UVic to review sexual assault policies, procedures

MLA Andrew Weaver gets provincial support for private member’s bill to legislate policies

Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA Andrew Weaver

Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA Andrew Weaver

The University of Victoria will review policies, procedures and practices in the wake of a series of sexual assault complaints, and concerns over the processing of complaints.

“I want to make it clear that sexual assault and other unwelcome sexual conduct are utterly at odds with our values and are not tolerated. UVic has policies and practices related to education, prevention and response to sexualized violence. Recent focus on this issue on our campus and beyond, as well as advocacy by student and other groups, have made it clear that we need to do more,” said UVic President Jamie Cassels  in a statement Friday.

“We will be reviewing our current policies, procedures and practices. In the time since I made that commitment UVic and other B.C. post-secondary institutions have been working with the provincial government to collect best practices and develop a framework that provides guidance and an integrated approach for responding to sexualized violence.

“Our approaches need to evolve as we learn from our experiences here and best practices elsewhere for effective supports and services for survivors and clearly articulated and fair processes to respond to reports of unacceptable behaviour.”

The review comes in the wake of Green Party leader Andrew Weaver’s call for university policies to prevent sexual assault with a private member’s bill last Tuesday. The bill, if passed, would create a legal responsibility for every university and college in B.C. to develop and maintain policies that would provide education for students, support for survivors and would work to prevent the occurrences of sexual assault on campuses.

“I don’t want to shame government into action. We laid out a four- to six-week strategy where we would try to bring this forward,” Weaver said.

It started with the private member’s bill utilizing language used in legislation recently passed in Ontario.

“We thought, this is really good legislation; we could apply that here.”

They went on to engage groups across the province and toured the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre to “make a compelling case that solutions are there for us and everyone wins when we implement them.

“The next step was to ask in question period to continue to get this on the radar,” Weaver said.

“I was surprised the premier got on board so early on.”

In question period he outlined how a UVic student described a recent university investigation of her sexual assault complaint left her feeling “completely invalidated and silenced,” Weaver said.

A male UVic student was arrested in late February and charged with five counts of sexual assault after a series of attacks in recent months.

Weaver’s bill would require colleges and universities to develop policies to educate students and prevent sexual assault as well as support people who are assaulted on campus.

Premier Christy Clark said it’s unlikely that legislation can be prepared and passed this spring, but agreed the problem of sexual assault on campuses is an urgent priority and the advanced education ministry is working on it.

“Sexual assault on campus is a cultural problem,” Clark said. “So yes, we have to help and support women if they are attacked. But we have to change the culture so it doesn’t happen.”

While “there are legislative drafters that have to look at this,” Weaver is optimistic. “We have to recognize there may be some B.C.-specific language that needs to be in there. I’m open to all that and thankful that they’re moving forward.

“A legislated approach is required to ensure best practices and consistent standards are met, while establishing a clear legal responsibility for post-secondary institutions to maintain these policies,” said Weaver. “I want to thank the premier for her willingness to make this important issue a priority.”

Cassels promised to share results as they come forward in the review process, set to involve extensive consultation with students and other campus stakeholders and promised to share results as they come.

“Sexual and gender-based violence affects every member of our campus, either directly or indirectly,” he said.

“As members of the UVic community, all of us have a responsibility to do our part to help create a culture where it is clear that this behaviour is universally understood as unacceptable and that reflects the values of inclusion, safety, wellness and respect as the foundations of a healthy university community.”

In the meantime, UVic continues to take reports of sexualized violence seriously with the first concern the wellbeing of students, said Rita Knodel, University of Victoria director of counselling services and multi-faith services.

“UVic’s student counselling services exists to help students with their problems and we would not discourage a student from reporting their experience,” Knodel said.

“We have professionally trained and credentialed mental health professionals including psychologists, social workers and clinical counsellors on staff. Some of our staff have worked and trained at the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre. We provide students with professional, free, confidential, counselling.”

They also inform students about off-campus services including the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre, the Vancouver Island Crisis Line, BC Mental Health Information Line and the Men’s Trauma Centre, and at times refer people to those community resources.

“We also refer students to Campus Health Services to see a physician or nurse, to UVic Multifaith Services, and to academic advisors for academic strategies and tips,” she said. “We can also assist students in seeking academic concession to defer exams and studies.”

– with files from Tom Fletcher