Three Toronto anti-sexual violence groups have collaborated in an effort to improve resources for survivors of sexual violence at the University of Toronto and York University.
The three groups formed the Coalition to End Sexual Violence and sent an open letter dated June 9, 2015, concerning the lack of effective policy on sexual violence to U of T president Meric Gertler, and president of York University, Mamdouh Shoukr.
The Coalition to End Sexual Violence is a collective initiative formed in April of this year between the U of T Thrive Initiative, U of T Students Against Sexual Assault, and Silence is Violence at York University, comprised of survivors of sexual violence, elected student group officials, undergraduate and graduate students, faculty members, and teaching and university staff.
The Coalition aims to challenge the status quo of silence and tolerance toward sexual violence on Canadian university campuses. Ultimately, the Coalition aims to refashion a cultural discourse and attitude that is unforgiving of violable objectification in order to cultivate a safer environment for people of all races, classes, abilities, and gender identities.
The letter detailed a list of preliminary recommendations, starting with the need for a comprehensive policy and procedure for disclosures of all forms of sexual violence guided by survivors and experts in sexual violence.
The letter demands the creation of a sexual violence centre, with paid counselors, sexual violence professionals, and legal experts. The letter also asks for this centre to provide housing, reporting services to the police, health services, advocacy, support, and possibly employment at the university.
The letter suggests improvements to safety planning with survivors and regular climate surveys to track the effectiveness of campus services and policies, which are conducted at other schools such as the University of Ottawa and the University of Alberta.
Among the letter’s policy recommendations was that an explicitly stated list of rights for the personal protection of survivors – which would include confidentiality and access to assistance, counseling, and financial aid, in addition to survivor-centric investigation procedures – be drafted. These would ideally be carried out by a female legal counsel with expertise in gendered violence, the workplace, human rights, and criminal law.
The Coalition sent a copy to the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario (CFS-O) hoping for their support in furthering the demands of the letter. The Coalition also called upon Premier Kathleen Wynne to provide adequate funding for provincial health and social services, which survivors in the group have identified as well run and wonderful, yet inefficient due to long waitlists and overworked staff.
“We sent CFS a copy of our letter because Ontario division is the only student group currently sitting on Kathleen Wynne’s action plan to end sexual violence,” said Mandi Gray, from Silence is Violence at York University. “We anticipate that other survivors of violence in Ontario and across Canada [will] experience similar barriers imposed by their university’s lack of policy and procedure and wanted to ensure our demands are heard by the province who can impose certain expectations upon our universities.”
Gray acknowledged that the CFS-O couldn’t directly influence policy development, but that it was possible to work with them to bring their concerns to the province. “Hopefully, the action plan will ensure that there are measures of accountability for universities to develop and implement meaningful policy and procedure directed by experts on sexual violence, students, and university staff,” said Gray.
U of T and York unite
“We joined together with York students because we recognized that both universities are facing similar issues, as are universities across Canada,” said Celia Wandio, founder of U of T Students Against Sexual Assault. “We wanted to discuss our difficulties and learn from each other, and to work together to address sexual violence as it impacts university students.”
“We formed the Coalition because we recognized the similar experiences survivors are facing at both university campuses,” Gray stated. “There are numerous activist groups on both campuses. We decided that it is time to work together to build a strong anti-sexual violence movement on university campuses in Toronto. While there are some differences in terms of student demographic and geographical location, we decided that developing a unified set of demands could potentially strengthen our position on the issue.”
Gray also put forward the idea that the issue is not confined to universities in Toronto and is ultimately a universal concern. She said that she is hoping to extend the Coalition to include student representatives from universities across the province, and then across the country.
Advocacy at U of T
At U of T, the Advisory Committee to the President and Provost on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence was created in November 2014 as an administrative resolution to the issue.
“While we want to have faith that this committee will do everything we want it to, we feel it is important that the administration be aware of student commitment to these issues,” said Wandio. “Sexual violence on campus is too big an issue to allow us to sit back and hope the upper administration will implement all the changes needed to keep students safe and healthy.”
As far as Wandio is aware, there has not yet been a response to the letter from the U of T administration. “At this point we are used to having a lot of our recommendations seemingly ignored by the administration; but we’re hoping that these ideas will be taken into consideration in the recommendations made by the Advisory Committee at U of T.”