Student unions from Manitoba's two largest post-secondary institutions joined student unions across Canada Wednesday in signing a national, student-led framework designed to end campus sexual violence.

The Our Turn National Action Plan lays out a list of programs that student unions can implement to help prevent sexual violence, support survivors and advocate for change on their campuses.

The University of Winnipeg Students' Association (UWSA), the University of Manitoba Students' Union (UMSU) and the U of M Graduate Students' Union (UMGSA) are among 20 student unions from eight provinces across Canada signing onto the plan.

"Progress has been made in Manitoba... but the fact remains that there is a large gap between where we are now and where we want to be," said UMSU's vice-president of advocacy Allison Kilgour at a press conference Wednesday. "We want to say to survivors today, that as your student representatives, we stand with you, we believe survivors and we are adamant in that stance.

"It's essential for students to be the ones who drive this change."

Failing Grade

As well as creating the framework, the student group behind the plan, Our Turn, also released a report card scoring sexual assault policies from each signing union's university. Almost half the campuses received a failing grade and the average score across Canada was a C-minus.

Here in Winnipeg, the University of Manitoba had a score of 73 out of 100 while the University of Winnipeg was graded at 54 out of 100.

Laura Garinger, president of UWSA, said the union considers the U of W's score a failing grade.

Laura Garinger

University of Winnipeg Students’ Association president Laura Garinger says the union is working with the school to improve its sexual violence policies and procedures. (CBC)

But she says the school is in the process of making changes to meet the requirements of the province's Sexual Violence Awareness and Prevention Act. It was signed into law earlier this year and mandates public institutions in Manitoba to have appropriate policies and procedures in place to respond when a student reports an incident of sexual harassment or violence.

"So a lot of what needs to be done is in the works already," she said. "The policy development is happening now and luckily we'll be able to make a lot of the recommendations that Our Turn has encouraged us to make."

Garinger said while the school does have a protocol in place to deal with sexual violence on campus, the procedures haven't been written out into a concise policy, and that's one of the reasons the U of W got such a low grade.

She says the union is working with the school and the student body to fill in the gaps.

"There was already work being done so that survivors could access supports that were tailored to their need," she said. "However with that not being written down, if a survivor were to go looking for that procedure, if they were going to look for support and didn't necessarily know how they could access it, didn't necessarily know what they were getting, that would… encourage people not to seek help, and that's not what we want."

Garinger said UWSA will enact the recommendations of the Our Turn plan, including adding a designated safe-space for survivors and offering mandatory training for their existing service centres, staff, and student groups. They'll also partner with community organizations already working to end gender-based violence and add information on the school's sexual violence procedures and policies to course syllabi so it's easily accessible to students.

Making it easier to report sexual violence  

Over at the U of M, Kilgour said UMSU is working with the university to see mandatory training for sexual violence and sensitivity training added for staff and faculty. The union is also looking at adding a drug and alcohol immunity clause to its existing policy to protect survivors who might otherwise keep their stories private.

She says the U of M had just one formally reported case of sexual assault at the campus last year, a statistic she doesn't believe can be true.

"The majority of survivors don't come forward to share their stories, and when they do it's often done so in informal manners," she said. "We will be ensuring that students will be at the forefront of discussion and we're happy to say that the university is willing to work with us and excited to have student opinions as part of the consultation process."

Carlen Comegan-Ronke, Manitoba chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, said numbers from Statistics Canada show post-secondary students have a disproportionate chance of being sexually assaulted compared to the general population.

Carlen Comegan-Ronke

Carlen Comegan-Ronke, Manitoba chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, says one in five women studying at North American post-secondary institutions is sexually assaulted.

"One in five women studying in North American post-secondary institutions is sexually assaulted," she said, adding majority of those assaults go unreported. "Research shows women don't report incidences of sexual violence because they fear they will not be believed or supported or that they will have to disclose the degrading or humiliating details of what was said and done to them."

Garinger said the problem of sexual violence on campus has left many students feeling their schools aren't a safe place. She said the Our Turn National Action Plan is a good start toward better addressing the issue.

"It's all for students, by students," she said. "I think safety has a huge impact to play in how students are able to participate on campus and succeed on campus.

"We need to be able to support our students no matter what experiences they've had, what backgrounds they come from."