New policy focuses on formal complaint process, education on sexual violence

The University of Ottawa’s Board of Governors (BOG) has adopted a new survivor-centred sexual violence policy following recommendations from the university’s Task Force on Respect and Equality. The new policy was adopted by the BOG during a meeting on June 27 and meets the U of O’s obligations set out in Ontario’s Bill 132, according to a press release published by the university.

The new policy includes definitions pertaining to the policy and sexual violence, including a detailed definition of “consent”, campus resources for reporting sexual violence, provisions on the formal complaint process, and more.

Daphne Gilbert, an associate professor at the U of O Faculty of Law and member of the action team on sexual violence implementing the Task Force’s recommendations, co-chaired the policy development subcommittee with the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) vice-president of university affairs Vanessa Dorimain. Gilbert also teaches a course about sexual assault law at the U of O.

Gilbert says the subcommittee consulted members of the Ottawa and U of O community in order to create a policy to prevent sexual violence on campus that puts survivors first.

“The focus for the university was about creating safe space,” says Gilbert. “We took the view that the policy had to be survivor-centric, so we have taken that as the political perspective on the policy—that it is a survivor-centered, complainant-centered policy—and that the focus should be on being as supportive as we possibly can be of anybody who is the target of sexual violence on campus.”

Although Gilbert says that the policy does focus strongly on the formal complaint process, she believes it is only “one small piece of the overall effort” and says that the action team has been focusing on preventative measures and training to help educate staff and students on campus about sexual violence.

“We’ve brought in a whole bunch of new training programs both for staff, but also for students. The SFUO is coordinating great orientation week training around alcohol and consent culture. Many, many students are going to be taking part in bystander training … which is about intervening when you see something that looks problematic,” says Gilbert.

Gilbert also says they are putting effort into resources for those who have been the target of sexual violence, such as forming partnerships and attempting to supply space on campus for the English Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre and the French Centre d’aide et de lutte contre les agressions à caractère sexuel, and hiring a sexual violence officer that will work in the Human Rights Office and be someone survivors can come to for accommodation and support.

Dorimain, who is also the co-chair for the action team, is hopeful that the new policy will help educate students and give support to survivors, but does feel that there is room for improvement.

“I think that the one thing about this specifically, like I mentioned around the table, is that even though it is mentioned, rape is mentioned, rape culture is not, and it’s not one of the definitions that are included in the policy,” says Dorimain. “So that’s something that I think the university should take a harder stance of combatting because we know the definition for sexual violence and things like that, which are very, very important, but it’s also important to understand how rape culture plays into to how these things happen.”

Dorimain is also critical of how the sexual violence officer is responsible for deciding whether an internal or external investigation will be conducted following a formal complaint, something she and the SFUO believe the survivor should be able to decide themselves.

“We know that this is not going to be the perfect policy in the beginning, it’s a whole new thing that we’ve created out of nothing, so we have to be aware that we’re going to have to tweak it and massage it and listen to what’s working and not working,” says Gilbert.

Although Dorimain and Gilbert feel that there is more work to do, both of them spoke of the importance of student consultations. The SFUO is currently promoting the feedback sessions via social media, and Dorimain says the student federation will hopefully continue throughout the year with similar campaigns. Bill 132 requires universities to review their policies every three years, but Gilbert says that the U of O has committed to review it and consult students on the policy annually.