We Need Federal Legislation Against Campus Sexual Violence in Canada

During my second semester at McGill University in 2017, there were numerous cases that made local and national news about how the institution and student groups protected perpetrators of gendered and sexualized violence. As someone raised in the United States, I was surprised to learn that there was no federal legislation akin to Title IX in Canada.

One case that stunned me was McGill’s failure to honor a restraining order from a survivor of a random violent attack. Around the time that the newspaper I was a part of, The McGill Tribune, broke that story, a fellow student threatened to assault me because he disagreed with me on the comments of an argument in a McGill Facebook group. I knew that McGill would not even try to protect me, and student services did not even respond to my email until the semester was over. The student who threatened me had a restraining order against him from his ex-girlfriend, so I was scared.

At that time, I leaned on friends for support and anti-violence organizers. Similar to countries like the United States that do have legislation that should protect survivors of gendered and sexualized violence, survivor-led groups often have to fight their institutions to be accountable to survivors. One of these organizations is Students for Consent Culture (SFCC), which supports student activists and pushes for anti-violence policies on a provincial and federal level in Canada.

In 2017, SFCC released the OurTurn National Action Plan, the first document to grade Canadian post-secondary education institutions on their sexual⁠ violence policies. OurTurn advocacy coordinator Caitlin Salvino, who co-founded SFCC and was the lead author of the action plan, told Scarleteen that a shortcoming of many anti-sexual violence policies is that they do not recognize violence beyond forced sexual intercourse⁠ .

“When you don't deal with the broad strokes of how sexualized and gender⁠ -based violence, racialized violence, and all of these kinds of violence are interlinked, you're addressing a symptom, not a cause, and I think that's a big policy gap,” she says.

Both Salvino and Sophie Hough-Martin, the outreach lead for SFCC, think that federal legislation that confronts gendered and sexualized violence is an important baseline, but is not an end goal in helping survivors. Hough-Martin also has concerns about Title IX failing to help survivors in the way they deserve.

“When you do get legislation, it actually just means that universities are meeting a bare minimum legal requirement and not actually meeting survivor-based or trauma⁠ -informed standards,” Hough-Martin told Scarleteen. 

All institutions that receive federal funding from the U.S. Department of Education risk losing funds if they violate Title IX. If schools give more resources to people of one gender over another, this could be considered a Title IX violation. However, according to End Rape on Campus, even if universities violate Title IX, they are not defunded but may face fines. Title IX investigations are supposed to take a maximum of 60 days, but can go on for much longer. If you share a class with your abuser, even 60 days is far too long.

From friends that I have talked to who attended American universities, they do not feel supported by Title IX. Amanda Silberling, a former campus advocate against rape⁠ culture at the University of Pennsylvania, tells me that the bureaucratic process of reporting a Title IX complaint can be traumatizing for survivors. Rape culture invalidates survivors and often involves people questioning⁠ the reality of traumatizing experiences. With Title IX investigations, survivors’ experiences and the severity of them are questioned.

“The best way to fight rape culture is by fostering a culture where predatory behaviors are never tolerated or normalized,” Silberling says. “Legislation helps, but the most effective way to help is through a broader shift of cultural norms.”

Despite the absence of anti-violence campus federal policies, there are some provinces that have provincial policies. I went to school in Quebec for a few years, and Quebec is one of the handful of provinces that has legislation that requires universities to have campus sexual violence policies.  These other provinces include Ontario, Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island. Most of this legislation, as Salvino notes, has no oversight and no minimum standards.

Federal legislation could play a role in forcing universities to have standards that support survivors. If federal legislation is drafted and introduced to the House of Commons – Canada’s version of Congress – the experiences and advocacy of survivors need to be centered. This would involve ongoing consultations with survivor groups like SFCC, not university administrators who want to just protect themselves.  As long as rape culture exists, it may be impossible to create perfect survivor-focused policies. However, unlike with Title IX, Canada should create federal policies that prioritize on making sure campus is a safer place for survivors, rather than questioning their experiences.

Politicians and universities involved in drafting legislation, at a federal and provincial level, need to also realize what is personally at stake for survivors. Publicly supporting survivors is not enough when you fail to support them when existing legislation fails to help students.

Salvino shared that one of the politicians who did not rise to support survivors is Quebec Minister for Higher Education Hélène David. Minister David was the sponsor of Bill 151, legislation that required post-secondary institutions in Quebec to adopt sexual violence policies. Students were not given a seat at the table for Bill 151 either and did not hold any spots on the provincial committee formed to create guidelines for post-secondary education institutions. Bill 151 came into forth on December 8, 2017.

Two universities in Montreal, Concordia University and McGill University, staged walkouts later that spring over sexual misconduct from numerous professors. Minister David failed to step in to help students in Quebec while publicly presenting herself as an ally⁠ . “The Minister would be participating in photo-ops at press conferences on the legislation [...] and having major applause in the National Assembly, and survivor advocates were on the ground genuinely struggling and begging them to intervene,” Salvino tells Scarleteen.

While it is important that survivors are centered in policy decisions, it is also unjust that many people do anti-sexual violence work for free or little pay. If universities care about preventing gendered and sexualized violence on their campuses, they would recognize that labor, which can be triggering⁠ for activist survivors, put into instigating change.

The Canadian federal government has shown some interest in funding anti-sexual violence work on campus, but it falls very short of what survivors on campus need. Months after the OurTurn National Action Plan was published in February 2018, the Liberal government promised to provide $5.5 million to post-secondary institutions to fund work aiming at preventing campus violence. With around 280 post-secondary institutions in Canada, this is under $20,000 per school.

“If you're trying to create an equitable approach to sexual violence where everyone gets their like share of that 5 million, that is not even a living salary in any city in Canada to hire someone to do this work on campus,” Hough-Matin said.

The Liberal government also claimed that if schools fail to address gendered and sexualized violence on their campuses, they could risk losing federal funding. Like with Title IX, it is unclear what these standards are, and if survivor concerns will be centered when considering pulling funding, not just the university administration’s views.

Anti-violence federal legislation in Canada could work to protect students in Canada, if students are centered in the legislation. Politicians who claim to be allies to survivors have to realize that action to protect survivors needs to be a priority – and should not require a long bureaucratic process or even reporting a crime to the police. In addition to victim-blaming which is, unfortunately, common-place for survivors, the law’s view of sexualized and gendered violence is fairly limited in scope. Some laws also protect perpetrators. For example, until last summer, being intoxicated was an accepted defense for committing an assault in Ontario.

As a survivor myself, I know how the need for safety and accountability is crucial for many survivors. Even while a pandemic is taking many resources, survivors should not be left behind. Survivors deserve better than to have universities say they will look into an issue, and not face accountability themselves when they fail to do so.

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