Ontario mandates universities to implement or re-evaluate sexual violence policies

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With only three of 20 Ontario universities having specific sexual assault policies in place and complementing protocols &mdash; with the University of Waterloo being one of the three &mdash; the province is taking matters into their own hands to force universities to address the issue.</p>

Kathleen Wynne’s $41 million three-year “It’s Never Okay” plan, which aims to curb sexual violence, is forcing colleges and universities by law to not only implement specific sexual assault policy and procedures, but mandating them to re-evaluate and update their policies every four years with student input. The new plan will also require institutions to publicly report sexual violence rates on campuses. 

“It’s a step, not an end,” Stephane Hamade, Feds VPED and OUSA’s VPOF, said of Wynne’s plan. “I think the action plan also goes on to address the long-term concerns around how people perceive this issue — just looking to have a change of culture. I think we do need to have a potential change in the way people look at it.”

With legislation still in its preliminary stages, Nick Manning, UW’s director of media relations, said the university has no current plan in place to change any of its existing sexual violence policies, but a working group has been formed — as a subcommittee that reports to the Provost’s Advisory Committee on Equity (PACE) — to evaluate current policies and procedures. 

“We need those groups to take some time to go through the gap analysis and look at existing plans and procedures,” Manning said. “It will be too soon now to say what the plans will be. We ought to give those groups time to examine what the province is doing and how it relates to us because this is clearly emerging legislation.”

In terms of the ongoing efforts, UW has convened a working group on awareness and prevention of sexual violence. This working group reports to PACE and together they will continue to do gap analysis and make recommendations on how UW can strengthen its existing efforts when it comes to sexual violence policy.

Since the policy mandates universities to include student input when re-evaluating policies, Danielle Burt, Feds president, is one of the members of this new working group.

In an email statement, Burt said the working group has only met once, but plan to meet weekly over the next six weeks.

“The working group’s mandate is to create a framework to prevent and raise awareness against sexual violence, which would involve a culture shift, procedures and policies,” she said. “This working group will also be working closely with the rewrite of the University of Waterloo’s Policy 33 – Ethical Behaviour; I sit on that rewrite committee as well.”

Mahejabeen Ebrahim, UW’s director of equity, said the president and senior management are taking and evaluating these issues “very seriously.” 

“We are deeply committed to the safety and security of all our students, our faculty and our staff,” Ebrahim said. “We already have policies and procedures that cover aspects of sexual violence and harassment. We’re working closely with the province and other universities to see how we can strengthen our efforts in this area.”

Ebrahim said the university’s new mandate to strengthen their efforts in implementing and evaluating sexual violence policy “should help” address the issue of under-reporting sexual assault cases on campus.

“Strengthening our efforts certainly I think should help, in terms of under-reporting, the whole process and looking how we can strengthen that,” Ebrahim said. “But you’re talking about a complex and deep societal problem, as you know. There are many things we need to think about how do we improve, how do we strengthen our efforts here.” 

Ebrahim added that re-evaluating policies frequently “is always a good idea, and something that we practice as a university we always tend to do. [We] make sure we’re consulting [the] community  and also re-evaluating our policies and procedures to see if they’re effective.”

Hamade said OUSA — who published a paper on student health in November 2014 where they highlighted concerns and made recommendations to the province on sexual violence on campuses — will continue to be involved throughout the process. The post-secondary lobbying organization will meet with the committees in charge of consulting and implementing the action plan.

Imprint contacted UW’s Women Centre multiple times for comment but Feds’ communications said that although the organization believes sexual violence is an important issue, they have yet to formulate a stance on the province’s plan.