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Why I filed my human rights complaint against  U of T

By on September 25, 2017

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Editor’s Note: The allegations made toward the faculty members and staff members identified in this article are unproven in court.

When I filed my human rights complaint against the University of Toronto and Trinity College, I thought I had realistic expectations. It would be exciting to push U of T to change its policies. It would be empowering to hold a press conference announcing my complaint with my colleagues from Silence is Violence, a sexual violence advocacy group on campus.

But I also knew that filing the complaint would inevitably lead to some uncomfortable interactions and might generate some unwanted attention. I wasn’t wrong. There was a man who, within the span of two minutes, commented on at least seven different posts on my Facebook timeline, then messaged me with two pictures of Winnie the Pooh and offered to give me a foot rub.

I also thought it was a given that, at the very least, the people who supported me would give me respite from whatever negativity I would face. But as I sifted through the messages and posts made by people offering their support, I noticed an unexpected trend: they did not seem most concerned about the 17 months I spent waiting for some form of justice, or the fact that my case ended with a settlement made between the university and my rapist without my knowledge or consent. Rather, they were most concerned that the first faculty member who I disclosed my story to, Trinity College’s Assistant Dean of Students, recommended I not report it to the police because he knew other survivors had had negative experiences of doing so.

I don’t mention this to condemn those people or say they have it all wrong, rather, I think this impulse demonstrates how we’re conditioned to see sexual violence: namely, as a matter first and foremost for the criminal justice system to deal with. Because of this, we see sexual violence as exceptional, as something only people who seem like criminals could do, as a horror so immense we can’t even talk about it.

Deflected responsibility

I still remember in high school when, upon entering the classroom, my English teacher — who had sexually harassed a remarkable number of the girls in my class in our two years with him — paused dramatically and told us he didn’t want to talk about the rape we had just read about in a novel because, as the father of two daughters, the subject upset him too much. I remembered this moment clearly when I first told people about my assault, puzzling through their obvious discomfort with the topic. On countless occasions, I was met with responses like ‘I’m here if you want to talk about it!’ when I thought it was clear that I was trying to do just that.

When sexual assault happens, our first impulse — if we believe it really happened at all — is to push the survivor in other directions, towards the police or towards a year-long waiting list for counselling. We believe these are the places where survivors and the experiences they carry belong.

Because of this automatic assumption that sexual violence is something for the police to deal with, I think some people following my case missed the complexity of the situation. It is hard to dispute that the criminal justice system fails most survivors; even in the 0.3 per cent of cases that do result in conviction, this comes at the end of a deeply retraumatizing process, and, in the case of Mandi Gray, can still end in the conviction being overturned.

Reporting, trusting the process

My problem with being advised against reporting to the police is that I was given no similar warning about the disappointment I would experience upon reporting to the school. In fact, I was promised that U of T takes sexual violence ‘very seriously’ when I asked if expulsion was on the table. I believed this and, at the time, I thought the Dean of Students’ advice was coming from a place of concern. He could have advised me not to go to the police because he cared, but the fact of the matter is that U of T’s sexual violence policies past and present leave no room for that kind of concern, for the empathy it takes to admit that you have failed someone.

As I went through this process, I figured, as many students still seem to do, that within U of T’s decentralized structure the problem was that some bad administrators were doing a poor job and their bosses were unaware. After all, the other faculty member who argued that my rapist had changed since the assault, and who allowed him to continue playing intramural soccer as a result, had never dealt with a sexual assault case before.

I gradually lost trust in the men handling my case, however I held out hope in Trinity College’s Dean of Students, who let me vent to her whenever my rapist violated the rule that forbid him from eating in Trinity’s dining hall, shook her head in frustration when I told her what the other faculty members had told me, and promised that she and the provost of Trinity College, at least, saw this as a problem.

In January 2016, I was told that my case would proceed to a hearing. In the following nine months, I helped the Dean of Students work on consent education programming while she told me, again shaking her head with a ‘what can you do?’ look on her face, that she hadn’t heard anything more about the timing of the hearing. Then, to my surprise, in September she brought me into her office and told me that throughout this time she and the provost had not only known what was going on but had been actively working with my rapist and his lawyers to come up with a series of confidential resolutions that would sidestep a hearing.

I walked out of her office feeling like a friend had betrayed me. That feeling stuck with me over the coming weeks, as I thought about all the ways that I had patiently waited, trusted the process, followed the rules, and tried to be understanding when I was told that ‘this is just how it is.’ Finally, it was clear to me: this system and its administrators never cared about me or any other survivor.

Systemic injustices

For me, this was a familiar feeling. It brought me back to the times throughout my education as a disabled student, when I was made to feel like I was being unreasonable for requesting accommodations for something that is not, and has never been, my fault.

And I’m not alone with this feeling: sexual assault can happen to anyone, but statistics regarding which groups are disproportionately affected echo the power dynamics that already exist on campus and in broader society. Women, trans people, and nonbinary people are more likely to experience sexual violence, as are disabled, POC, and queer students. Most people who find themselves hearing survivors’ stories know that the perpetrators are frequently popular upper-years, student politicians, dons, TAs, and even senior professors and research supervisors. Often, it’s whoever has enough structural power at this institution to know they can get away with it. No matter what the university says in its flashy new sexual violence policy, myself and many other survivors understand that U of T prioritizes reputation and money over taking care of marginalized students. Silencing survivors is just one of the ways U of T makes this clear.

U of T and policy changes

Still, if the university were too blatant in their mistreatment of survivors, they would risk more lawsuits like mine. It felt like they needed me to believe that I was in control of the process and that they had done everything they could. This calculation weaved through the promises that were made to me along the way, from the times administrators told me they had never seen sanctions so serious in a sexual assault case to the times they offered to make referrals knowing full-well that the academic accommodations available are hardly ever extensive enough.

This is a university that prides itself first and foremost on its reputation for research and academic rigour, a reputation that requires a base level of assumed safety without going far enough with support to seem lenient. Besides, what parent would send their child to a university that openly acknowledged that some of its students sexually assault their peers? It’s far easier to sweep sexual assault under the rug than to grapple with dismantling centuries-old power structures.

U of T’s new policy can’t magically fix the problem of sexual violence at this university if U of T doesn’t want it to. Sexual violence won’t end because survivors go to the sexual assault centre tucked away in Robarts rather than going to their college. Sexual violence can only end through the dismantling of the power structures that feed into it.

In the meantime, we need processes for dealing with sexual assault that are more involved and more personal — processes that actually deal with the harm of sexual assault. This university needs to grapple with the gut-wrenching realization that this is our school, perpetrators are our fellow students and colleagues, and sexual assault exists on these campuses. Sexual violence is not going away no matter how many Health and Wellness Be Safe posters are put up, no matter how many rape whistles are distributed at frosh week, and no matter how many consent education videos – as if consent needs to be taught and sexual assault is just a misunderstanding – are thrown at students.

It is not enough for the university to investigate sexual assault and half-heartedly reduce the likelihood of survivors running into their assailants. Dealing with sexual assault also means dealing with the material effects of sexual assault, from the money spent making up lost time in school or the cost of getting adequate counselling to the academic impacts of being forced to sit through a class each week with the person who sexually assaulted you. It means going beyond the supposedly neutral stance that allowed the university to take 17 months to ban my rapist from social events, Trinity buildings with some exceptions, and the classes I am enrolled in.

The complaint

That, ultimately, is why I filed a human rights complaint. After I got home from that final meeting with the Dean of Students, I looked over the hasty notes I had taken, hands shaking in anger, while she paraphrased to me the confidential resolution in my case. I went back to the copy of the student code of conduct I had been given, annotated with my first-year self’s more hopeful notes, outlining what I thought was supposed to be a policy that was flexible enough to meet the needs of survivors.

Looking back months later, that same hopeful vision of the university I once had was gone, and the thought of any other survivor encountering that policy and having the same hopefulness — only to eventually be crushed — filled me with dread. Watching the university pass a new sexual violence policy and pass it off as progress with seemingly little public skepticism, I started to worry. What if the process I had started had merely been a waste of my time? What if, after all I went through, this process had helped no one except for my rapist?

So I started researching. I spoke to others in Silence is Violence, who validated my sense that what happened was not okay. I spoke to Gray, who referred me to the Human Rights Legal Support Centre; their lawyers are now representing me. While I spent second semester quietly planning my complaint, at each step thinking only about what I had to do next, I worked with Silence is Violence on a poster campaign that went viral, sharing the stories of survivors who had been blamed and silenced like I had.

The university’s response to scrape our posters off bus shelters and lamp posts around campus instead of trying to actually acknowledge and address the problem was telling.

At the same time, the rush of messages we got after that one night of putting up posters signalled to me that survivors at this campus had long been in desperate need of this kind of acknowledgement. When I was finally able to file my human rights application, I decided to go public with my case: I did a story with the Toronto Star and held a press conference in Trinity College to set the record straight. I knew that U of T would only deal with sexual assault if there were consequences for not doing so, and I felt I owed it to every other survivor to try my best to make that happen.

If this article makes me seem pessimistic, I’m not. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard to hear horror stories about the same administrators, counsellors, and community safety officers while maintaining hope for a better future. But at this point, in passing a new sexual assault policy after holding a single consultation for each campus, U of T is making little effort to show survivors that it cares. And students have noticed. Over the past year, grassroots activism has arisen on campus, aimed at stopping perpetrators from maintaining power in their communities.

I’ve seen too many nods of recognition from students passing SIV posters, I’ve been on the receiving end of too many whispered stories of ‘I haven’t told anyone this, but…,’ and I’ve spoken too many times with survivors dreaming up their own forms of justice to underestimate our determination to change this.

I just hope U of T is ready.

This is the first installment of The Varsity’s investigative series exploring sexual violence at the University of Toronto.