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Canadian Universities Care About Student Safety — Unless The Threat Is Sexual Violence

There's far more to consent than "no means no" — not that you'd know it from what we're taught in sex ed. Canada's curricula has long glossed over this crucial part of every sexual encounter. It's time we say yes to talking about consent, in all its forms.
Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images.
Trigger warning: This story contains sensitive content regarding sexual assault.
“Welcome to campus! Here’s all the places to avoid at night!” This was one of the first things I learned when I moved onto the University of British Columbia (UBC) Vancouver campus in 2016, cautions whispered in between official student orientation stops.
At the time, I didn’t question it — just as I didn’t question why my residence advisor insisted I save the phone number for the service that connected me with student volunteers in case I needed someone to escort me across campus at night. Or why upper-year students warned me about which frat was the most rapey. I didn’t know that sexual violence on Canadian campuses, including UBC, was so rampant.
Worse, I didn’t question my belief that if I was careful enough, I could avoid it. The illusion didn’t last long. Before classes started, one of my friends was sexually assaulted in her dorm room by another student. Even though that case, like so many others, never made headlines, I’ve been thinking about it a lot in light of the more than 20 women drugged and sexually assaulted in a Western University dorm in London, ON, during orientation week this fall, as reported on social media.
Since September, the focus has been on making going “back to school” safe during COVID, as the majority of post-secondaries returned to in-person lectures for the first time since March 2020. But student safety is about more than masks and vaccination mandates. The assaults at Western, followed by reports of spiked drinks at the University of Guelph, a sexual assault arrest at the University of Saskatchewan, and the protests at Bishop’s University, shows how schools are failing to properly address a safety crisis that’s always been there: sexual violence.

Almost one in seven women say they have been sexually assaulted at Canadian colleges and universities. And 71% of students have either witnessed or experienced unwanted sexual behaviour.

Almost one in seven women say they have been sexually assaulted at Canadian colleges and universities. And 71% of students have either witnessed or experienced unwanted sexual behaviour — and these experiences are more frequent and more violent for women and gender-diverse students, sexual minorities, Indigenous, Black, students of colour, and students with disabilities. For many students, university is the first time they can date and explore sex, at least away from parents’ rules and inquisitive eyes. (And, for many students like myself, away from the stigma that’s always surrounded sexuality where we grew up because of culture and religion.) New freedoms, along with lack of understanding of sexual consent, which most of us aren’t taught about in schools or at home, makes universities a hotbed for sexual violence. Lack of action and accountability from institutions has long kept it that way.
“Sexual violence feels more difficult [to solve] because we don’t have the world’s attention on it the way we should, the way that COVID does right now,” says Deb Eerkes, director of student conduct and accountability at the University of Alberta, and reporting, adjudication and investigation working group co-lead for Courage to Act, the national-based initiative to prevent gender-based violence at Canadian post-secondaries. “COVID was initially looked at as a time-limited crisis we can fix if we put in the measures and I don’t think there’s that sense around sexual violence.”
As demonstrated by the mass walkouts at multiple schools following the fall assaults, students are frustrated with the lack of action from decision-makers. Whenever a university sexual assault case catches public attention, you’ll see the same, near-identical statement like Western (or Bishop’s or Guelph) released: "sexual violence will never be tolerated,” or the one from my alma mater citing, among many news updates, the “disturbing news” from Western. (As if UBC didn’t have the same problem, judging by the figures since they started collecting and publishing these numbers in 2017, something many Canadian schools have yet to do.) This alleged commitment to student safety comes across as an offensive joke when schools only address the few sexual assaults that make headlines — or worse, frame those as unusual.
In reality, it is the reporting of sexual violence that’s unusual. Sexual assault is the most underreported crime in Canada, and that’s especially true on campus, where less than 8% of students who experienced it told someone associated with the school. Telling someone doesn’t always lead to reporting. Most post-secondaries distinguish between disclosing (which means telling someone, whether it’s your RA, a professor, or someone in student health services or the sexual violence office) and reporting (which is a disclosure to a specific channel for the purpose of starting an investigation, which is required if seeking university action).
Both of these processes are terribly flawed. My friend Lizzie, who I mentioned at the start of this piece, and who asked for her last name not to be used, was repeatedly sexually assaulted by another student in her dorm and is among that small percentage who disclosed her assault.“The impression was that they have to legally tell you that you can officially report, but the process would be hard,” she says. “I also got the sense that my case wasn’t severe enough to report. The way [residence staff] communicated it between each other diminished how serious it was, so it became a statistic for them, but not severe enough to go up to the next level.”
A spokesperson for UBC told Refinery29 via email that the university cannot comment on individual cases due to privacy law, but that “all reports of sexual violence at the university matter, as do the countless incidents that occur but are not reported.” And that, “when we learn of reports of harm, we seek to be responsive to the unique needs and circumstances of the individual who has made the report.”
Still, downplaying and dismissing cases happens more often than you’d think — in a Maclean’s nationwide investigation from 2018 students who experienced sexual assault at university said they were “encouraged by school staff to resolve the situation informally,”and some were even asked not to contact the police or the media.
As for the few students who decide to report? They have certain expectations of what justice would look like, which rarely aligns with their experience. The moment students decide to officially report, their experiences become allegations (a term that implies survivors aren’t to be believed and is a symptom of rape culture), which puts them in the position where they have to defend themselves.
Just like in the criminal justice system, it’s the survivors who end up on trial — except the university process is even worse. Instead of a trained judge or lawyers, those leading investigations are often ex-police officers or RCMP (problematic in itself, especially for Black, Indigenous, and women of colour and queer people who are more likely to face violence at the hands of the police), so-called experts who have zero training and understanding of procedural fairness or trauma-informed questioning. Even though universities claim they believe survivors, victim-blaming questions (like whether the student had been drinking, why didn’t they scream, or even asking about past sexual history) are commonplace.
Not to mention, the process can take years. Sometimes the perpetrators simply graduate and often, there are zero consequences. “[Clients] used to say to me after the end of their trials, ‘I regret it.’ And sometimes they would say it's even worse than the sexual trauma they had experienced,” says Zanab Jafry Shah, founder of Bettering and a consultant at Courage to Act. Institutional barriers to reporting impact Indigenous, racialized and immigrant women even more. “Coming forward as a Black woman you’re forced to advocate even harder for yourself, if you do want to pursue the official reporting path,” says Savannah Sutherland, who founded UBC’s Black Student Union in 2018 and currently an intake and crisis line co-ordinator at Battered Women's Support Services. We should not be pressuring people to go through such a challenging and often retraumatizing process for us to believe them —  or in so many cases, dismiss them. 

[Clients] used to say to me after the end of their trials, "I regret it." And sometimes they would say it's even worse than the sexual trauma they had experienced.

Zanab Jafry Shah, founder of Bettering and a consultant at Courage to Act
For those who decide to come forward, seeking mental health support is the most common reason why — which is why many schools no longer require an official report to access support services and resources. (In some provinces, this is still not mandated by policy and is up to the institution whether they do so.) But often, the little support there is short term, or takes the form of listing vaguely defined resources and briefly informing students of their health benefits, without helping them navigate the process of how to find a well-suited counsellor.
This is especially true for those at smaller, more rural universities. This lack of services is in stark contrast to how the pandemic’s effect on mental health was promptly recognized and addressed by Canadian post-secondaries, with many clamouring to offer everything from online counselling services to meditation classes. Considering the long-lasting mental and emotional side effects of sexual violence (depression, flashbacks, PTSD, panic attacks, self-harm, substance abuse, eating disorders, sleep disorders, suicide, to name a few), long-term therapy with trauma-informed counsellors is crucial resource universities need to be providing.
Ending sexual violence means more than supporting those who have already experienced it. Universities need to focus on prevention — which starts with better funding. In Ontario for example, it’s up to schools to decide where provincial campus safety funding is allocated and “sometimes not even a dollar is given to the sexual violence offices doing this work,” says Jafrey. (Seriously, we were told of instances of these grants being used for everything from security to on-campus defibrillators to bike locks.)
And the money that does go toward fighting sexual violence? Too often, it takes the form of Band-Aid solutions such as offering self-defence classes or foot patrols. These reactive measures, like increasing campus police presence and having campus police knock on doors, have little to do with safety, and more with maintaining its illusion. Given that even fewer sexual assaults are reported to the police than to universities, this will likely only widen the gap between reports and experiences — and it will definitely not make women and non-binary people, especially people of colour, feel safer.

This lack of services is in stark contrast to how the pandemic’s effect on mental health was promptly recognized and addressed by Canadian post-secondaries.

The current approach to prevention also puts the responsibility for safety on those affected, forcing them to change their behaviour (i.e. stay home at night and don’t walk on campus alone) — when we know that we’re most likely to experience sexual violence from someone we know. “We need to reframe the conversation from what makes people experience sexual violence, to what makes people enact it,” says Aashna Josh, manager of the student society’s Sexual Assault Support Centre that has been operating on UBC campus since 2002, of the internalized attitudes and societal beliefs, such as feeling entitled to women’s bodies.
This is where consent education comes in. The misunderstanding about what sexual consent entails — it is: enthusiastic, ongoing, and freely given consent — fosters a misperception of what “counts” as sexual violence. This leads to how some of its forms, such as assuming consent, or ignoring its absence, have been socially normalized as not a big deal. University is, of course, late to be starting consent education (and obviously not everyone has the privilege or chooses to go to college or university). But given how common sexual violence really is and how deep-rooted the beliefs that lead to and enable it, the need for this education at Canadian universities is beyond doubt. And it needs to be ongoing — one-time workshops during frosh week are not enough.
Importantly, student voices are largely ignored, while their experiences should be prioritized in informing how we move forward. They are the only ones with first-hand understanding of their needs, as well as student life and current campus power dynamics and attitudes.
Prevention programming also needs to prioritize the expertise of frontline workers and prevention experts, who emphasize the importance of addressing the root causes of sexual violence. “We need to look at societal attitudes; the whole spectrum — from terrible jokes, comments, to street harassment — until you get to violent acts we hear about,” says Eerkes. The programming needs to engage everyone at the university, especially the disproportionate perpetrators, men, year-round. X University’s Consent Comes First program which, in addition to providing education and supporting survivors, works to engage and empower students to create a culture of consent at the Toronto-based school, is a great example of this. Sometimes, great programs, such as healthy masculinity education, are already there; the issue is universities not taking sexual violence seriously enough to enforce them
Above all, there can be no social change without holding our institutions accountable like students have been doing. While universities take their sweet time to “explore what prevention can look like on [their] campuses,” sexual violence continues to affect generations. Students like the survivor who wrote on a bridge near Bishop University’s campus: "He raped me. I reported. He's still in my class. BU take action.” Or my friend Lizzie, whose assaulter was able to stay on campus, go to lectures, and show up outside her dorm room.
Or Jenny*, a second-year student at UBC, who recently moved to Canada after completing her first year online. She spoke to me about the disillusionment and anxiety of arriving on campus in light of this year’s three charges over a UBC sexual assault case from three years ago. “ I would love to just go out and do whatever I want, be friends with whoever I want, but there’s always this voice in your head that makes you feel like you can’t trust anyone,” she said. “For a school that prides itself in community and making connections, it’s honestly terrifying that all of this is hiding under those preppy slogans and promises of safe spaces. I really hope something changes so that these promises are no longer just empty words.” 
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please visit Shelter Space.

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