As the one-year review period comes to a close, Lakehead looks for ways to improve its policy
By: Jaina Kelly, Staff Writer
On December 21st of 2016, the first Sexual Violence Response Policy was instated at Lakehead University with its first revision scheduled for one year. This one-year time frame was thoughtfully selected to ensure that re-evaluation of potential shortcomings could be dealt with in a timely manner. Unlike other universities, Lakehead has jumped at the chance to become a leading example of what a successful sexual violence policy looks like. By employing a one-year review period, Lakehead can allow any criticism and feedback to help strengthen its policy before entering into the customary three-year revision term, which makes it temporarily unchangeable.
While it might seem that the policy was newly developed, it actually builds on the Sexual Misconduct Policy that had made Lakehead a leader amongst universities in sexual violence response. Until March 2016, the Canadian government had not mandated this type of sexual harassment policy for any university or college. Not long after the new legislation, a group of students at Carleton University created a national strategy entitled ‘Our Turn’. This strategy encourages student unions to mobilize to ensure that the policies being instated are actually providing protection and support for sexual assault victims on campuses. These student advocates know that it’s one thing for a policy to be introduced, but it’s another thing entirely to test the readability, depth and application of that policy in a time of crisis.
The ‘Our Turn’ initiative was developed largely in response to the majority of university faculties lacking desire to gather student feedback. Caitlin Salvino, chair of the initiative, states that there is no adequate guideline provided by the Canadian government to ensure a certain standard of policy. Therefore, she decided to consolidate student support and critique to rate every university on an academic grading scale based on the depth of their policy. The ‘Our Turn’ report card offered Lakehead a ‘B’ grade, placing us in the Top 3 Best with UBC and Ryerson.
In order to find out what can be done about changing Lakehead’s ‘B’ to an ‘A’, I attended a policy consultation meeting in the Orillia Alumni Commons. Being fairly uninformed about the detailed contents of the policy as it stands, I was eager to know what stood out about it in contrast with other schools.
The consultation was facilitated by Jessica Kearney of LUSU, and Dreeni Geer, the Director of Human Rights and Equity at Lakehead. Both are highly knowledgeable about our policy’s existing positives and also of its areas that require necessary improvement.
In the meeting, Geer expressed that both faculty and LUSU members are absolutely on the same team for wanting the best policy for students. Everyone agrees that a successful policy is one that can offer adequate protection, support and guidance to sexual violence survivors. Kearney was clear in her determination to bring forth all student complaints as well as her own critiques of the policy’s shortcomings. She explained that in the policy, there are areas which remain too vague. The word ‘intersectional’ is mentioned briefly without expansion, meaning it could be lost or ignored easily. She notes that this term is especially important, as it highlights the complexity of sexual violence when it intersects with different identities. Reporting sexual violence can be even more difficult for racialized and other marginalized women, not only because they experience the highest levels of harassment but also statistically the lowest levels of support from institutions. Without sufficient acknowledgement of intersectionality, Lakehead’s policy would not be protecting their most vulnerable students.
Additionally, the term “rape culture” needs to be expanded into a term that includes all forms of sexual assault. This point was raised by Geer: instead of focusing on solely ‘rape’ culture, referring to “a culture of sexual violence” makes for an important distinction. Our wider culture of sexual violence needs to be identified as context in the policy, they both stressed. Understanding imbalances of power, intersecting socioeconomic identities, and gender roles is imperative to knowing why so many sexual assaults go unreported. Without being honest about this culture of sexual violence, Kearney warns, it remains the elephant in the room.
Another change discussed during the consultation is again, found within ambiguous terminology, notably with the word “alleged”. Though this term is strictly legal, and meant to express a claim that is not supported by a judicial ruling, it can make assault survivors feel belittled or discredited. By clarifying that “alleged” does not imply scepticism toward those reporting assault, people will feel more apt to come forward without fear of judgment. This clarification is found in the ‘plain speak’ version of the policy, but Kearney insists on its inclusion in the actual policy too.
A few other main issues were brought up during the consultation. In order to file a complaint, the policy quotes a Thunder Bay location, and seems muddy on the Orillia end. By clarifying the appointed administrative members that Orillia students could also report to, Lakehead can properly enabling face to face contact on both campuses. One notable feature about reporting within our response policy is that, at Lakehead, you can formally complain and file a legal criminal charge – at other schools you cannot. At Lakehead, students also have the option to file a comment about a situation without taking any further action.
At the end of the consultation, it seemed obvious that we need to exercise critique on the policy itself, not the people behind it. It’s easy to point fingers at the university and wonder why they don’t do better immediately, but policy development takes time. Considering the government has no clear guideline for their newly mandated policy, it requires the involvement of students and faculty to create something successful. So far, the policy is growing into something solid. We are in the Top 3, next to two huge schools, and LUSU reps like Kearney, and Human Rights and Equity Director Geer, are working hard to keep improving.
For your reference, the Sexual Violence Response Policy is available on the Lakehead website, and comes in a user-friendly plain speak and a legal version; resources and support can be found at the back end and on the Human Rights and Equity Office webpages.