On International Women’s Day, March 8, the Ontario government passed the Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act.
The legislation was first introduced in October 2015 as part of the government’s broader action plan against sexual violence. The plan also includes the It’s Never Okay campaign, which seeks to “make workplaces and campuses safer from and more responsive to sexual violence and harassment.”
By January 2017, Ontario’s colleges and universities will be required to have a policy in place addressing sexual violence. According to the legislation, policies must involve students and set out a response process for the institution. Under the new law, policies will be reviewed every three years. The reviews will also take student input into consideration.
Ellie Adekur, graduate student and organizer with Silence is Violence U of T, expressed doubts about the act.
“First, the report takes a zero-tolerance approach to any form of sexual violence on campus, but does little to address steps the university will take in the event of a complaint,” she explained, with emphasis on how the report doesn’t address issues that come with how “decentralized the [university’s] resources are.”
Second, Adekur finds that the report places emphasis on education, professional development, and consent but doesn’t thoroughly explain what “comprehensive” and “adequate education” look like.
One of the recommendations of U of T’s Advisory Committee to the President and Provost on Prevention and Response to Sexual Violence was the creation of a stand-alone policy and protocol on sexual violence.
“The ministry anticipates coming forward with regulations that will set out more detailed requirements for the policies around reporting to get feedback on the implementation of the policies,” said Linda Mackay, manager of issues and media relations for the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.
Of more than 100 colleges and universities in Canada, only about two dozen have stand-alone sexual assault policies. Some provinces, such as Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and most recently, British Columbia, have taken steps to establish policies of their own.
The Ontario government also released a progress report on It’s Never Okay, which states $2.2 million has been invested over three years to ensure that students are provided with information during orientation week and throughout the year about how to prevent sexual violence and harassment.
“The report won’t change the culture of silence because the culture of silence around sexual violence is the bedrock of our institution,” Adekur said. She believes that the university needs to initiate projects that privilege the voices of students, faculty, and survivors — people of colour and equity-seeking groups chief among them.
Adekur said that she would like to see an apology from the university that acknowledges the institution’s history of silence on issues of sexual violence, referring to U of T’s approach thus far.
“The University of Toronto does not want students to come forward with complaints of sexual violence on campus. The University has continuously shut down different forms of student organizing that shed light on the realities of sexual violence on campus, and has worked to co-opt movements on campus by offloading surveying work onto students, and wrapping them up in committees (very much like this one) that have no real decision-making authority at the University,” she said.
“The University can say that it is taking steps to address sexual violence through this committee, but thinking about its structure, its composition, the recommendations and the total lack of accountability is revealing in that we see the University is able to distance itself from any real responsibility to survivors,” stated Adekur.