Rape victims say Canadian universities are failing them
As Ellie Ade Kur returns to class this week, she’ll be looking over her shoulder for an ex-boyfriend she says has sworn to stalk her on campus.
He has written texts threatening to show up at her social events, and, she says, warned in phone conversations he will appear at her University of Toronto classes, where she is a teaching assistant and graduate student.
Ade Kur fears these are not empty threats. In April, while she was away on vacation, someone matching his description appeared in her school building, prowling the halls until he found the door with her name on it, prompting a department-wide safety bulletin.
Ade Kur reported the incident and his repeated texts and calls to campus police and the university’s community safety office. But she said the community safety officer told her that she — not her ex — was putting other people in danger by being on campus. And if he returned, the officer said, it could be Ade Kur who would have to leave, which she fears would put her pursuit of a PhD in jeopardy.
It’s not the first time she has felt let down: In 2012, when she was in her third year at the same university, Ade Kur told VICE News another ex-boyfriend and fellow student violently raped her. But when she reported the incident to a guidance counsellor, the counsellor asked her questions that led her to wonder whether it was her fault she was assaulted.
“Why were you dating him? What were you wearing? Is there any way maybe he thought you were flirting with him?” she remembers the counsellor asking.
“There were all of these kind of barriers and hurdles I had to hop to prove that my ‘no’ meant ‘no,'” she recalls. “That was really frustrating. And that’s also part of the reason I decided to drop it and not even move forward.”
A spokesperson for the university declined to comment on either of these cases, citing privacy.
Ade Kur’s experience of sexual violence and what she says is poor handling of her case on the part of the university isn’t uncommon, at U of T or in universities across Canada. Even as awareness of the issue has grown — with a rape at Toronto’s York University drawing calls for reform alongside outrage over the Brock Turner case at Stanford University in the US — survivors and advocates say Canadian schools remain ill-equipped to handle complaints of sexual violence on campus.
Some have looked to the US, where the issue has garnered more attention and some change is underway. Canada is moving forward on the issue too, but in a patchwork fashion. Advocates worry that as school starts up, there still aren’t good systems in place for preventing campus sexual assault or handling cases when they do occur.
Attention to sexual violence on campus has been building over the last few years in Canada. Pro-rape chants at orientation week in 2013 at Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia drew sharp criticism, as did the exposure in 2014 of a secret all-male Facebook group promoting misogynistic views at Dalhousie University’s dentistry school (members joked about using chloroform on their female classmates and “converting” lesbians with their penises.) Allegations that the University of British Columbia failed to properly address multiple reports of a serial predator on campus surfaced last year.
These incidents are indicative of an often shrouded problem. National data from a 1993 Canadian Journal of Sociology survey of college students found that 28 percent of women reported experiencing sexual assault the year before, and 45 percent reported experiencing sexual assault since they started school. An even more disturbing picture emerged from a 2011 University of Toronto study that found four in five of female undergraduates surveyed at Canadian universities reported experiencing dating violence, including physical, sexual or psychological assault — and 29 percent of them experienced sexual assault.
But while these stats make sexual assault policies and reporting mechanisms vital for institutions of higher learning, many Canadian schools are falling short.
In 2014, the Toronto-based Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children reviewed 10 universities and five colleges across Canada and found that most did not have any policies in place pertaining specifically to sexual assault.
“Many encompass sexual assault behaviors under harassment, discrimination and/or misconduct policies,” the organization concluded. “However, post-secondary institutions must treat sexual assault as distinct from other kinds of misconduct given its gendered power dynamics and the unique challenges faced by those who are victimized.”
In the US, activists and sexual assault survivors are turning to an old tool to force change. They’re using Title IX, an anti-discrimination law enacted in 1972, to file lawsuits against universities and formal complaints with the federal Department of Education.
While complaints under the Human Rights Act provide similar legal recourse in Canada, and some survivors and activists are beginning to use that legislation to challenge universities, education is under provincial jurisdiction, making these solutions patchwork. But new laws in two of the largest provinces are finally forcing universities to draft sexual assault policies.
In Ontario, all post-secondary institutions must adopt sexual assault policies by January 1, 2017. British Columbia has also made clear sexual misconduct policies mandatory.
“The idea is to make sure that every young person on campus, in particular young women who may be the victims of sexual assault, know they can report it, that they will be safe if they report it, and that they will get the assistance that they’re requesting when they report it,” British Columbia Premier Christy Clark said at a news conference in April. “Because the thing about rape and sexual violence is that silence is the best friend of any rapist.”
Ade Kur and her friend Mandi Gray, a graduate student at York, couldn’t agree more with that last sentence.
They founded the group Silence is Violence at their respective universities to raise awareness about the issue and push their schools to do better. Gray and Ade Kur say that no university in Canada has it together on the issue.
“If I go to campus again and I get raped, I know what my university is going to do: nothing,” Gray said during a recent panel she and Ade Kur organized to discuss the issue.
In January 2015, Gray was sexually assaulted by a fellow graduate student. This past July, a judge found her attacker, Mustafa Ururyar, guilty of sexual assault, and this week, a judge locked him up for 18 months — the maximum sentence for his crime.
But when Gray asked her graduate program director for advice on how to report the assault to the school, she said both of them were at a loss. The school didn’t have a sexual violence policy and had no clear way to file a complaint.
“The only available information to Gray at this time was that she could make a report to campus security. She was provided with no details of what that entailed, what process would be triggered if she did so, or how her safety might be protected,” a human rights claim she filed against the university states.
In her complaint, she contends the lack of a clear reporting procedure added to the stress of being assaulted and that she had to drop one of her classes as a result.
The school passed a “Policy on Sexual Assault Awareness, Prevention and Response” later the same month Gray reported the assault. In the policy, York “affirms its ongoing commitment to foster a culture where sexual assault and its impact are understood, survivors are supported, and those who commit incidents of sexual assault are held accountable.” The school’s policy says it will ensure “appropriate procedures are in place,” but does not lay them out.
York has since published a list of steps a student can take if they need immediate help after a sexual assault. The first line says: “It’s not your fault.” The page links to outside resources, and a generic incident report form. If they choose to report a sexual assault, they can also report to the university’s Security Services — but it’s not clear what happens after that report is filed.
Gray acknowledges that York has a progressive definition of consent in its policy, and is doing what a lot of activists are demanding of universities, but she says the university’s policies leave her with more questions than answers.
Barbara Joy, a spokeswoman for the university, says more procedures are on the way. “This work is underway and being done by representatives from across the university, including student groups,” she said. “We are on target to deliver new draft procedures this fall, and expect to have more to say in the coming weeks.”
The University of Toronto’s sexual harassment policy, meanwhile, has remained unchanged since 1997, though the school released a new draft policy addressing sexual violence last week. (McGill University in Montreal followed suit this week, releasing its own draft policy.)
The policy still on the books at U of T requires students to go through mediation with an alleged attacker in order to get a formal hearing. It’s a process Ade Kur says can be re-traumatizing and doesn’t address the seriousness of sexual assault.
Even when cases like hers are reported to U of T, it’s unlikely that the allegations will be resolved with disciplinary measures or criminal proceedings, according to the university’s own numbers.
There were a total of 159 complaints of sexual harassment filed at the university in 2014-15. Of these, 99 fell within the scope of the school’s sexual harassment policy, and 19 of those 99 were filed as formal complaints. Three more formal complaints were filed but dismissed because they didn’t fall within the scope of the policy.
In order to file a formal complaint, the complainant must make a written statement and sign it. The accused is then given the opportunity to respond. The entire process must be kept confidential and can’t be made public. In 2014-15, A total of 12 formal complaints were “resolved” with an informal resolution, although the details remain confidential. Three were suspended due to other proceedings (either other internal mechanisms or outside criminal proceedings), six were dismissed and, at the time, one was in progress.
According to an access to information request by university paper The Strand, of the 137 informal harassment complaints, not a single one led to a suspension or expulsion.
U of T spokesperson Althea Blackburn-Evans emphasized that the school has been working toward a new policy as a result of the new Ontario legislation. U of T plans to consult with students and faculty on the draft policy, and Blackburn-Evans said the school’s governing council will finalize it by the January deadline.
“Many of the things that we already have in place are strong resources, and the policy will help make those resources clear, and in some cases shift policies and procedures, but certainly now there are many ways that students can access support if they do want to report, or if they want to make a disclosure rather than a formal report,” she said.
Though she was reluctant at first, Ade Kur decided to report her alleged stalker to Toronto Police to obtain a restraining order and have a record of his behavior on file. But this month, the Crown prosecutor decided to drop all the charges laid against him and wipe his record as long as he goes to counselling and an addiction program. A victim support worker told Ade Kur that there isn’t enough evidence to have a reasonable prospect of conviction for criminal harassment. He’s now on a court order, but there’s nothing keeping him away from her — on or off campus.