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New campus sex assault policies show Canadian universities still aren't listening to survivors

Image: Sarah Meghan Mah

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On November 28, the McGill University Senate unanimously approved the Policy against Sexual Violence. Several days later, McGill's Board of Governors followed, passing the policy after nearly three years of sustained student activism, two rejected student-written draft policies and widespread frustration with the administration's failure to include survivors in the policy development process.

"I'm glad that this policy has been passed, it definitely will give structure to the way McGill responds to sexual violence and hopefully improve the experiences of survivors," Paniz Khosroshahy, founder of advocacy group Silence is Violence McGill, told rabble.

But Khosroshahy is hesitant to celebrate the policy's approval as a turning point for McGill. While the policy is "a step in the right direction," Khosroshahy argues that there is no evidence McGill would "adhere to its own policy without constant pressure and monitoring."

"What is more needed is a national conversation about campus sexual violence, not just band-aid solutions like passing policies that have almost become like a competition between different universities," she explained.

Policies don't develop "in a void"

Student activists and survivors of sexual violence have led the fight for policy development on post-secondary campuses across Canada for decades.

"A lot of journalists, researchers and activists seem to think that they've found this new phenomenon on campus, [but] we have decades and decades of empirical research showing that sex assaults on university campuses are an ongoing thing," Mandi Gray, co-founder of Silence is Violence York and PhD student at York University, told rabble.

The survivor and student-led activism around sexual violence on campuses is not new either, Gray emphasized: "these aren't new ideas, they're actually just recycled ideas" about how to fight rape culture and provide better support for survivors.

Universities have the responsibility to recognize histories of student activism when developing new policies, argues Lucia Lorenzi, a student at the University of British Columbia (UBC) who sat on the UBC sexual assault policy committee's expert panel.

"Policy isn't just occurring in a void, it's happening in the wake of ongoing incidents and histories of violence on the campus," Lorenzi said.

At McGill, histories of sexual violence on campus have been met with consistent student pressure on the administration. Recently, in 2013, students created the Sexual Assault Policy Working Group (SAPWG) in response to McGill's handling of sexual assault charges made against three football players.

The SAWPG developed two draft policies in consultation with community stakeholders and students, but in April 2016, dialogue between the SAWPG and the university broke down when the former Dean of Students Andre Costopoulos and Associate Provost of Policies, Procedures and Equity Andrea Campbell refused to bring the group's second draft policy to the Senate.

After seven months of renewed debate and heightened pressure, the McGill Senate passed the Policy on Sexual Assault, which Khosroshahy says "doesn't have clear punishments for perpetrators" or a "reliable accountability process to ensure that the policy is actually enacted."

While the policy does nod towards intersectionality -- a framework that Campbell and Costopoulos rejected in the second draft policy -- and commits McGill to additional resources in the form of a new centralized office with adequate staffing, Erin Sobat, Vice President University Affairs of Students' Society of McGill University, says that the approval elicits feelings of "cognitive dissonance" for students on campus.

Sobat argues that there were "a number of people [at the university] that even six months ago did not necessarily support or see the need for this kind of policy, and going back further, people who were actively roadblocks to having a policy."

"The idea that who's in power at the university can really affect whether or not a needed and important policy like this moves forward and whether or not resources are allocated" disturbs Sobat, who also acknowledges that students and survivors will have to "stay vigilant" in order to hold the university accountable to the policy's implementation.

For Khosroshahy, the suggestion that students will have to hold the university accountable to implementation signals a failure of the policy itself. In that respect, Silence is Violence McGill "would like to see external oversight of universities to ensure they adhere to their policies and have them face sanctions if they don't."

Policies co-opt survivors' language

Even if sexual violence policies like McGill's are implemented, Gray says that university policies that make use of "pro-survivor language," are "a joke." "It's PR," she argues.

The York University teaching assistant and graduate student union CUPE 3903 recently withdrew from the Sexual Assault Policy Working Group after discovering the group had developed a new policy without publicly informing the community.

CUPE 3903's public statement explained that "after months of being denied information, of being told that there was no written policy or procedures, and of ignoring our feedback," York invited the local's Joint Health and Safety Committee to participate in the working group.

CUPE 3903 also argued that the working group did not consider the union's ongoing criticism of York's existing policy, failed to widely consult survivors, student groups, or communities fighting rape culture on campus, and that York could therefore not call the developing policy "survivor-centric."

"I think it's really interesting how the language of survivor-centric [policy] has been co-opted by the university," Gray says.

Khosroshahy echoes Gray, arguing that universities like York and McGill "capitalize on the unpaid labour of student activists and insight of survivors" to develop policies that ultimately fail to respond to survivors' needs.

As a survivor, Khosroshahy says that she "personally feel[s] very alienated from this activism on campus." Neither the student groups working to develop the final policy nor the administration reached out to Khosroshahy for her input.

"I feel like I've been a ‘lesson' for everyone. There are parts of the policy that are literally copied straight out of my mouth and pasted into the policy, specifically [clauses about] accommodations for survivors," she told rabble.

Even media coverage of McGill's policy and its approval, Khosroshahy argues, highlights the work of the administration and student groups like SSMU without crediting survivors, who are responsible for the policy. The policy was "not [created by] the administration, she says, "and their co-opting of the movement for better addressing sexual violence on campus is deplorable."

Institutional accountability

As universities across Canada develop policies against sexual violence -- either in response to provincial legislation mandating policy development or in response to student pressure -- Lorenzi argues that "it is really important that survivors and students be at the table."

Lorenzi said the UBC expert panel's recommendations emphasized the need for clarity around procedures for survivors and institutional accountability, which, she argues, is an issue for all universities developing sexual violence policy.

"To whom do these colleges and universities have to report about whether their policy is good? How is the effectiveness of that policy being measured? If that's being measured internally, I worry," Lorenzi says.

"We need to make sure universities don't just say 'well now we have a sexual assault policy, this isn't an issue anymore,'" says Dorothy Apedaile, who served as the External Coordinator for the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students' Society one year ago.

With an eye towards the future, Silence is Violence McGill will continue to push the university for transparency about incidents of violence, the creation of an anonymous reporting system, an overhaul of consent education (which Khosroshahy argues is "built on the pain and trauma of sexual assault survivors but often de-politicizes and trivializes this violence,") and clear punishments for perpetrators.

While universities develop policies, Khosroshahy says that Silence is Violence is watching: "you can't get away with rape."

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Image: Sarah Meghan Mah

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