On January 27, Project Sexual Trauma & Assault Resource Team (START) — a UTSC student-led, trauma-informed group that supports survivors of sexual violence — organized a protest at UTSC titled “We Are Still Here.” Organizers and participants criticized the Governing Council’s December 2022 decision to accept U of T’s updated Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment and UTM Professor Robert Reisz’s continued employment at the university.
Around 30 people attended the protest, marched through the south side of the UTSC campus, and wrote chalk inscriptions on the exterior walls of the Bladen Wing, Student Centre, and Krembil Student Commons. Afterward, protesters moved inside the Meeting Place, and organizers shared their stories with attendees.
Project START is the UTSC branch of the Prevention, Empowerment, Advocacy, Response, for Survivors (PEARS) Project. The protest was Project START’s first “formal” event, according to the group’s External Director Shreeansha Bhattarai. Bhattarai told The Varsity that Project START began because UTSC students lacked a group on campus that “gave voice to survivors.”
Executives from the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) and the PEARS Project spoke at the event, and representatives from the University of Toronto Students’ Union and Scarborough Campus OUT — which provides a positive space for LGBTQ+ individuals at UTSC — also attended.
In November 2022, The Varsity published an article detailing an external investigation into Reisz’s misconduct undertaken by U of T in 2020. The article revealed that, in April 2022, U of T admitted that Reisz had violated the university’s sexual violence policy on at least one occasion.
In response, the PEARS Project published an open letter calling on the university to fire Reisz. The open letter has garnered 1,846 signatures as of February 5. In addition, the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union organized a protest outside Reisz’s office in November 2022.
In December 2022, U of T’s Governing Council approved recommended updates to the university’s sexual violence policy, which the PEARS Project openly opposed. Two months beforehand, the PEARS Project had organized a protest outside Simcoe Hall calling on the Governing Council to reject the proposed changes. At the event, PEARS Project criticized recommendation seven of the review, which suggested that the university formalize supports for those accused of sexual violence, and characterized the updates as “too little too late.”
To begin the protest, participants made posters at the Student Centre then headed to the Meeting Place, where they used red tape to display their posters in the Hall of Excellence.
From the Meeting Place, PEARS Project’s Director Micah Kalisch and START President Radhika Gupta led the protestors in a march through the hallways of the Science and Bladen Wings. The group chanted, “Survivors deserve better,” and, “U of T has failed us.”
Then, protestors marched outdoors along the Gallery Walk, stopping to write on the exterior walls of the Bladen Wing, Student Centre, and Krembil Student Commons. Organizers served coffee and tea while protestors wrote “safe space for all,” and “we are not alone” in chalk. As of February 2, the chalk inscriptions remain on the walls. Afterward, the protest moved back inside the Meeting Place, where organizers shared their stories with attendees.
Gupta and Kalisch gave introductory remarks. “We are still here, despite how many times U of T has tried to silence us, despite how many times they have pushed for harmful policies,” Kalisch said.
PEARS Project Policy Lead Emma Biamonte critiqued the Governing Council’s approval of the updated sexual violence policy. Biamonte said that U of T did not accept all of the PEARS Project’s recommendations — in particular, recommendations that would have “increased the timeliness and transparency of the process of reporting experiences of sexual violence.”
At the Governing Council meeting, Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr said that U of T had integrated PEARS Project’s only recommendation regarding university policy and that the group’s other recommendations predominantly addressed “process.” However, Kalisch clarified to The Varsity after the meeting that the PEARS Project had submitted multiple policy-specific recommendations, which had been reviewed by both a lawyer and a gender-based violence policy analyst.
Kalisch said that U of T President Meric Gertler approached the PEARS Project team after the Governing Council passed the sexual violence policy revisions and suggested that the university work with the PEARS Project to initiate another review of the policy in 2023. According to Kalisch, Gertler has yet to follow up on his offer of meeting with the PEARS Project team.
At the protest, Gupta shared her experiences of sexual violence while she lived on residence at UTSC and the difficulties and delays she experienced in reporting her case to the university.
In an interview with The Varsity after the protest, Gupta said, “I have friends who have chosen to leave this university largely related to gender-based violence, and I still very much carry them and their stories with me.”
Speaking to protest attendees, SCSU Vice-President Campus Life Alyssia Fernandes expressed solidarity. She believes that U of T penalizes students more harshly when caught cheating than when people in positions of power incur a “more serious violation” like sexual harassment and assault.
Thara Majid, a protest attendee and first-year UTSC student, told The Varsity that professors should not “misuse” their authority and power over students. “No one deserves to be assaulted,” she said. “Sexual assault should not be part of the university experience.”
In an interview with The Varsity, SCSU Vice-President External Thai Dillon Higashihara said that the turnout for the protest was “really good.” Fernandes echoed this sentiment, pointing out that she had noticed that a lot of first-year students were in attendance.
Higashihara said that UTM’s decision to continue employing Reisz after an external investigation determined that he had violated U of T’s sexual violence policy was “very telling.” “You see that the sexual violence policy is lacking when this perpetrator is still working and able to be on campus,” he said.
In an interview with The Varsity, Vice-President Academics and University Affairs Amrith David mentioned that Reisz is still teaching undergraduate courses — courses that are prerequisites for UTM’s paleontology major. “The students have to do [those] courses to get their degrees, so they have no choice but to be in them, and that’s so unfair for them,” he said.
In conversation with The Varsity, Gupta highlighted that collective community action plays an important role in making survivors feel less alone. “We may not have all the answers, but we’re here together,” she said.