Students for Consent Culture Canada
The grassroots movement Students for Consent Culture Canada was inspired by the 2017 OurTurn national action plan on addressing sexual violence on campus, University of Manitoba law student Allison Kilgour explained during a Sept. 18, 2019, seminar at Robson Hall.
The plan resulted from individual students’ efforts to pressure educational institutions about inadequate sexual violence policies and poor investigation of sexual violence complaints.
Noticing gaps in Carleton University’s sexual violence policy, a student wrote an open letter requesting changes. “There is no appetite to reform the policy,” the university responded. Infuriated by this response, the student mobilized other students, leading to the OurTurn Action Plan signed by 20 student unions across Canada. Subsequently, the National OurTurn Committee was formed to provide students with resources to make recommendations on reforming sexual violence policies on their campuses.
At McGill University, for example, students wrote a policy that they submitted to the university but the university senate passed a policy that completely ignored those recommendations. The Students’ Society wrote an open letter calling for an external investigation into the Dean of Arts’ handling of investigations against faculty members; a sexual violence policy that includes recommendations by students; and student representation in the sexual violence policy decision-making process.
Students for Consent Culture Canada works on sexual violence prevention, support and advocacy across campuses. The organization supports student unions in pushing for policy changes. Many institutions are working on new policies either in response to lobbying activities or provincial legislation. Developing policies is not enough, Kilgour said, pointing to Dalhousie University’s failure to put in place the infrastructure to implement its sexual violence policy.
“Why a policy?” Kilgour asked. She said university complaint processes are an alternative to the lengthy criminal investigation process that re-victimizes survivors. Policies also give survivors a different form of redress. She concluded that it is important for institutions to listen to students, support survivors and respect procedural fairness for all parties.
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Sexual violence policies are complicated and often hard to read, while investigative processes are typically long and windy, law Prof. Karen Busby told seminar participants. By law, educational institutions are expected to investigate complaints and ensure that sexual misconduct does not disrupt academic activities. Case law also obliges institutions to show they are aware of systemic discrimination and harassment, and have an established protocol for investigating and for communicating the resolution of complaints to complainants.
Post-secondary institutions take different approaches to whether off-campus and after-hour incidents should be investigated. The University of Winnipeg policy takes a narrow approach, focusing on incidents on university property or at university events. The University of Saskatchewan has a broader approach, extending beyond campus to conduct with a substantial link to the university that affects the university learning or living environment. Most institutions have rules similar to the U of Winnipeg, Busby said.
Complainants are required to maintain confidentiality to protect the integrity of the investigation process. They can speak with their friends and family but not with the media. Civil suits may be filed by respondents against complainants if they speak to the media prior to completion of the investigative process.
Is it unfair to proceed with a university investigation while the matter is simultaneously before criminal courts? Busby believes university investigations should be suspended because of the potential for self-incrimination: anything the victim says at the university investigation can be used against her in court.
Referencing the #IBelieveYou movement, Busby said “I believe you” is helpful in the context of victim support services but not during the investigative process.
What happens when the complainant was drunk? Institutional policies use a variety of wording: there can be no consent if a person is not sober, or “under the influence,” or “significantly impaired” or if the person’s judgement is impaired.
Busby concluded “it is naive to think we can suspend, fire, or expel our way out of the problem of campus sexual violence.” Institutions must also establish prevention education and effective support services for victims.
Is possible to create a balance between accountability and confidentiality?
SFCC has called for changes to Freedom of Information acts, especially regarding the need to disclose the resolution of investigations to complainants.
There seems to be a concentration on the power imbalance between students and faculty/staff.
Most incidents are actually peer-on-peer but staff-and-student incidents tend to receive more media attention. Institutions have a single policy encompassing incidents involving students only, students and staff, or staff members only. Although the new U of Manitoba policy focuses on staff-and-student occurrences, other institutions have encompassing policies.
Why are universities reluctant to implement policies?
It is a cost issue for most universities – investigations are expensive to conduct. Busby believes more funds should be dedicated to awareness and education rather than investigations.
Can you talk a little about the new U of Manitoba sexual violence report?
Amongst other things, the report recommends the establishment of a Sexual Assault Centre and bans all relationships between professors and students in which the professor is in a position of influence. The university administration has committed to implementing all 43 of the recommendations made by the committee.
Has the University of Manitoba committed money for implementation of the policy?
Some funding has been committed in the university’s budget but Busby noted that the current budgetary allowance cannot cover the full cost of implementation.
Listen to podcasts from seminars in this series.