a one-stop resource in Fall 2015, as well as the report from the committee advising the president and provost regarding sexual violence policy, and an increased focus on sexual violence safety and prevention at Joint Orientation Leader Training.

“We have worked with divisional leaders at our colleges to have all frosh (and leaders) spread the message about preventing sexual violence by raising awareness of consent. For example, all t-shirts for orientation week will have a specific message related to consent, illustrating how each and every one of us plays a role in establishing safe campus communities,” says Blackburn-Evans.

Student impact beyond the administration

“I don’t want to blame individual university administrators for a problem that is not at all unique to U of T – universities across Canada, not to mention the US, are facing the same issues, and most are failing to respond adequately. But if we want to protect our students, we need a comprehensive sexual violence policy,” says Wandio, adding, “To make sure that happens, we can’t rely on the administration to do the right thing. Unfortunately, we need students to keep up the important work of pressuring our universities to listen to us, and our experiences…In the meantime, we need to be the ones to start initiatives to address sexual violence on our campus.”

Correction (June 13, 2015, 01:36 am): A previous version of this article contained incorrect information about the number of racialized students on the Committee. The Varsity regrets the error.