As students enter campuses across Ontario this fall, there's change in the air. Or at least on paper. This year marks the first September with mandatory sexual assault policies in place at Ontario universities.
"It's one of those things that you hear about happening, but you never think that it will happen to you," Allison Thompson told the CBC.
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An incoming Business Administration student, Thompson will be attending Wilfrid Laurier University's orientation in the Fall, and said she finds comfort in the new changes.
"It makes me feel safer as an incoming student, knowing that there are policies in place to protect me."
A long time coming
The provincial government passed Bill 132, the Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act, in March of 2016. Universities had until January 1, 2017 to implement sexual assault policies, and as students enter this fall semester, it will be the first time these policies will affect orientation weeks across the province.
The policy change comes almost two years after an investigation revealed only nine out of 78 Canadian universities had a policy in place.
Most of the newly implemented policies focus on prevention, education, support and accountability, for both the wider school community, and survivors of sexual violence.
'Everybody is really open to making sure that we do this right.' - Antonia Brieva, President of the Federation of Students at the University of Waterloo
At the University of Waterloo the tough conversations are beginning, and Antonio Brieva, President of the Federation of Students (Feds) is glad to hear it.
"Having that institutional policy in place has allowed us to have greater dialogue,," he said, bringing parties that weren't previously invested.
"Everybody is really open to making sure that we do this right."
For many students orientation, or O-Week, is the highlight of the year, planned months in advance.
Brieva said that Waterloo is looking into expanding the sexual violence education, awareness and prevention programming throughout the week as a result of the new policy.
Orientation currently includes 'Single & Sexy', a comedic drama performance that covers first year challenges including sexual violence, consent and abuse of drugs and alcohol.
It's been around since Brieva started at Waterloo in 2012, but since Bill 132 came into play the performance has changed to better reflect the mandated policy. But Feds wants more.
"How can we further give programming to first year students and also existing students, in terms of consent, and prevention strategies," he said.
With changes anticipated for next year's orientation, the focus right now is on more events held throughout the year covering consent and sexual violence in an attempt to reach all parts of the school community.
"There needs to be a lot more work," said Brieva, "every single time we do some event related to consent, we get people who are already bought in. We need to get the people who aren't."
Safety net for students
For students like Thompson, first year comes with a lot of nerves, and these policy changes help ease worries over sexual assault and keep them out of mind.
And really, that's kind of the point.
"I think it's great that universities are finally recognizing the problem of sexual assault on campuses with these policies," she added.
"I don't think that they'll change my experience as a freshman too much, but it's still nice to know that the policies are there on the off chance anything does happen."
And that's important, noted Brieva.
"I don't think it really takes away from the experience. We need to stop thinking about sexual violence and education around it as something that needs to be eased in," he said.
"Every institution should make sure that students feel safe."