U of M students renew call for mandatory consent training for faculty

Student advocates at the University of Manitoba are calling on the university to implement mandatory “consent culture” training for faculty after another scandal involving inappropriate sexual behaviour by staff towards students.

University of Manitoba says it's considering the suggestion

Sarah Bonner-Proulx, a University of Manitoba Students' Union vice-president, and Vatineh Magaji, president of Justice for Women Manitoba, want the university to amend its policies on sexual harassment and improve training for staff.

Student advocates at the University of Manitoba are calling on the university to implement mandatory "consent culture" training for faculty after another scandal involving inappropriate sexual behaviour by staff toward students

Former faculty member and assistant dean of medicine, Dr. Gary Allen Joseph Harding, has a six-month suspension on his medical license after he pursued a "flagrantly unprofessional" sexual relationship with two of his medical students.

"It is really shocking to hear that news. We know that the university is taking strides to curb those acts on campus but we still see sometimes there are occasions where that slips through the cracks," said Vatineh Magaji, 20, president of Justice for Women Manitoba, a student group working to promote consent culture on campus.

"It's definitely unnerving to hear that news, it's certainly disappointing … just really awful."

Last year, jazz professor and musician Steve Kirby left the university after an internal investigation report found he repeatedly made inappropriate sexual comments and had sexual contact with female students. 

"There's definitely a power dynamic at play between students and professors," said Sarah Bonner-Proulx, vice-president of advocacy with the University of Manitoba Students' Union.

"It comes down to trust and having mutual respect between those two and I think that professors are, they need to acknowledge that they are in this position of power and that they are someone that students look up to and respect and that they trust, and ensuring that they are fulfilling those roles and creating an environment where students feel safe and being willing to be involved in things like being educated."

A lot of students [feel] like they can't come forward because nothing will be done.- Sarah Bonner-Proulx, UMSU vice-president

In a statement, a spokesperson wrote, "The University of Manitoba condemns sexual violence in all its forms. The first concern is always to support the individual who has experienced sexual violence," and cited its online anonymous reporting tools and an updated sexual assault policy. 

But both Bonner-Proulx and Magaji want more action at the administrative level, starting with education for staff, such as the 'consent culture' training many student groups take. 

"Anyone can perpetrate acts of sexual violence," said Bonner-Proulx. "It would be fantastic to see the university take something like that on to ensure that admin and faculty are trained on these sorts of things as well, and just taking that accountability and responsibility for these types of events."

A spokesperson for the university says it's considering the suggestion.

The students also suggest a policy banning casual relationships between students and teachers would be beneficial, something the university says it's also now considering, along with other universities across the country. 

"That goes back to that power dynamic of … a lot of students feeling like they can't come forward because nothing will be done, and they won't be taken seriously or they won't be believed because of the position they're in and because teachers, professors do have that sort of authority," said Bonner-Proulx. 

She said in the fall, the university will be consulting students and other stakeholders to revise the sexual assault and respectful work and learning environment policies to make it them more holistic, survivor-centric, intersectional and anti-oppressive. 

On Monday, the CBC placed requests for an interview with someone from the University of Manitoba to speak to situation involving Harding and the two medical students — hoping to find out when the university launched its own investigation, whether there could be other victims, and what changes are being put in place to protect students.

This lack of openness is also quite damning, to be frank about it.- Vatineh Magaji, president of Justice for Women Manitoba

Subsequent requests were made Tuesday. The university spokesperson cited privacy concerns around the investigation and instead provided a statement about the university's condemnation of sexual violence. 

"As a community, the University of Manitoba is committed to supporting individuals who disclose and to building a culture of safety, respect, consent, prevention and education," the statement said. 

"Allegations of professional misconduct, sexual harassment or assault are taken seriously and all disclosures are promptly acted upon."

But to date, since the Kirby scandal broke, no faculty members have provided an interview on the subject. 

"The university should definitely be able to speak a little bit about this. We need to be able to share our side of the story and provide input and answer questions, because students have questions," said Bonner-Proulx. "Students are scared." 

"I will say, that's very telling as to how they're approaching the situation. This lack of openness is also quite damning, to be frank about it," agreed Magadi, adding a conversation about the concerns can still respect confidentiality.

"Including transparency in the conversation I think is essential so that everyone can have an informed decision and interpretation of the events."

The inquiry by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba found that Dr. Harding "violated his professional and ethical obligations and failed to maintain proper boundaries with [the students] and exploited [the students] in several ways." One of the students eventually enlisted a lawyer to put an end to the harassment, the other student still seeks professional help for his trauma and hasn't been able to return to his studies. 

"My heart really goes out to those victims because this is such a complex issue," said Magaji.

"There's so many ways that victims are not able to actually come forward with their stories despite there being measures available for them."

The young women plan to work with university administration this fall to spread the word about those measures and drill down a zero-tolerance culture on campus.

"I feel like action at this point is the most effective way to show the victims and people who are not a victim but who are bystanders to these events, show them that things happen when people come forward, when these stories are shared, there are actions that are taking place, it is taken seriously."