U of Manitoba's 'sorry' isn't good enough when it comes to harassment, assault on campus

In light of assault and harassment allegations at the University of Manitoba, Joanne Seiff says universities need adequate counselling, consent education and clear and legal employment boundaries established.

Universities need adequate counselling, consent education and employment boundaries, says Joanne Seiff

A group of University of Manitoba students protest in October 2017 to demand changes to the school's sexual harassment policy after allegations surfaced against a former music professor at the school. The U of M needs to update its policies around consent and protecting students from harassment, says Joanne Seiff. (CBC)

There's an unfortunate phrase people mention about how Winnipeg is stuck in the past. It goes something like, "When you live in Winnipeg, going on a trip is like travelling to the future."

I don't usually agree with this, as I think there are lots of quirky and fascinating things about our city.

However, when it comes to how the University of Manitoba has handled allegations of sexual assault and harassment by staff, and particularly its interactions with Steve Kirby — a former jazz professor previously accused of harassment and now charged with sexual assault — it looks like Winnipeg is stuck someplace in ancient history, with consent rules from a long, long time ago. 

Many universities directly address issues of sexual harassment and assault on campus, with provisions for counselling, a comprehensive campaign to educate about consent, and by establishing obvious boundaries for their employees.

It's clear now the U of M's policies around this were inadequate.

Former University of Manitoba jazz professor Steve Kirby. He has now been charged with sexually assaulting a former student. (CBC)

To be clear, people in positions of power anywhere can take dangerous advantage of those beneath them. If we've learned anything at all from the #MeToo movement, it's that it's happening everywhere.

Too little, too late

At the U of M, administration has recently acknowledged it has five current investigations underway and the president, David Barnard, has apologized. 

While apologizing is a Canadian tradition, in this case at the University of Manitoba, it strikes me as too little and way too late. While I haven't done a survey of every North American university, when I was an undergraduate in the early 1990s at Cornell University, sexual assault, consent and safe sex were on everyone's minds.

If you went to the health centre, there were condoms on every counter. My woman friends joked that if they went to get antibiotics for an ear infection, the first question would be, "Are you pregnant?"

In retrospect though, the joke should have been unisex. My guy friends should have been hearing "Have you helped get someone pregnant?" as well — but I'm willing to overlook that now. After all, it was over 25 years ago. Things have changed.

A poster at the University of British Columbia campus in October 2013. The U of M, like other schools, must provide an education in the culture of consent, particularly around staff and student relationships. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Cornell's early '90s education campaign about how safe sex and consent worked was thorough and unrelenting. The university gave students, residence advisors, and all of its employees information about what to do in case of assault, how to report it, and safe places to do so.

When a friend was raped, I encouraged him to seek support and counselling at the student health centre, because — get this — in 1992 or so, you could get that kind of support at Cornell University.

Clear policies on relationships needed

The University of Manitoba has just announced that a sexual assault counsellor from Klinic will be on campus one day a week, starting this month. It also announced hiring for a new sexual violence education and resource co-ordinator position. 

In addition to that, though, the U of M must provide a thorough education in the culture of consent, particularly around staff and student relationships.

By definition, a subordinate cannot consent to an intimate relationship. It's a disgrace that the University of Manitoba seems to have only just figured out that people in positions of power can harm their subordinates.

Informed consent is impossible when the person asking for sex (or taking it) is your boss or teacher.- Joanne Seiff

While universities no longer operate in loco parentis, they are workplaces and educational facilities with particularly vulnerable clients. 

If a professor controls your academic future, it's hard to say no. It's an embarrassment to think that no one thought that professors should be required to undergo frequent training to prevent harassment.

How could no one have realized that professionals in education should sign a contract that commits them to avoiding sex with their pupils? 

While there may be well be policies in regards to "respectful work and learning environment" and "sexual assault policies," this needs to be explicitly defined. 

According to a recent Winnipeg Free Press editorial, "no major Canadian university currently forbids professors from dating students." By leaving the issues of safety, conduct and sexual assault policies up to human resources, these become employee privacy issues, when transparency and education will keep more people safe. 

Many U.S. universities, though, have had long established policies against dating subordinates and students.

Reinforce culture of consent

Universities recruit professors, staff and students both nationally and internationally. That means people from all over the world come to Manitoba to learn and to teach. They should know better by now, but frequent reinforcement of the culture of consent and addressing sexual assault openly should be part of the U of M's culture.

One hopes that most educators would have been taught right and wrong in terms of how to behave with students — but for some, it definitely did not stick. For those who see themselves as above the petty rules and laws, they need firm reminders.

It should start with a signed document when they begin their employment. It should continue with yearly training reminders. There should be adequate sexual assault counselling in place and continuing information, education and support for new students and employees each year.

Like that jar of condoms that sat out at every residence hall desk and at the Cornell student health centre, it should be hard to avoid this information.

In Canada, our laws insist that consensual sex, between equals, starts with a "Yes." Informed consent is impossible when the person asking for sex (or taking it) is your boss or teacher.

It shouldn't take a year to review this, and an apology isn't good enough. Universities should have adequate counselling, consent education and clear and legal employment boundaries established.

President Barnard, please hold this institution of higher learning to a much higher standard.

It's time we took our time-travelling machine out of the past at the U of M and landed where we belong — in 2018.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Joanne Seiff is the author of several books, including Knit Green, about textile sustainability. She works in Winnipeg as a freelance writer.