OTTAWA – The University of Ottawa will appoint a task force to battle sexist behaviour and violence against women, president Allan Rock said Thursday as jarring allegations of sexual assault and harassment continued to reverberate on campus.
Those facing allegations of misconduct won’t lose their academic status, Rock said. And so far, no university employees are being disciplined despite the time it took for university administrators to learn of the allegations.
On Monday, the men’s hockey program was suspended amid a police investigation of an alleged sexual assault in Thunder Bay, Ont.; separately, four student leaders resigned on the weekend over a sexually explicit Facebook chat about Anne-Marie Roy, the head of the student federation.
“We’re announcing the creation of a task force on respect and equality composed of faculty, staff and students,” Rock told a news conference.
“Their mandate will be to provide recommendations on how to reaffirm that culture of respectful behaviour on campus so that everyone here, women in particular, can learn and work in an environment where they feel they are protected from harassment and sexualized violence.”
The composition of the group will be announced shortly, Rock said.
The task force will be asked to look at what kinds of sensitivity training might be offered to affirm a culture of respect on campus, and will consider what principles should be fostered at the university, he added.
It will also look what is being done in other jurisdictions.
And while Rock called the allegations against the hockey players serious, he said they remain unproven allegations. Unless and until they are proven, the students in question will not be suspended, he added.
“If your question is have their been any academic sanctions against these students, the answer is no,” Rock said.
“The hockey players remain students at the University of Ottawa. During the time when the allegations are still pending, they’re going to classes, they are still registered students.”
Some students have complained that suspending the hockey program, rather than the students themselves, remains an empty gesture because the hockey season is effectively over.
However, Rock noted that the players have been banned from using the university’s athletic facilities.
Rock refused to say Thursday how soon after the alleged assault in Thunder Bay that the hockey team’s coach learned of the allegations. But he said the time it took to inform the university would be a key part of the school’s internal investigation.
University chancellor Michaelle Jean, Canada’s former governor general, said the recent incidents have caused a tremendous disturbance on campus.
Some female students have complained there’s a “rape culture” afoot, Jean acknowledged, saying a troubling change seems to be taking place.
“What we are confronting here is a shift that we see in discussions that involve demeaning and sexist, misogynist and racist comments and words,” Jean said.
“We are seeing this more and more frequently in Canada.”
Roy, the student union president, has faced a backlash from other students ever since she publicly highlighted the sexually graphic online banter that was aimed at her.
Some, she says, have accused her of blowing the issue out of proportion when she too described the problem as a “rape culture” on campus.
But Jean said such a culture permeates all university campuses, and society in general, calling it a “disease” that needs to be eradicated.
Roy received an anonymous email on Feb. 10 with screenshots of a private Facebook chat between five male students.
The conversation included references to sexual activities some of the five individuals wrote they would like to engage in with Roy, including oral and anal sex, as well as suggestions that she suffered from sexually transmitted diseases.
Before making the conversation public, Roy was threatened with legal action by four of the five participants.
But once the story was out, Roy says the men backed down from their legal threats.
An apology email sent by all five men on the same day Roy received a copy of the Facebook chat identifies the participants as Pat Marquis, Alexandre Larochelle, Alexandre Giroux, Michel Fournier-Simard and Robert-Marc Tremblay.
Marquis, Larochelle, Giroux and Fournier-Simard were all elected student representatives who resigned from their posts on the weekend after a mounting outcry from their peers. Tremblay volunteered on occasion with the university’s Faculty of Arts student association but was not an elected member.
Student association representatives who attended Rock’s announcement Thursday declined to comment, saying they wanted to digest what the university has put forward.
The Thunder Bay police service has not released details of their investigation, and no charges have been laid.
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