Ontario universities urged to do more to combat sexual violence on campus

Conference held at Queen’s concludes that schools continue to fail sexual violence survivors

Barbara Lotan, Farrah Khan, Sam Pearson, and Ashley Bentley spoke at the OUTA conference on August 10th.

“Nobody listened to what I had to say when I needed it the most,” Mandi Gray, a York University sexual assault survivor, explained over the phone to The Journal in August.

Gray — whose 2015 assault lead to a high-profile court case this year, and a guilty verdict for assailant Mustafa Ururyar on July 21 — was on Queen’s campus at the time, as a speaker for the Ontario Universities Taking Action Against Sexual Violence (OUTA) conference.

The two-day event was held on August 10 and 11, and emerged as a response to the Government of Ontario’s March 2015 action plan to combat sexual violence and harassment.

The plan urged the need for intervention on Ontario university campuses, due to alarmingly frequent occurrences of sexual assault and the pervasiveness of rape culture across campuses.

While Gray was happy to see individuals mobilizing, connecting, and identifying sexual violence on campus as a systemic issue, she maintained several concerns about the OUTA conference, which she expressed in an interview with The Journal afterwards.

There was a “disconnect”, she felt, between the experience of herself and her fellow sexual assault survivors and what was being discussed by the various speakers at OUTA.

“I think a lot of the presenters felt that there’s too much emphasis on response and not enough emphasis on prevention, but in my experience it was the opposite,” Gray said.

Her concerns about sexual violence prevention and response on campuses were noted during the conference’s first-day closing remarks, during which Gray spoke about her own experience.

While newly-released university sexual violence policies — such as Queen’s own, approved in March of this year — use progressive language and define complex terms like consent, Gray still perceives a lack of formal procedure for responding to reported incidences of sexual assault.

On Aug. 10, the same day the conference began, Ottawa’s Metro News obtained and published an independent investigation funded by the Ontario government on the swelling issue of campus sexual violence.

The 56-page research report disclosed the result of over 120 hours of interview data gathered over four months in 2016 at Carleton University, Lakehead University, and the University of Waterloo.

The report concluded that myths and stereotypes about sexual assault continue to inform responses to reported incidences on campuses. As well, the absence of formal reporting systems was found to result in different units across campus responding without communication with each other.

Survivors were “bounced around” as a result by the systems in place. Desperate voids in education and training were also identified by the investigators.

In conclusion, the report cited “serious deficits in understanding and responding to victims of sexual violence”, and the insistence that “there is still much work to be done.”

Eighteen distinct recommendations were given to the Ontario government to implement on campuses, including consistent oversight on reporting procedures, a restorative justice program, and implementing a mandatory healthy sexual education program for all university students.

Several students at the OUTA conference have been noted activists on sexual violence for several years, as Queen’s has developed it’s own policy. Among those individuals was former Rector Mike Young, who hoped that the conference’s messages were heard by Queen’s administration.

“There have been comments made about the responsibilities of university administrators to be proactive and dynamic in their leadership towards prevention,” Young told The Journal after day 1 of the conference.

“I hope that message gets through.” He also urged students to reconsider the way their own behaviour may unknowingly contribute to rape culture on-campus.

“Sexual violence isn’t just rape,” he said. “It's jokes made about the gender presentation and sexuality of other people; it's objectifying behaviours and remarks; it's harassment; it's groping; it's seeing something problematic and not doing anything.”

In the wake of the conference, Young urged students to “do what you can, and learn what else you can do, to actively break down systems that have existed for generations and that continue to produce violence.”

Gray echoed Young’s messages, hoping that students would add their voices into the conversation until further action is taken by campus administrations.

“If you support the work I’m doing, tell people publicly,” she said. “Tell the university that you are watching.”

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