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Students for Survivors campaign demands better sexual violence response

Campaign launches as U of T conducts sexual violence policy review
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Students have criticized the university’s policy, saying it protects respondents. YASSINE ELBARADIE/THE VARSITY
Students have criticized the university’s policy, saying it protects respondents. YASSINE ELBARADIE/THE VARSITY

In order to pressure the university to address sexual violence on campus, three student groups — the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), the Prevention Empowerment Advocacy Response for Survivors Project (PEARS), and the Faculty of Music Undergraduate Association (FMUA) — have launched the Students for Survivors campaign.

In a collective email to The Varsity, organizers explained that they had decided to launch the campaign in response to allegations of sexual harassment within the Faculty of Music and against former Trinity College Provost and Vice-Chancellor Andy Orchard over the past year. The organizers hope to hold the university accountable, and to urge its sexual violence policy toward a more survivor-centric approach during the university’s ongoing policy review

Campaign background

Students began speaking out about sexual violence on campus back in May 2021, when the FMUA released two statements on Facebook demanding that the faculty address allegations of sexual violence that were circulating on social media at the time. Students also hung anonymous signs along Philosopher’s Walk detailing their own experiences of sexual harassment in the faculty.

The FMUA’s open letters demanded that the faculty address allegations of sexual harasment in a transparent way; implement an external review of the faculty; institute obligatory training on consent for all faculty members; and create an ‘Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Officer’ position for the faculty. The faculty eventually responded to these demands with its own letter, agreeing that action needed to be taken within the faculty and outlining a plan for addressing the problem. 

Moreover, an investigation by Al Jazeera released in October revealed that Orchard had been accused of sexual harassment and engaging in inappropriate sexual relationships with students. An investigation by The Toronto Star found that at least two allegations were made against Orchard during his time at U of T, but the university failed to take disciplinary action beyond giving him a warning.

Students reacted to this news with calls to action as well, with Trinity College Against Sexual Harasment (TASAH) demanding that his portrait be removed from Strachan Hall in Trinity College. The painting was eventually removed

Furthermore, the university is currently reviewing its sexual violence policy, as it is obligated to do every three years. The review is being led by Linda Johnston, the dean of the Faculty of Nursing, and Allison Burgess, the director of the Sexual & Gender Diversity Office. It is currently conducting consultations with relevant stakeholders, including student groups like PEARS, which organized a town hall with survivors to compile feedback on the policy.

Although all these factors contributed to the creation of the Students for Survivors campaign, organizers also noted that “[they] believe that advocacy with the goal of ending gender-based violence must always persist.”

Organizers’ plans

The campaign specifically aims to improve U of T’s sexual violence policy, which it believes has failed to protect students from sexual violence on campus. Organizers wrote that they believe the university’s current sexual violence policy erodes the consent of survivors and that it mainly serves to protect respondents, especially faculty members. They also note that support is not accessible to survivors in a trauma-informed way.

Consequently, the campaign hopes to hold the university to account. It will centre its response around the feedback and voices of survivors, beginning with a video launch on February 18, where survivors will share their experiences dealing with the Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre. Survivors will also be able to express themselves at an event in March called “VOICES Through the Arts.”

The campaign will lobby for the university to promote training surrounding consent and for it to build relationships with organizations that tackle gender-based violence. Organizers also recognize that not all survivors and allies will be able to participate in the campaign in the same way, so they hope to offer a myriad of ways in which students can get involved. 

The campaign will culminate with an in-person protest currently scheduled for April 8, which is the last day of classes.

Campaign goals

Organizers explained that their greatest goals in launching the campaign are to bring awareness to the university’s policy review, to encourage students to read PEARS’ preliminary policy analysis, and to make sure that the policy review is released in a transparent manner.

It noted that any conclusions the policy comes to must be shared in a transparent way so that students can effectively engage with changes and it can produce community reflection. 

Lastly, the organizers hope that the campaign will emphasize the importance of U of T listening to student voices and adjusting its policy to have a more survivor-centric approach. If the university does so, organizers believe that it will be able to prevent and respond to situations of gender-based violence more effectively.