Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault.
On October 27, the Ontario provincial government introduced a bill that would prohibit universities from signing non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) with staff and professors found to have sexually harassed or assaulted students and allow universities to fire perpetrators without severance pay. Although the bill won’t directly affect U of T’s policies and only addresses faculty on student sexual violence, the PEARS project supports the bill for drawing attention to the issue of campus sexual violence. According to a survey conducted by Statistics Canada, roughly one in seven women students asked in 2019 indicated they’d been sexually assaulted while in university.
Ontario Colleges and Universities Minister Jill Dunlop introduced the Strengthening Post-secondary Institutions and Students Act to the provincial legislature on October 27. The bill aims to address staff sexual assault at public colleges and universities and private career colleges. If passed, the legislation would ban NDAs between universities and their staff found to have committed an act of sexual abuse. It would also allow universities to fire perpetrators without notice or termination pay and prohibit universities from rehiring employees who resigned or were fired due to sexually abusing a student.
“This is really about protecting students,” said Dunlop, in an interview with The Waterloo Record. “It’s something we all stand together on, ensuring that students are protected from sexual misconduct, whether that’s from faculty and staff or from other students.”
Impact at U of T
In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson wrote, “The University strongly supports the spirit of this proposed legislation, and believes that our policy and practices are in compliance with it.”
“The University does not enter into non-disclosure agreements with parties involved in a sexual violence process,” wrote the spokesperson.
According to the university’s current Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment, individuals found to have committed an act of sexual violence may be relocated, suspended, or terminated, depending on the “nature of the offence and any mitigating or aggravating circumstances.” The university notifies any faculty or librarians accused of sexual assault of the decision in their case and disciplinary measures taken against them.
Some employees at U of T, including part-time faculty, are not entitled to severance pay if they are terminated for an act of sexual violence, among other conduct-related violations. However, the university’s collective agreement with the United Steelworkers, a labour union at U of T, entitles the almost 5,000 staff-appointed full- and part-time administrators and technical employees to severance pay, and neither the contract nor the university’s sexual violence policy exclude staff fired for committing sexual harassment from this compensation. The act doesn’t require universities to stop providing notice or severance pay to perpetrators, so the legislation wouldn’t necessarily impact these policies.
However, the bill may affect U of T indirectly. In its response to the most recent review of the policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment, U of T indicated that it would develop a process to share and receive information from other institutions about whether potential hires were found guilty of sexual misconduct. The policy, which was scheduled to come into effect this academic year, relies on other institutions to share this information. The proposed Ontario legislation could increase transparency about the previous actions of hirees by prohibiting NDAs, which would help avoid ‘passing the harasser.’
The Varsity spoke with executives from the Prevention, Empowerment, Advocacy, Response, for Survivors (PEARS) Project, a grassroots, trauma-informed group providing support for survivors of sexual violence across U of T’s three campuses. “I was very pleased to see that further attention is being paid to the issue of sexualized / gender-based violence in post secondary, as it is so often disregarded,” wrote Micah Kalisch, founder and director of PEARS, in an email to The Varsity.
However, Kalisch has concerns about the implementation of the policy. “We have seen [that] what is written in our current policy doesn’t always align with what occurs in practice. For example, if the university is mandated to remove the use of NDAs, it is possible they may continue to use an alternative non-adjudicative resolution which essentially does the same thing; silence the survivor,” they wrote.
Bec Brydon, outreach director for PEARS, also has concerns about the legislation’s implementation. “The main issue I see from this legislation is that discipline is not guaranteed, even if someone has been found guilty of committing sexual and/or gender-based violence,” they wrote. The legislation opens the possibility of universities disciplining staff, but does not require that they do so.
Kalisch also pointed out that the legislation doesn’t address student against student or staff against staff sexual violence. According to the 2019 Survey on Individual Safety in the Postsecondary Student Population, which tracks sexual violence in Canadian universities and colleges, the vast majority of students who reported experiencing unwanted “sexualized behaviours” said that other students were the perpetrators. Although the data about men students were unreliable, only two per cent of surveyed women students who indicated having been sexually assaulted in the past 12 months identified the perpetrator as a supervisor, coach, professor, or teaching assistant.
Brydon hopes to see legislation that provides greater support to survivors of sexual violence, such as counselling. The U of T Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre doesn’t directly provide counselling, although its mandate includes connecting individuals to outside counseling services.
However, Kalisch points out that policy is not the only solution to address sexual violence. “Policy is only one of the many tools required to eradicate rape culture. Everyone has a responsibility and a role to play,” they wrote.
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