Education

What happens to sexual assault reports at Canadian universities? No one really knows.

Despite many schools having policies to deal with sexual violence, it is often unclear what actually happens when a report is made.

“He told me to be quiet.” “He got into my residence building.” “When I disclosed the assault (to faculty) their advice was that I should have avoided drinking.”

These accounts are just a few of the more than 60 submissions posted on the @ConsentAtQueens Instagram page. Started by former Queen’s University students Megan Sieroka and Maeve Avis Kozar (they graduated in the spring), the accounts highlight personal, anonymous tales of assault, harassment, stalking and other incidents of sexual violence at Queen’s. Sieroka says the pair started the page because they weren’t seeing action from the administration “to make Queen’s a safer and better environment for students.”

Representatives from Queen’s say the university has been aware of the -@-ConsentAtQueens account since its inception and are empathetic to the stories shared there. “No one should have to experience sexual violence of any kind,” they said in an emailed response to questions from Maclean’s. “When it occurs, we take it extremely seriously.” Addressing sexual violence is an ongoing priority at Queen’s, they write, noting the school’s Policy on Sexual Violence Involving Queen’s Students, which “outlines the university’s supports, response to disclosures, and complaints about sexual violence experienced by students” as well as a guide for all employees to help them respond to student disclosures.

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“The University is committed to continuing to do everything possible to help prevent sexual violence and to ensure that survivors get the support and help they need, whether an incident occurs on or off-campus, during the school year or prior to arriving at Queen’s,” they write, adding that they encourage anyone affected by violence to reach out for help to the school’s Sexual Violence Prevention Program and Response Office. The statement also says that the entire campus shares in the responsibility of preventing sexual violence, as it is a “pervasive societal problem; one that includes Queen’s, but is not unique to a university setting.”

Both Sieroka and Avis Kozar question the seriousness with which officials investigate reports of assault, and describe a pervasive rape culture on the Queen’s campus, exacerbated by an implicit policy of silence. Among the institutional changes they are pushing for is more communication from the university, especially regarding investigations and their outcomes. When complaints are made, Avis Kozar says it’s “difficult to find out if there has been justice.”

Sexual assault is a huge concern on Canadian campuses. Figures from Statistics Canada published in 2020 show that nearly three-quarters of university students in Canada “witnessed or experienced unwanted sexualized behaviours in a post-secondary setting in 2019—either on campus, or in an off-campus situation that involved students or other people associated with the school.”

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The 2018 Student Voices on Sexual Violence survey reported that 23 per cent of Ontario university students experienced non-consensual sexual contact, and 63 per cent experienced sexual harassment. And across Canada, students like Sieroka and Avis Kozar are forming groups to advocate for students to be provided with information about sexual violence policies and investigations.

Students at McMaster University are calling for a full review of the school’s sexual violence policy, especially prohibitions against sharing information. More than 4,000 Quebec students have signed a petition asking the province to amend its privacy laws and allow schools to share the sanctions they have enforced against offenders. In February, the Council of Alberta University Students called on the provincial government to enact provincial legislation, which would, along with other goals, track sexual assaults with annual student surveys.

Some provinces have legislation that formalizes what schools need to offer students when they address sexual violence. Ontario was the first to bring forward a bill, the Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan, in 2016. The law mandates that every post-secondary institution in the province has a policy on how the school will respond to sexual violence complaints and that it be reviewed every three years. Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Quebec followed suit with their own versions of this legislation, though each differs in scope. (Quebec’s, for example, is superseded by an act that prohibits schools from sharing information about an individual; Quebec’s students subsequently petitioned.) Broadly, schools in those provinces are required to establish protocols for how they respond to reports of sexual violence.

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But it is often unclear what happens after a report is made. Are sanctions applied? Is a remedy found? Is the complaint dismissed or advanced? What types of assaults are most commonly reported, and are there links between them? This data is inconsistently collected across the country; without data, how can students know what to expect from their schools? More importantly, how can schools judge their progress?

Karen Busby wants that data shared as broadly as possible. A law professor at the University of Manitoba, Busby contributed to the Canadian Yearbook of Human Rights,Vol. 2 (2016-2018) with a paper looking at accountability mechanisms in sexual violence policies.

She notes that many schools introduced or revamped their policies around 2017, often in response to heightened provincial and political calls to reassess internal plans. (Busby notes that some institutions, including Yukon University and Memorial University, voluntarily took on this work.)

However, few institutions have put enough stock in collecting data and monitoring how their own policies have been enforced, she says. In the paper, Busby notes that “almost all policies have enduring prohibitions on information sharing,” both internally and externally. “There’s almost nothing known about those processes,” she says. “There’s nothing transparent about them, there’s nothing written about them, and they’re not reported.”

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Busby looked for that data at her school but couldn’t find it. “We don’t know how many complaints are made,” she says. “We don’t know how many are investigated. We don’t know who is doing the investigation. And we don’t know what the outcomes are.” Representatives from the University of Manitoba say they do analyze data on reports of sexual assault. They say those reports are available upon request, and they publish a campus climate survey on sexual violence on their website.

In Canada, sexual violence policies fall to the provinces—which have jurisdiction in post-secondary education—limiting what federal legislation can do. A 2018 initiative aiming to create a national framework to address gender-based violence is ongoing. In the United States, Title IX, passed in the 1970s, protects against gender-based discrimination in education, and the Clery Act promotes campus safety and ensures schools disclose statistics about incidents on or near campus. Those efforts intersect at sexual violence, resulting in a wider data set for American schools.

Busby says this aggregate data is key. In fact, it would be the first element she would include in a sexual violence policy, because it encourages transparency, accountability and consistency. In her contribution to the Canadian Yearbook of Human Rights, Busby writes that “without this information, complainants and others cannot evaluate institutional responses, and therefore do not know if justice is being done.”

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In her grad photos, Michelle Roy stands next to the school’s cornerstore in a cap and gown on the lawn of Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. Instead of having a cheerful look on her face, she’s frowning and holding up a sign that reads: “Mount Allison silences victims.”

Roy’s photos were a flashpoint for the school, leading to a protest of about 400 people in the fall of 2020. Roy says when she came forward with accounts of sexual harassment and assault, school officials pushed her to make an informal, verbal disclosure, though she initially looked to make a formal, written complaint, in the hopes of forcing a more fulsome investigation. She says other students were similarly counselled. “We were mostly [given] scare tactics, like, ‘We can protect you if you make [an informal] disclosure. If you file a complaint, the person will know your name.’”

Roy decided to make an informal complaint. Afterwards, she says that “nothing was really done” about it. She says many students don’t trust the school administration or resources, including the consent education offered on campus. “I think of consent or rape culture as an iceberg; the education that the school gives us is really just the top.”

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In response to the protest, Mount Allison’s president, Dr. Jean-Paul Boudreau, wrote public letters, promising to listen to students and establish working groups to review the school’s sexual violence policies. Roy was made co-chair of one of those working groups, and while she was initially excited about the work, she later described it as ineffectual, saying that the process didn’t accomplish much except offer the beleaguered school a public relations opportunity.

Anne Comfort, Mount Allison’s vice-president of international and student affairs, disputes Roy’s claims that the working group didn’t do enough, though she notes she can’t speak to Roy’s experience. Comfort says the group, made primarily of students, submitted their recommendations to the president’s cabinet, and these are under review. Along with the internal groups, Mount Allison also hired the Canadian Centre for Legal Innovation in Sexual Assault Response to audit their policies, and the audit was made public this summer. Comfort also says both the internal and external reviews showed similar issues, such as assaults occurring in the first two months of the semester, and a need for more training for staff and residence advisers.

While saying she can’t speak directly to Roy’s claim that she was urged to make an informal complaint by school officials, Comfort does say that similar claims from other students came up multiple times in both the internal and external reviews.

Comfort calls the school’s reviews, which are still under way, both challenging and reflective, but ultimately worthwhile. “We wouldn’t have done a review and come up with new intake procedures [for taking reports of assault from students] if we didn’t think that change was needed,” she said.

As for its data collection policies, Mount Allison keeps track of the type of violence described in a complaint, what kind of complaint (formal or informal) was made and what action was taken. However, the university only releases that data by request. It is not made public.

In September 2021, Western University students in London, Ont., demonstrated during a walkout to support sexual assault survivors (Nicole Osborne/CP)

In September 2021, Western University students in London, Ont., demonstrated during a walkout to support sexual assault survivors (Nicole Osborne/Canadian Press)

As the current academic year got under way, allegations emerged in London, Ont., that multiple students had been sexually assaulted in one of the residences at Western University. At press time in mid-September, London police were investigating reports on social media that as many as 30 young women had been drugged and assaulted the previous weekend. Police in London also received reports of three sexual assaults involving four victims at other locations on campus; one person was arrested and released without being charged, and the police said the investigation was continuing. Alan Shepard, president of Western, said that the university had removed students from residence in response to the latter group of reported incidents. On Oct. 1, the London Police Service issued a statement that it had not received any “formal reports of a Medway-Sydenham Hall resident being drugged and sexually assaulted” and therefore had been “unable to substantiate information circulated in social media posts about widespread incidents of that nature.” The statement went on to say “we know that, for a variety of well-documented reasons, incidents of sexual violence are underreported, and that victims and survivors who were initially reluctant to report may decide to come forward with their disclosure at a later date. With this in mind, our investigation into allegations of incidents of sexual violence at Sydenham-Medway Hall remains open.”*

In Ontario’s 2018 Student Voices on Sexual Violence survey, more than 70 per cent of Western University students reported sexual harassment, and 32 per cent reported sexual assault in the 2017-18 school year, the most of any school in the province. In an interview in the winter, Jennifer Massey, former associate vice-president of student experience at Western, said the school is trying to learn from those numbers. “I was disappointed, but not surprised, by the data. We know that gender-based and sexual violence is pervasive in society,” Massey said. “What it tells me is that we’ve got work to do.”

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Western does collect and report data on gender-based and sexual violence, including outcomes, and includes it in their reporting every June. They distinguish between disclosures and complaints, the student classification (undergraduate or graduate, domestic or international), and the category of incident. From May 1, 2018, to April 30, 2019, there were a total of 24 reports of sexual assault, resulting in 10 campus restrictions, 15 educational sanctions and one suspension. That kind of data is hard to find at many schools, and Massey said it’s a good start. She was focusing on the disparity between the provincial survey and the campus reporting numbers. Less than one per cent of Western’s student body reported sexual violence, indicating that students may not be aware of resources available to them or that they don’t feel comfortable making reports.

Western launched a student support team in January 2020 to streamline the process and make it easier for victims to come forward. “They only have to tell their story once,” Massey said. “We can work with them to take the necessary action as they need, but they drive the process. We’re really putting everything under one roof, so that there’s more clarity.”

With fewer students on campus and many completing entire semesters at home, schools may notice a sharp drop in certain figures and a rise in others. At Western, Massey said the administration had tracked a rise in cyber-based sexual violence and more intimate partner violence. She noted that Western, along with other schools, will likely take another year or two to see the new patterns emerge.

But even in the midst of the COVID pandemic, many schools are facing the prospect of reviewing, or rewriting entirely, their sexual violence policies. While many institutions are working to streamline procedures and promote their resources, few have committed to aggregating data and publicizing it.

At Queen’s, students like Avis Kozar are asking for that data for their own safety. “If all we ever hear is the bad stuff, and we never hear about what’s being done to fix it, that is really discouraging people from trying to reach out in the future for help.”

*EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to include a recent press release from the London Police Service.


This article appears in print in the forthcoming 2022 University Rankings issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “There’s been a sexual assault on campus. Now what?”