Silence is Violence: Confronting Sexual Assault and Gender-Based Violence at the University of Toronto

Silence is Violence: Confronting Sexual Assault and Gender-Based Violence at the University of Toronto

By: Ellie Adekur

 

In March of 2016, Ontario’s Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan (Bill 132) came into effect, requiring college and university campuses to have stand alone policies detailing institutional responses to sexual violence by January 1st, 2017. The bill also updated the Ontario Health and Safety Act, requiring workplace health and safety committees to review current policies around workplace harassment by September 6th, 2016. Because of recent pressure from the Provincial Legislature, college and university campuses have been pushed to redefine how they respond to issues of sexual assault, but the inspiration for these policies can be traced back to community organizing efforts and the work of grassroots women’s organizations, and activists who pressured the province to put sexual violence on the agenda at Queen’s Park.

 

“A 2004 Statistics Canada Crime Victimization Survey that interviewed respondents anonymously, revealed 460,000 cases of sexual assault in Canada. Stats Canada notes that about 90% of these cases go unreported to police.  This data demonstrates that for every 1,000 cases, 33 are reported to police, 29 are recorded as a crime, in 12 of these cases charges are laid, 6 are prosecuted with 3 leading to formal charges. This is a 0.3% conviction rate.”

 

Women’s organizations like the YWCA and SACHA cite University of Ottawa Criminologist Holly Johnson’s work on sexual assault and police reports to point to the unsettling realities of non-conviction rates. A 2004 Statistics Canada Crime Victimization Survey that interviewed respondents anonymously, revealed 460,000 cases of sexual assault in Canada. Stats Canada notes that about 90% of these cases go unreported to police.  This data demonstrates that for every 1,000 cases, 33 are reported to police, 29 are recorded as a crime, in 12 of these cases charges are laid, 6 are prosecuted with 3 leading to formal charges. This is a 0.3% conviction rate.

Sexual assault on Canadian college and university campuses is a national problem. MacLean’s reports one in five women on Canadian college and university campuses will experience some form of sexual assault throughout their academic careers. This rate of victimization rises for racialized women, queer and trans communities, as well as women living with disabilities. Alongside concerns around alarming rates of sexual assault and gender-based violence on campus, students, staff, and faculty at the University of Toronto must also contend with institutional silencing and intimidation. Victoria College student publication The Strand reports that in 2014-2015 137 informal complaints of sexual assault reported to the Sexual Harassment Office at the University of Toronto (an office employing one Sexual Harassment Officer for 85,000 students across each of the three campuses) dwindled to 22 formal complaints after those people filing reports were confronted with the prospect of mediation. The investigative piece goes on to note that 12 of these cases were ‘resolved’ through the mediation process, 3 moved to a criminal trial, and none of the cases resulted in suspension or expulsion for those accused of sexual assault.

Bill 132 required the University of Toronto to implement a new policy including how the institution plans to address sexual assault on campus. This new policy, implemented on January 1st, leaves students, staff, and faculty on campus with a lot of questions around filing a report, the investigation process, accountability measures for frontline workers mishandling disclosures, and the ability of the institution to adequately address sexual violence without relying on an external organization and investigation process.

 

“Not only were these consultations inaccessible due to lack of advertising and response from admin organizing the events, but once the draft policy was made available to students in early September many of us realized that none of our concerns around the investigation process, training for those receiving disclosure, and frontline-worker accountability were included”

 

In June of 2016 the University of Toronto held one hour-long consultation for students on each of the three campuses. Those interested in participating were required to register for these consultations in advance as details were not made public until the night before; often the day of the consultation. Not only were these consultations inaccessible due to lack of advertising and response from admin organizing the events, but once the draft policy was made available to students in early September many of us realized that none of our concerns around the investigation process, training for those receiving disclosure, and frontline-worker accountability were included. In early September, student and labour unions were tasked with hosting follow-up consultations on their own.  Because such follow-up consultations were presented as optional, though loosely supported by the administration, many labour unions refused to organize them. Student unions, tasked with orientation activities, struggled to organize sessions on such short notice.

UofT’s new policy on sexual violence was approved by Governing Council on December 15th, 2016, and came into effect on January 1st, 2017, in line with Bill 132. This final policy ignores earnest feedback from students and faculty including concerns around misconduct by front-line responders and the University’s ability to appropriately address cases of sexual assault and gender-based violence without an external organization or investigation process.

Silence is Violence and the Movement to Address Sexual Assault on Campus

Silence is Violence refers to the violence behind institutional silencing techniques. At the University of Toronto we are one of five chapters across the country. Founded in 2015, we’re an experientially-driven collective addressing issues of sexual violence on college and University campuses. What makes our organizing model different from ongoing campaigns to address sexual assault from the University or major student/labour organizations is that our collective is driven by those directly impacted by sexual violence, centering the voices of Black and Indigenous people of colour (BIPOC), queer and trans organizers, poor and working class participants, and communities on campus living with disabilities. What makes our organizing unique is our point of departure: those of us disproportionately impacted by violence and victimization are the ones best equipped to critique the institution, articulate our needs, and push for more just and sustainable futures.

 

“To the university, reputation matters more than the safety, the needs, and even the lives of communities on campus impacted by sexual assault and gender-based violence. For these reasons, we’ve created a strong network of students, staff, and faculty working to hold the institution accountable to ongoing issues with sexual assault, gender-based violence and institutional mismanagement of disclosures. Silence is Violence continues working to support those impacted by violence and victimization despite the adversarial approach UofT takes to disclosures”

 

At Silence is Violence we are clear that the University of Toronto has a vested interest in keeping formal reports of sexual assault and gender-based violence on campus low. Acknowledging the prevalence of sexual assault on campus impacts the university in three major areas. First, it impacts future enrollment by dissuading students from attending the institution. Second, frank discussions of sexual assault and institutional mismanagement dissuades alumni from investing time and money. Finally, the University of Toronto works hard to silence students, staff, and faculty impacted by violence and abuse because these realities impact the institution’s reputation. As an institution that markets itself as an elite Canadian university, reputation matters. To the university, reputation matters more than the safety, the needs, and even the lives of communities on campus impacted by sexual assault and gender-based violence.

For these reasons, we’ve created a strong network of students, staff, and faculty working to hold the institution accountable to ongoing issues with sexual assault, gender-based violence and institutional mismanagement of disclosures. Silence is Violence continues working to support those impacted by violence and victimization despite the adversarial approach UofT takes to disclosures of sexual assault and requests for accommodations and resources from communities impacted by violence. We know that we deserve better from our institution, and we won’t stop until we get it.

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