Content warning: This article contains mentions of sexual violence.
On October 7, the Prevention, Empowerment, Advocacy Response for Survivors (PEARS) Project — a U of T student-led, trauma-informed initiative supporting survivors of sexual violence — organized a protest against U of T’s acceptance of sexual violence policy review recommendations.
The event, titled “Too Little Too Late,” took place three months after the university accepted all 12 recommendations from the most recent review of the university’s Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment.
At the event, which was supported by the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), the UTM Students’ Union (UTMSU), and the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), protestors marched through campus then staged a silent sit in outside the office of U of T’s president. Following the sit in, survivors of sexual violence shared their stories with attendees.
U of T’s sexual violence policy details procedures and supports for incidents of sexual violence affecting members of the university community, and must be reviewed every three years according to provincial legislation.
Micah Kalisch, the founder and director of PEARS, has previously expressed concerns that the recommended changes complicate the reporting process for survivors, and do not provide enough survivor support.
In September, PEARS held a “Chalk is Cheap” event to raise awareness about the ‘red zone’ — a term which is used to refer to the prevalence of sexual violence in the first few weeks of universities’ academic years.
The event opened with sign making on Philosopher’s Walk, directly outside the Faculty of Music. Last summer, allegations of sexual harassment against professors in the Faculty of Music came to light when student and labour unions posted them on social media. In August 2021, Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3902 posted signs along Philosopher’s Walk detailing survivors’ experiences of sexual harassment in the Faculty of Music.
From Philosopher’s Walk, the protesters marched toward Simcoe Hall. On the way, they stopped outside Trinity College, where Andy Orchard — against whom allegations of sexual harassment were published by Al Jazeera last year — served as provost for six years. Orchard was a medieval studies professor at U of T for 13 years. In 2013, he left for the University of Oxford, where he still teaches.
Outside Trinity College, Kalisch told the protestors that after U of T received complaints of sexual harassment against Orchard, “instead of doing something about it, he was promoted to the provost of Trinity College.”
Kalisch also mentioned that Orchard’s portrait hung in the Trinity College dining hall until last year.
Kalisch then led the protestors in a chant as they continued to march: “Your policies are broken. Survivors have spoken.” The group headed south along St. George Street toward Simcoe Hall, where the office of U of T President Meric Gertler is located.
Once outside Simcoe Hall, protestors initially found the front doors locked. After several attempts to get into the building, the crowd managed to enter through the front door and sat silently at the base of the first floor stairs. Some protestors, including Kalisch, stuck red tape over their mouths to symbolize the administrative red tape that complicates reporting processes.
Kalisch then led protestors up the stairs to the president’s office, where the group sat for just under an hour. Protestors wrote their demands on sheets of printer paper, which Kalisch then slipped under the president’s closed door.
Afterward, the protest moved back outside Simcoe Hall. Organizers invited several attendees to address the crowd from the building’s front step. UTMSU President Maëlis Barre and SCSU President Michael Sobowale offered remarks of support and solidarity. Other speakers, including Bec Brydon and Radhika Gupta — PEARS’ outreach director and a leader of UTSC’s PEARS branch, respectively — shared stories of their experiences with sexual violence at U of T.
In an interview with The Varsity, Gupta acknowledged that, despite the turnout at the protest, there are many more survivors at U of T whose experiences are overlooked by the system. She emphasized that PEARS is only a message away: “We may not have all the answers, but we can promise that no one has to go through any of this alone ever again,” she said.
In keeping with the name of the event, Emma Biamonte — policy projects lead at PEARS and co president of the initiative’s University College branch — criticized the final report recommendations for being “too little too late.” In a speech, she noted that the university performed the review internally rather than entrusting it to an external body, and expressed concerns with the report’s non-committal language and insufficient incorporation of community feedback.
She also drew attention to recommendation seven of the review, asking, “How can the school be implementing formal supports for respondents when survivors are failing to access any kind of necessary support or accommodation?”
In August, Kalisch told The Varsity that recommendation seven of the review, which involved formalizing supports for those facing allegations, “really raised some flags about the prevalence of professors and faculty being accused of sexual violence.”
Kalisch, addressing protest attendees, acknowledged that many of the people present were survivors themselves. “For many of us, this isn’t just about a policy review,” Kalisch said. “This isn’t just about the practices that the university puts forward. This is about our lives, and this is about our safety, and this is about our dignity.”
Kalisch also highlighted that U of T’s student feedback form for the review closed for submissions on the day of the protest, October 7, at 5:00 pm, a deadline that they felt was insufficiently publicized.
Student union support
All three major undergraduate student union presidents — Barre, Sobowale, and Omar Gharbiyeh from the UTSU — attended the protest.
Gharbiyeh told The Varsity that he believes the review’s recommendations are inadequate because they do not respond to criticisms from survivors and other students who had been consulted. “If anything, some of [the recommendations] seem to be going in an adverse direction,” he said.
He explained that the UTSU has been working with the PEARS project since the start of last term, and some members of the union attended the event as a gesture of solidarity. He believes it’s important that students know the union is “hearing their concerns even if the administration isn’t.”
Prior to the event, the UTMSU and SCSU offered information and resources to help satellite campus students attend the protest. The UTMSU pointed students to the UTM shuttle bus service and the SCSU offered PRESTO passes for Scarborough students.
Barre explained that she believes showing up to the event in person is more meaningful than an online statement or post: “It shows the strength in numbers. It shows the support that students have from their union and from each other.”
Barre said that the UTMSU will request to speak at the policy review later this year at the Governing Council.
In an email to The Varsity, Sobowale wrote that the SCSU attended the protests because students “have the right and ability to voice their displeasure in the most appropriate avenue, which is not limited to protests but making sure our actions also show what we believe in.”
U of T’s response
In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson stated that the university’s Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment is intended to outline how the university responds to reports of sexual violence involving the U of T community, and to provide supports for those who have experienced sexual violence.
They explained that the policy, which applies to all students, staff, faculty and librarians, is “an important component of the University’s commitment that all members of the University community should have the ability to study, work, and live in a campus environment free from sexual violence, including sexual harassment.”
The most recent review of the policy concluded in July 2022 “after extensive consultations over a five-month period.” According to the spokesperson, around 700 people participated through more than 50 group and individual consultations.
“Student leaders from tri-campus student societies and representatives of student groups, including The PEARS project, were specifically consulted for their feedback,” the spokesperson wrote. They also explained that an online consultation form was available for any member of the university community to fill out from October 2021 to March 2022.
The university stated that it worked to incorporate all of the reviewers’ recommendations into the policy over the summer. Following that, consultations on the proposed revisions to the policy were available for three weeks. These consultations were “shared directly with student societies and the University as a whole.”
“We look forward to sharing the amended policy with University governance bodies for their approval this fall,” they concluded.
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence or harassment at U of T:
- Visit safety.utoronto.ca for a list of safety resources.
- Visit svpscentre.utoronto.ca for information, contact details, and hours of operation for the tri-campus Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre. Centre staff can be reached by phone at 416-978-2266 or by email at [email protected].
- Call Campus Safety Special Constable Service to make a report at 416-978-2222 (for U of T St. George and U of T Scarborough) or 905-569-4333 (for U of T Mississauga)
- Call the Women’s College Hospital Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre at 416-323-6040
- Call the Scarborough Grace Sexual Assault Care Centre at 416-495-2555
- Call the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 866-863-0511