By Mike Foster
The new policy on the prevention of sexual violence represents a broad consensus that will raise awareness and reinforce values, according to law professor Daphne Gilbert, a key architect of the University of Ottawa’s comprehensive plan to address the issue.
Gilbert, who co-chaired the policy subcommittee with Student Federation vice-president Vanessa Dorimain, said the policy had been crafted over two years, with input from students, faculty and staff members, community partners and external experts.
The policy, which was adopted by the University’s Board of Governors on June 27, introduces increased support for survivors, a formal complaint mechanism, a Sexual Violence Response Team, prevention and awareness campaigns, and a committee on the prevention of sexual violence that will report directly to uOttawa president Jacques Frémont.
“I’m proud of the fact that we’ve taken this very comprehensive approach,” Gilbert said. “We engaged in two years of serious soul-searching and involved students at every step. We listened to their voices. After two years, we can feel confident that all good intentions are behind this policy. We certainly have a huge commitment from our leadership to see that it works.”
In March 2014, the University of Ottawa created the Task Force on Respect and Equality to foster a campus culture that encourages respectful behaviour, prevents sexual violence and ensures that members of the community can learn and work in an environment that is free of harassment and sexual violence.
In February 2015, the University’s administration accepted all 11 of the Task Force’s recommendations, including the need for a policy on preventing sexual violence, and set up an Action Team to oversee the implementation of these recommendations.
For Gilbert, the policy goes beyond what is required by the Ontario government’s Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act. It includes a formal complaint process to respond to any allegations of sexual violence affecting students, faculty or staff members. It also includes a statement of values and a renewed focus on prevention.
“We’re committing to extensive education, preventative campaigns and bystander training, and to fostering a healthy consent culture, especially around alcohol, the 101 Frosh week and housing,” Gilbert said.
Ideally, there would be no sexual violence, she said, but when it does occur, the University will provide full support for survivors.
The “survivor-centred” approach will include the hiring of a sexual violence officer who will work out of the Human Rights Office to assist complainants, offer mediation or restorative justice, or establish interim measures. Such measures could include making arrangements to ensure that a complainant can continue to work, live and study on campus, or other steps suggested by the survivor. There are also plans to beef up support systems, with help from Ottawa-based groups such as the Centre d’aide et de lutte contre les agressions à caractère sexuel and the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre.
Gilbert said that the process does not replace going to the police, and that it is focused on the safety and well-being of students, staff and faculty members.
“We have a huge commitment behind this. I have to believe it will make things safer on campus,” she said.
The policy also increases the transparency of processes and outcomes following complaints, as well as data collection on incidents.
Members of the subcommittee that forged the policy included Julie Lalonde, a social justice advocate who has worked in the field of sexual violence for more than a decade; Mireille Gervais, director of the Student Rights Centre; Sonya Nigam, director of the Human Rights Office; Lisetta Chalupiak, director of labour relations; several student representatives; and Gary Slater, uOttawa’s associate vice-president for student and international affairs.
"I think that all our committee members quickly realized the historic nature of the unique task in front of us, how important it was for all students, employees and professors," said Slater. "Across the board, I felt a willingness to create something new that could profoundly alter the situation. You don't get those kinds of opportunities every day. What a team!"
A series of messages will be sent out to the uOttawa community in the fall to raise awareness of this important issue, of the services in place to help survivors, and of the many related initiatives that have been taken on campus. These include the adoption of a statement of values, which will serve as a frame of reference for dealing with sexual violence. The University also encourages professors to insert a statement against sexual violence into their course syllabuses.