Provincial government in support of legislating sexual assault policies at universities

BC Premier Christy Clark has announced that the provincial government will either pass or develop similar legislation to a recently-proposed private members’ bill that requires post-secondary institutions in BC to address the issue of sexual violence on campus.

The Post-Secondary Sexual Violence Policies Act, proposed by Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA and Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, would create a legal obligation for colleges and universities in British Columbia to develop sexual violence policies that outline how they will respond to reports of sexual violence and aim to prevent future sexual violence from occurring.

Weaver’s bill comes just after a number of post-secondary institutions in BC — including UBC, the University of Victoria and Thompson Rivers University — were accused of erroneously mishandling reported cases of sexual assault.

“Right now across British Columbia, we have a number of very high profile cases of sexual violence occurring on campuses where there have been inconsistencies in reporting and a lack of reporting,” said Weaver. “Why [colleges and universities] have a built-in incentive to underreport is because of the institution’s reputation. The institutions want to be viewed as a safe place for students to be. If you report high incidences of sexual assault, then these might be perceived as not safe places. So rather than trying to cover up incidents that may or may not occur, it’s better to prevent them from occurring in the first place.”

Weaver’s bill is based off of similar legislation that recently passed in Ontario. Manitoba is currently moving forward with a similar bill as well.

“The University of Ottawa just did a survey of its female students and found that 44 per cent of them during their time on campus experienced either unwanted sexual assault or sexual touching,” said Weaver. “This kind of stuff has to end. In a modern society, we have to recognize and respect people on campuses and not continue down with these inappropriate approaches to sexual violence.”

UBC is currently in the midst of developing its own sexual assault policy while members of the AMS and the university have been working with the government to develop a framework for sexual violence policies.

According to Sara-Jane Finlay, UBC vice-president of equity and inclusion, the bill will work best if universities strongly implement education and prevention.

“It includes processes for dealing with sexual assault. But in essence, a sexual assault policy comes into play after a sexual assault has happened and the work of education and prevention really needs to happen more broadly and more widely to support the policy,” she said.

Although she wants to see BC’s post-secondary institutions develop sexual violence policies, AMS VP Academic Jenna Omassi raised some concerns about the potential outcomes of any possible legislation. In particular, she is worried that the government may give schools too short of a timeframe to develop an effective policy.

“When something similar was brought forward in Ontario, there was essentially a timespan in which you had to do it — which I get — but it causes a lot of issues when you have a timespan to do something brand new,” she said. “Something like this can do a lot of harm if it’s not applied in the right way.”

She was also concerned about how those working on the legislation will be political figures.

“We have to realize that those people who are creating [this legislation] are not the content experts. So making sure that they know that and that they rely on those experts is really important,” said Omassi.