Against the backdrop of federal and provincial government efforts aimed at addressing sexual violence, McMaster University implemented a sexual violence policy in January 2017 and the Student Voices on Sexual Violence survey in February 2018. According to the McMaster Students Union, however, the university needs to take a more intersectional approach to the problem of sexual violence.

The province

In February and March 2018, students at post-secondary institutions across the province were invited via email to complete the Student Voices on Sexual Violence survey, which was mandated by the Ontario government as part of the “It’s Never Okay: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment” legislation.

Included in the Ontario government’s plan are amendments to the ministry of training, colleges and universities act of 1990, which requires post-secondary institutions in the province to participate in a student survey pertaining to sexual violence.

The legislation also calls for Ontario universities to construct a sexual violence response policy and report on sexual violence and student support to the minister of advanced education and skills development.

“The plan is the foundation for a public education and awareness campaign on sexual violence, harassment and other unwanted and inappropriate behaviour. We launched this plan because every person in this province has the right to feel safe — whether at home, work or school or in their community,” said Yanni Dagonas, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development.

The Student Voices on Sexual Violence survey was developed in consultation with members of student groups, private career colleges, public colleges and universities and sexual violence researchers. CCI Research refined the survey and approved it for pre-testing and focus groups in the fall of 2017.

In addition, since 2015, the ministry’s sexual violence reporting advisory committee has been giving the ministry involved with the survey insight about the prevalence of sexual violence at post-secondary institutions in the province.

The survey will be used to guide institutions towards addressing issues related to sexual violence and improve services, policies and awareness about sexual violence.

“The Student Voices on Sexual Violence survey is an important tool for gathering information from postsecondary students about their experiences, general attitudes, and beliefs related to personal safety and sexual violence,” read part of a statement on the website of the survey.

The survey will allow post-secondary students to report on issues pertaining to sexual violence on campus, including sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexual exploitation. Questions in the survey concern topics such as awareness of protocols and services available to survivors and students’ experiences with unwanted behaviours and sexual violence.

The implementation of the survey comes in the wake of the federal government’s recent promise to improve financial support for sexual assault crisis centres in Canadian post-secondary institutions. In particular, as part of its 2018 federal budget, the Trudeau government called for $5.5 million to be provided through the ministry for the status of women Canada to universities over the next five years.

Nevertheless, the federal government explicitly stated that universities that do not adopt “best practices” may have their federal funding stripped as early as 2019.

The university

Although the Student Voices on Sexual Violence survey was developed and released in February 2016, predating the federal government’s announcement, the recent implementation of the survey at universities including McMaster has raised questions about the motivations underlying it.

However, according to Meaghan Ross, McMaster’s sexual violence response coordinator, the university has yet to be informed about what the government means by best practices. When asked if she believes that McMaster is implementing best practices, Ross said that the university has been taking a number of steps to support survivors and tackle the issue of sexual violence.

For instance, in 2015, Ross was hired as the sexual violence response coordinator at the university’s office of human rights and equity services office. In her role, Ross facilitates the implementation of McMaster’s sexual violence response protocol to address disclosures of gender-based and sexual violence, responds to individual disclosures and launches prevention and education initiatives in the campus community.

When asked if she believes that McMaster is implementing best practices, Ross said that the university has been taking a number of steps to support survivors and tackle the issue of sexual violence.

In January 2015, the university released its sexual violence response protocol, which guides members of the campus community to respond to individuals who disclose incidents of sexual and gender-based violence in a consistent and survivor-centred fashion.

Two years later, McMaster ratified its sexual violence policy, which stipulates the university’s commitment to addressing sexual violence and explains what options survivors and complainants can take to obtain support and disclose and report incidents of sexual violence.

Specifically, the policy highlights how survivors can take a criminal reporting route or a non-criminal one. It specifies that individuals who opt to take either a criminal or other path may have to attend a hearing, either through the university, arbitration or criminal court.

The policy also outlines Ross’s role, the importance of confidentiality, support services for survivors and investigation and adjudication processes that may take place should an individual file a complaint of sexual violence to the university.

“The start of 2018 marked the first full year that all of Ontario’s publicly assisted colleges and universities had a standalone sexual violence and harassment policy in place,” said Dagonas. “This milestone marks a crucial foundational step in the work we’re doing together to address and prevent sexual violence on campuses across the province.”

The student union

The McMaster Students Union, however, believes that Ontario universities need to be doing more to tackle the problem, something their advocacy team highlighted in their sexual violence prevention and response policy paper which was presented to the Student Representative Assembly on March 11.

The paper was researched and written over the course of the last few months and completed at the last MSU policy conference. According to the policy paper, the university should be bringing a more intersectional approach to address the problem of sexual violence.

“The services provided by McMaster University should be informed by a recognition of the intersectional nature of sexual violence, in which individuals’ race, ability, indigeneity and socio-economic status, among other factors, can render them vulnerable on multiple fronts,” reads part of the report.

The policy paper includes initiatives aimed at preventing sexual violence, such as inviting guests who help dismantle rape culture rather than normalize it. It also emphasizes the need for improvements to campus infrastructure, such as increased lighting at night, citing a Laurier University study that revealed that women and marginalized students tend to feel less safe.

The paper also calls for more accurate tracking of data, inclusion of specific data such as students’ demographic information, increased transparency with the public through the release of yearly sexual violence incident reports and the addition of counselors who are trained in anti-oppressive practices.

The policy paper includes initiatives aimed at preventing sexual violence, such as inviting guests who help dismantle rape culture rather than normalize it.

The paper argues that McMaster’s sexual violence policy lacks consideration of how the policy may need to be applied differently in the context of racialized men as opposed to white men as racialized men are increasingly subjected to racial discrimination in the judicial system.

“Traditional narratives of racism, and their role in propagating inequities in criminal convictions, must be acknowledged in the language used within the McMaster policy, and McMaster must further make an effort to propose strategies to address and prevent biased rulings,” read part of the paper.

The paper also argues that university should implement mandatory bystander intervention training and consider that institutions such as police services, which may be involved in a criminal reporting context, may limit people of colour from reporting incidents of sexual violence to the university.

McMaster has made strides in its response sexual violence. According to the research done by the MSU, however, the role that identity plays in shaping students’ perceptions and experiences of sexual violence continues to be overlooked.

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