Canada·CBC Investigates

New post-secondary sexual assault policies a start but fall short, experts say

Next month, British Columbia will become the second province in Canada with mandatory sexual assault policies in place at its universities — but some experts say while such policies are a good first step they are far from a perfect solution.

Every public post-secondary school in B.C. to have sexual misconduct policy in place by May 19

University of British Columbia students walk on the campus in Vancouver in 2013. UBC recently approved a new sexual misconduct policy. All public universities in B.C. have to have sexual misconduct policies in place by May 19. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Next month, British Columbia will become the second province in Canada with mandatory sexual assault policies in place at its universities — a move that comes following years of claims that some allegations were mishandled by the province's post-secondary institutions.

But some experts say while such policies are a good first step in outlining what options students have if they believe they have been sexually harassed or assaulted, they are far from a perfect solution.

What mandatory policies do is start to create a level of accountability, says Charlene Senn, a women's and gender studies professor at the University of Windsor.

"It makes the university think through what will happen," Senn says. "But it also means that you can see it, you can access it, and then if it's not what you expect, if it's not as promised, then there is a really good place for a challenge to that."

Last year, both Ontario and British Columbia passed legislation mandating that all public post-secondary institutions need to have a stand-alone sexual assault policy. Ontario schools had to have policies in place since January. 

Manitoba passed the Sexual Violence Awareness and Prevention Act in November, but there is no mandatory date for schools to have policies in place.

Alberta and Nova Scotia have not introduced any legislation on sexual assault, but both have directed their post-secondary schools to create policies. And earlier this week, students in Nova Scotia called on the government to introduce provincial legislation to prevent sexualized violence on campus.

Charlene Senn, a professor at the University of Windsor, says the policies are a good start — but that more needs to be done. (University of Windsor)

The school-based policies apply to specific institutions and don't prevent anyone from also filing a complaint with police if they choose to do so.

In 2015, a CBC News investigation reported on a survey of 87 Canadian universities and colleges about the number of sexual assaults, as defined by the Criminal Code, that were reported to each school between 2009 and 2013. Just over 700 sexual assaults were reported over those five years. An update of 2014 numbers showed that 16 schools reported no known incidents of sexual assault at their institutions over the six year period. 

It also showed a patchwork approach at Canadian universities and colleges, and that only a handful of Canadian schools publicly share the number of sexual assaults reported to their campus, a practice that is a legal requirement in the United States.

Results not readily available

Last week, British Columbia's largest university, UBC, announced it had approved its new sexual assault and misconduct policy, which will take effect on May 18. The university said its policy "articulates UBC's duty and commitment to support members of the UBC community who are impacted by sexual misconduct."

Two UBC students who filed complaints against the same professor in October 2016 told CBC News they might have had a better experience had a policy been in place at the time.

CBC News is not revealing the identity of the students or the professor.

Student 1 claimed that the professor tried putting his hand under the top of her dress after a night of drinking at another student's house party.

Student 2 reported a series of what she described as "inappropriate" text messages with that same professor, which she says moved from professional to "sexualized."

The university conducted an investigation into both complaints and when it was complete, the students say they were given a verbal outline of the findings. 

Student 1 says she was told the touching outlined in her complaint was found to be a violation of the Respectful Environment policy but that the professor was "too intoxicated to form intent."

Student 2 says she was told the investigation found that the professor failed to disclose a relationship under the school's conflict-of-interest policy.

Both students, speaking exclusively to CBC News, said they were told by the school that they would have to file a Freedom of Information request if they wanted a full copy of the report and findings. They also would not be told what, if any, disciplinary action would be taken against the professor. 

"I was surprised because I didn't anticipate that I would have to ask for my own information," the second student told CBC. 

UBC has confirmed to CBC News that it will no longer require complainants to file a Freedom of Information request in cases of sexual assault or harassment under the new policy.

How are some B.C. universities handling the issue of how complainants access reports?

Simon Fraser University confirmed to CBC News that complainants will receive a redacted copy of the report findings, including the decision and restrictions imposed on the respondent (if the policy was violated).

University of Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island University's policies are yet to be approved but the schools confirmed that complainants will get a copy of their report without the need to file a Freedom of Information request.

Thompson Rivers University says that "rather than requiring the complainant to file an FOI request, the policy outlines a process that includes a letter from the President to the complainant. That letter will include any and all information that a complainant would have access to under the FOI legislation."

Kwantlen Polytechnic University has not yet approved a policy.

University of Victoria, and Royal Roads University have not yet approved their procedures.

The issue of accessing the results of such investigations has been at the centre of many student outcries over the way universities handle reports of sexual assault and harassment.

UBC has changed its practice around FOI requests for investigative records, but the practice continues at some institutions.

Making students apply for their own reports is concerning, says Dawn Moore, an associate professor of law at Carleton University and the lead researcher on a report titled The Response to Sexual Violence at Ontario University Campuses.

"FIPPA [the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act] is really handy if you want to hide the problem, you don't want to deal with it," says Moore. "Universities are going back to FIPPA every chance they get to circumvent any kind of sense of natural justice around these sexual violence policies."

Dawn Moore, an associate professor of law at Carleton University, has worries about whether the policies will be strong enough. (Carleton University)

Moore recognizes that education falls under provincial jurisdiction, but she's an advocate for a national strategy.

"The kind of hope that we all had when the legislation came in was that it would shift all the university cultures and college cultures toward a more prevention-based, survivor-focused orientation, where they would acknowledge sexual violence was a social fact on campus." 

Instead, Moore says the lack of standards only forces schools to have a policy in place — but not necessarily a good or effective one.

"What we've ended up with is only the schools that have found themselves under huge pressure because of really high-profile incidents, only those schools are the ones that are really taking it seriously."

Faculty issue

Some of the most high-profile complaints on university campuses have involved allegations against faculty — and concerns around the imbalance of rights that come with those cases. As employees, most professors are protected under a collective agreement and new policies don't change that. 

"Universities don't have this figured out yet, and I think there's been insufficient collaboration between unions and administrators, for example, to ensure that the policies basically do protect survivors, and are fair and just," said the University of Windsor's Charlene Senn.

Back at UBC, the two students say while the new policy might have helped with some aspects of their case, that fundamental imbalance of power issue means that any students coming forward with similar faculty-involved complaints in the future will be treated in the exact same way.

"I feel like I've kind of lost my faith in the university," Student 1 said. "'I'm doubtful that there'll be much change."

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Lori Ward is an award winning investigative journalist who covers both national and international stories. Email: