By contributor Aislinn Cottell
Bill Cosby, Jian Ghomeshi, Johnny Depp – the last few years have sometimes felt like a never-ending roll call of the abuse pervades our society.
With incidents involving celebrities especially bringing attention to these problems in the media, there is a growing awareness in the western world that rape and assault are not merely the crimes of monsters hiding down dark alleys, but are often committed by known, and often even beloved, people in our lives.
As more women speak out about their experiences, it is becoming equally apparent how frequent sexual misconduct occurs in what should be safe spaces – like doctor’s offices, workplaces, or universities. In particular, the investigation at UBC over ‘rape chants’ heard during their 2013 frosh celebration sparked heated debate over the responsibility of post-secondary schools to protect their students (and staff) from harassment and assault, a discussion which finally came to solid fruition in April of this year.
In April, a new provincial bill was tabled – and a month later given royal assent – that requires all BC colleges and universities to develop and maintain policies regarding response and prevention of sexual assault, misconduct, harassment, and voyeurism. Called the Sexual Violence and Misconduct Policy Act, the bill was initially introduced by Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, who modelled it after Ontario’s similar recently adopted legislation.
The bill will come into effect in May of 2017, and require all BC universities to develop procedures and strategies for the prevention, response, and documentation of any incidents of sexual misconduct on campus. The institutions will also be required to seek input from students, and review the policy every three years to ensure it remains up-to-date and effective.
Carrie Chassels, Executive Director of Student Affairs at VIU, had the job of writing the first draft of the new policy for VIU. The content of this draft was informed in part by a guide provided by the BC government, as well as input from UBC, BCIT, the Universities of Saskatchewan and Winnipeg, the Ending Violence Association of BC (EVA), and the West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF).
Although VIU has a good record as far as assault on campus goes – the university has only one incident on record – Chassels says that this may be the result of silence on the part of victims rather than a lack of perpetrators, and that in addition keeping quiet out of fear, victims may turn to other sources before contacting the university.
“It’s such a deeply personal experience that students may not even consider that the university would be interested in helping,” she said.
Now that first draft of the policy has been submitted to the university, it will be given extensive review by the Sexual Violence and Harassment Education and Response Steering Committee (SVHER) to ensure it clearly describes “the various steps and options for responding to students who are victim-survivors, witnesses, or alleged perpetrators.” As one of the representatives who sits on SVHER, it’s part of recently-appointed Chair of the Status of Women Committee Kathy Page’s job to help further review the draft and move it to the next stages.
Kathy Page, fifty-eight, is a well-established VIU professor who has been teaching part-time in the creative writing department for eleven years. She says she accepted the Status of Women nomination because she felt “enraged” at how many problems women still face in the twenty-first century.
“Being the generation that I am, I thought we had started to fix this when I was a student. So it is absolutely enraging to see that some of the work done back then is being kind of pushed back.”
The Status of Women was founded by the Vancouver Island University Faculty Association (VIUFA) in 1987, and is dedicated to dealing with issues facing women both on campus, and in the wider world. The position has, historically, been a one-woman gig; however, this year Page hopes find a few more members and form an actual group with whom to brainstorm.
The committee is funded by VIUFA, something Page says that it’s relatively unusual, and shows the university’s commitment not only to combating the problems facing female students, but also to the enrichment of the university as a whole.
“I think having respect for women and understanding their historical circumstances and journey is good for everyone, women and men.”
She says that the committee has several main angles, one of which is teaching.
“A big part of the role, historically, has been events and education about issues of importance to women, which often of course is violence.”
“It’s quite a complicated issue – I mean, it’s simple in one way because you want to eliminate it, but it’s finding a way to be able to deal with both those who are victims, but also you could be in a situation as a university where the perpetrator is also a student. Or staff.”
“We are in fact quite aggressive in that respect already, we have a good record of listening when there are complaints. And we do keep a record of complaints – which, many large universities say they have none. They haven’t got anything on record.”
Status of Women also supports and networks with groups such as the Haven Society and Canadian Federation of University Women to host events as well as develop new strategies of dealing with discrimination and abuse. From hosting vigils for incidents such as the Montreal massacre, to showing films celebrating women’s achievements and inspiration on International Women’s Day, Page hopes to build a strong community of support and progress on campus.
“Having a sophisticated understanding of the issues of violence against women and what we can do to improve the situation has got to be the number one thing at this time, but also to celebrate the achievements of women, which have been legion, despite what’s against us psychologically, physically, and economically.”
Over the next several months, Page and Chassels will work with the SVHER to further develop the new policy for VIU. There will be several informational sessions held early next year regarding the policy, as well as a survey circulated to collect student and staff input. Those interested in these proceedings or related issues are invited to contact Page at her university email, and can also check the Status of Women Facebook page for news on upcoming events and initiatives.