This article is part of UMSU’s Manitoba Elections 2019 series, detailing the policy priorities that we have advocated for provincial parties to adopt in their platforms to ensure post-secondary education in the province remains affordable and accessible. Learn more here.
RECOMMENDATION: Echoing recommendations from Students for Consent Culture Canada, we urge the Government of Manitoba to update provincial legislation to allow for post-secondary institutions and workplaces to inform survivors of the results of sexual violence investigations and disciplinary action taken as a result; and to commit to calls put forward by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
One year ago, University of Manitoba president David Barnard divulged on the very first day of classes that investigations into allegations of sexual assault and human rights violations committed by faculty members were ongoing. In an instant, the campus environment meant to foster the learning and personal growth of tens of thousands of U of M students was tainted. Around the same time, it became known that Steve Kirby, the disgraced former jazz professor who left the university in 2017, was bought off to the tune of $155,944 after being placed on leave due to a string of sexual harassment allegations. Then, things got worse.
Two months later, in December 2018 the Winnipeg Free Press reported that one of the University’s most revered professors, Peter Jones, the director of a prominent health research institute on campus and chair of a federal health research agency, had been subjecting students and employees to bullying and sexual advances for a decade. Jones’ actions were so egregious that a former female assistant to Jones, Meridel Smith, revealed to CBC News that she had contemplated suicide. All of this despite Smith submitting a formal 73-page complaint to the University’s human rights office in 2009, a group of grad students filing a subsequent complaint in 2011, and an associate professor in Jones’ department, Peter Eck, submitting a verbal complaint in 2013. No action was ever taken against Jones. For his honesty, Eck was moved to a different department. Following the Winnipeg Free Press report, the University’s hand was finally forced – Jones was placed on leave indefinitely before quietly retiring this past May. Rarely have the words “we do not tolerate harassment in any form” sounded so hollow.
If there was a silver lining to any of this, it’s that the tide of allegations against U of M faculty came amid the University’s mandated three-year review of its sexual assault policy, and shone a light on the topic of sexual violence on our campus among students, faculty and administration alike.
The whole situation somewhat mirrored the way in which the #MeToo movement going mainstream has raised awareness and pushback against the scourge of sexual violence society-wide, and empowered more victims to come forward to report crimes to police.
However, the struggle toward achieving the change necessary has only just begun.
Sexual violence – in all its various forms, but sexual assault in particular – is overwhelmingly inflicted upon women, who are the victims of sexual assault nine times out of ten. And young women specifically: females aged 18-24 years are the victims in almost half of all sexual assaults reported in Canada. The perpetrators tend to be young men known by the victim. Although, what authorities currently know about sexual assault appears to comprise only a sliver of the true scope of the problem. Given how sexual assault is the crime least likely to be reported to police due to feelings of guilt and shame by the victim, experts point out that official crime statistics on sexual assault really only capture roughly 5% of the acts being committed. For comparison, physical violence is reported at a rate seven times higher than sexual assault. Of the cases of sexual assault that do end up being prosecuted – a fraction of those reported – less than half end up resulting in a conviction.
The majority of assaults on post-secondary students take place during the back-to-school period wherein first-year students unaccustomed to university life are the most vulnerable
Similar to mental health issues (see UMSU article), the problem of sexual violence is particularly acute among post-secondary students. Media reporting has unearthed worrying trends. An investigation by Maclean’s magazine in early 2018, including a survey of some 23,000 students across 81 Canadian postsecondary institutions, found that over 20% of female students and one in two LGBTQ2S* students had experienced sexual assault in their lifetimes – half of those incidents being experienced while at university. The majority of assaults on post-secondary students take place during the back-to-school period wherein first-year students unaccustomed to university life are the most vulnerable. When student victims do try to seek out help, often they find themselves let down by school officials and victimized all over again by having to navigate a complex web of medical, legal and academic processes on their own.
UMSU has been active in trying to change this on U of M campuses. We have been one of the leading voices engaged in the University policy revision process, urging the administration to adopt 15 policy recommendations based on our own independent research and analysis of progressive sexual violence policies at other universities. We have engaged Klinic Community Health Centre, national advocacy group Students for Consent Culture Canada (SFCC) and U of M campus group Justice for Women for perspective and insights into what can be done to mitigate sexual violence in post-secondary environments. We require consent culture training for all student groups and associations as a pre-condition to receiving UMSU funding, and have publicly called for mandatory consent training for faculty, staff and administration. We have also lobbied the U of M to create a dedicated, centralized sexual violence support centre on campus similar to models that exist at the University of Alberta and McGill. As a result the University has committed $250,000 toward a centre due to open within the next year.
Now, echoing calls from SFCC, as part of our election advocacy we have pushed each of Manitoba’s political parties to commit to improving legislation that affects the ways internal response mechanisms to sexual offences function within institutions. Specifically, we follow SFCC’s lead in calling for updates to relevant sections within Manitoba’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) and the Workplace Safety and Health Act – and workplace health and safety regulations more generally. Lawmakers need to ensure survivors of sexual violence are kept informed by their institution or workplace of the outcomes of investigations and any disciplinary action that is taken as a result of victim’s disclosure of an incident. Doing so aids in the healing process of survivors by providing a sense of resolution that is necessary for survivor’s to gain closure over the trauma they have endured.
Another key aspect of mitigating sexual violence is accounting for the way that intersectionality shapes the complaint, investigative and resolution processes for survivors.
Intersectionality refers to how a person with more than one marginalized identity can face increased obstacles and discrimination within institutional structures due to racial, gender, class, sexual orientation, religious and other biases. Regarding sexual violence, intersectionality pertains to how different aspects of one’s identity can put certain individuals at greater risk for experiencing sexual violence – such as visible minorities or those from the LGBTQ2S* communities. Intersectionality can also affect a survivor’s ability to access appropriate support services during procedural steps. Overcoming this requires tailoring the process to acknowledge, and be inclusive of the lived experiences of the survivor and the community they identify with.
In Canada, no more pressing example of how intersectionality renders some individuals more prone to being victims of sexual violence exists than the tragic cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG).
The final report from the National Inquiry into MMIWG, delivered in June, contains a scathing account of how and why rates of violence and sexual abuse of Indigenous women and LGBTQ2S* persons are exponentially higher than that of other demographics. This is due in large part to the conflation of poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, geographic isolation, substance abuse, intergenerational trauma, apathy by law enforcement and displacement, among other causes. As part of its findings, the Inquiry points to how Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to be murdered or go missing than any other demographic group, and 16 times more likely than white women. Likewise, more than one in five Indigenous women are victims of sexual assault, with Indigenous women three times more likely to be victims of sexual assault than non-Indigenous women.
Many of the reports 231 calls for justice are levelled directly at the Government of Manitoba. Two prominent examples are the need to address the high rates of sexual violence and racism experienced by Indigenous women living near hydroelectric projects in northern Manitoba, and the persistence of child poverty rates on provincial reserves – 76% compared to 15% of non-Indigenous children elsewhere in Manitoba.
As part of a commitment to reconciliation, UMSU adds our voice to those calling on whoever forms Manitoba’s next government to acknowledge and implement the necessary calls for justice in the Inquiry’s final report.
The Manitoba Liberal Party and Manitoba NDP have given UMSU verbal commitments to re-examining relevant provincial legislation to inform survivors of the results of sexual violence investigations, and disciplinary action taken as a result. Regarding the Inquiry’s calls for justice: the Manitoba NDP have promised in their platform to establish a cabinet committee led by Indigenous women to implement the Inquiry’s calls for justice, while the provincial Green Party has made a similar commitment. At this point, neither the incumbent Progressive Conservatives nor provincial Liberals have publicly committed to implementing the Inquiry’s recommendations, although the PC’s have pledged to increase investment in trauma counselling and supports for women who have been sexually abused.
While certain groups find themselves the victims of sexual violence at much higher rates than others, it remains a uniquely damaging issue for all of us. No matter which party wins on election day next week, we will continue to push for them to take action on sexual violence and implement the National Inquiry’s calls for justice.
The time for hollow gestures has passed.