Ending Sexual Assault on Post-Secondary Campuses

On October 19, 2016, Danika McConnell, a representative from CASA's membership, presented on behalf of the organization to the Standing Committee on the Status of Women. She highlighted the necessity for there to be stand-alone sexual violence policies on post-secondary campuses.

 

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The full transcription of the presentation is included below:

 

"Good afternoon, Madam Chair, committee members, fellow witnesses, and members of the gallery.

 

My name is Danika McConnell. I am the president of the Students' Association of MacEwan University, in Edmonton, and a member of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, CASA.

 

On my campus I've been an active member on the institution's sexual violence prevention education committee and I've also been identified in campaigns focused on sexual violence policies and consent education.

 

I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak before this committee on behalf of CASA and our 21 member associations, representing over 250,000 students from across Canada. I want to begin by giving a general overview of CASA's approach to research and advocacy, as this may be the first time any of you have interacted with our organization.

 

CASA is made up of student unions and associations from across the country. We focus our work on issues pertaining to post-secondary education at the federal level. Our approach to advocacy is rooted in evidence-based research and is driven by the work of our student members. Being a member-driven organization means we take the issues that are identified by our student constituents and bring them forward as advocacy priorities when meeting with federal decision-makers.

 

In that context, it should make sense that CASA has become deeply engaged and invested in the issue of sexual violence on post-secondary campuses. That is what I'm presenting on today.

 

My hope is to convey to you the reality of the situation on the ground and to identify current deficiencies at the institutional and national levels. From there I intend to provide this committee with solutions that CASA believes the federal government and this committee have at their disposal in order to tackle this complex issue.

 

Not a day goes by when this issue doesn't cross my mind as both a student leader representing thousands and as a young women in the post-secondary environment. As you can tell from what I've already expressed, this is an issue that I'm deeply invested in. Given the appalling numbers I will share with you soon, it should come as no surprise that I myself have been directly affected and forever changed by sexual violence. Details aside, one could assume the profound difficulties and challenges this created in completing my education. I consider myself one of the lucky ones, as I have a robust support system in my life. Despite the challenges, I understand from those close to me and the students I represent that this outcome is often not the case. Many women face the heartbreaking and very real circumstances of continued abuse and victim blaming, and many do not complete their education because of it.

 

While all of the above is valid and an experience sadly not unique to students much like myself, I want to ensure I provide you with empirical data in order to illustrate the severity of the issue facing students across Canada.

 

A recent report by METRAC reveals that four out of five female undergraduate students report having been the victims of dating violence, and that 29% report having experienced a sexual assault. We know that women represent over 93% of the known survivors, and men represent 97% of the known attackers. We also know that 82% of sexual assaults are committed by someone the survivor is already acquainted with. From 2009 to 2015, more than 700 sexual assault cases were reported on university and college campuses across Canada. Experts believe the number of unreported cases is much higher. Regardless, it is clear that every day, female students are sexually assaulted or harassed on post-secondary campuses in Canada.

 

Sexual violence on university and college campuses continues to be a persistent and concerning issue across Canada. In recent years the issue of sexual violence has dominated the media, shining a spotlight on the lack of preventive and survivor supportive responses from post-secondary institutions. These revelations would be shocking if they weren't all too familiar to my fellow students and me. Too often, administrators prioritize their institution's reputation over the safety and well-being of their student body by refusing to address these issues. The examples of this are overwhelming with recent cases at Brandon University, the University of British Columbia, Dalhousie University, and many others. The common thread among these situations is that these institutions either had a sexual violence policy that failed to adequately support the students involved or simply didn't have a policy at all.

 

Sexual violence policies need to be clear and student-centred so that all those involved understand the steps to be taken when pursuing a case of sexual violence. For schools with policies, the process's timelines and outcomes are often unclear to students trying to use them. Too often, these policies, when put into practice, are focused on preserving the reputation of the institution instead of the well-being of the students. In one recent case, survivors of sexual assault were required to sign a contract that stipulated they were not to have contact with other persons involved and they were not to discuss what happened with anyone but a counsellor. If they broke those stipulations, they faced suspension or expulsion. This is unacceptable.

 

CASA believes institutions must create policies that are wholly centred on students' well-being. The best way to do so is to generate policies in consultation and collaboration with students on campuses.

 

Another worrisome fact is that most institutions have no official stand-alone policy to address incidents of sexual violence on their campuses. Many schools simply slot their sexual assault and harassment policies into a broad student code of conduct. This past March the CBC found that out of 100 Canadian post-secondary institutions, only 12 had stand-alone policies. This, again, is simply unacceptable.

 

When policies are buried within a larger document, they are often general in nature and difficult to implement consistently. Additionally, such policies are not generally communicated well to students, making the process confusing. Cases of sexual assault are already dramatically under-reported, so it is crucial that institutions provide clear, accessible steps for reporting and responding to a sexual assault claim on campus.

 

What makes this lack of clear policy more frustrating is that institutions are already doing this work in a number of different areas. There are a number of examples of this, but alcohol policies are one that is easy to compare. The vast majority of campuses across the country have policies that dictate drinking expectations for students on campus. Recently, 25 schools signed onto the Canadian Post-Secondary Education Collaborative on Reducing Alcohol-Related Harms Project Charter, examining harms, collecting data, and sharing best practices. This imbalance in policy emphasis must be rectified at the institutional level if we are going to begin to address the issue of sexual violence.

 

Before I provide this committee with CASA's proposed path forward on this issue, I want to underscore why we believe institutions have an important role to play in addressing sexual violence.

 

First, campuses must actively address this issue because that is where sexual violence is taking place. It's happening in residences, on-campus bars, and in surrounding neighbourhoods. Institutions have a duty of care and an obligation to provide students with the quality educational and social experience they advertise.

 

Second, effective policy in any context needs a framework in which to work, and in this case post-secondary institutions are that framework. This reality has already been acknowledged in provinces, as we just heard, like Ontario and B.C., where universities and colleges have been mandated to create stand-alone sexual violence policies and reporting structures.

 

While CASA is fully aware of the limitations of the federal government on the issue of on-campus sexual violence, there are steps that can be made. The previous minister of status of women, Dr. Leitch, received a report entitled, “Options for Action on Sexual Violence Against Women on Post Secondary Campuses”, which was delivered to her on March 30, 2015. Within that brief the minister was provided with three options: one, that the government host a round table to highlight best practices, including from the Status of Women Canada-funded projects, which would help to highlight action to date and identify potential future work; two, that a letter could be sent from the minister and the status of women committee to Universities Canada to encourage it to undertake work on a common reporting guideline and framework for sexual assaults on campus; and, three, or that a letter be sent to some 80 university presidents encouraging them to continue to address the issue on their own campus. The letter could also discuss best practices and the need for a common framework for collecting and reporting data.

 

CASA asks that this committee accept those recommendations put forward by Status of Women Canada, and include them in its report. Moreover, CASA believes the federal government should expand the general social survey on victimization in order to measure crime on campuses, including sexual violence, assault, and harassment incidents. In essence, CASA is calling on this committee and the government to use their influence to urge post-secondary institutions to do more on the issue of sexual violence.

 

In closing, let me just say thank you. Thank you for allowing me to speak to the issue of sexual violence on post-secondary campuses. It is an issue that I, along with student leaders across the country, care deeply about. Thank you for your commitment to taking on this issue. I wish this committee luck in its work. It is so very important."