Province reluctant to legislate university sexual assault policies

Half of Nova Scotia’s universities fail to meet the current non-binding standards for sexual violence strategies.

click to enlarge Canadian Federation of Students Nova Scotia chairperson Aidan McNally. - IAN SELIG
Canadian Federation of Students Nova Scotia chairperson Aidan McNally.

With orientation week just around the corner, thousands of students attending Nova Scotian universities will be living, working and learning on campuses without developed sexual assault policies.

The problem, according to the Canadian Federation of Students, is the Nova Scotia Liberal Party’s reluctance to pass legislation mandating the development of sexual assault policies on all university campuses.

Instead, the provincial government has a directive to develop sexual assault policies in its memorandum of understanding (MOU)—a non-binding document between university presidents and the government. The MOU requires that universities “commit to adopting stand-alone policies that address sexual violence, including sexual harassment and consent.” These policies are meant to be renewed every three years, and formed with student involvement.

As of this fall, policies at Acadia, Dalhousie, King’s College, NSCAD and the Atlantic School of Theology will fail at least one of these requirements.

“This fall students are going to be returning to campus, and five out of 10 of the post-secondary institutions in this province will have failed to comply with the MOU standards for sexual assault policies,” says CFS Nova Scotia chairperson Aidan McNally. “Right now there is not only no measure to ensure that policies are enacted on campus in any meaningful way, but there is also no accountability to the quality of the policy produced.”

A statement from Lisa Jarrett, spokesperson for the department of Labour and Advanced Education, didn’t comment on how the MOU’s mandate will be enforced, but noted a task force of “student reps, community organizations, university first responders, government and others” has been struck to develop a report and recommendations on the further prevention of sexual assault on campuses.

Over the past two years, there’s been bipartisan support for legislation regarding campus sexual assault policy from Nova Scotia’s opposition parties. In May 2015, the NDP introduced Bill 114—the Safer Universities and Colleges Act—which called on all universities to develop sexual assault policy and publicly collect and report data regarding sexual violence on campus. Last November, the Progressive Conservative Party introduced Bill 56—the Sexual Violence Action Plan Act—which included similar calls to action.

Neither bill passed to a second reading.

“We take the issue of sexual violence very seriously, and government launched the province’s first sexual violence strategy in 2015,” writes Jarrett. The department’s statement had no further comments.

But McNally says the mandate in the MOU hasn’t been enough to serve the needs of students. “Originally, students were asking that legislation include mandatory training for faculty, administration and staff as well as public reporting of incidents of sexual assault,” she says. None of these conditions are included in the MOU but are considered benchmarks of good policy by the CFS.

The South House sexual and gender resource center has been involved in the development of sexual assault policies at Dalhousie and King’s, as well as the development of Dalhousie’s student-funded survivor support centre. According to outreach and education coordinator Rebecca Stuckey, developing policy under the non-binding mandate of the MOU is a slow process. Legislation, she believes, would give universities the motivation to develop more effective policies.

“Not only will it make sure that policies are in place, but passing good legislation means they also have the ability to mandate what should be included in those policies,” says Stuckey. “They can make sure that students’ and survivors’ voices are being heard on campus, that survivor-centric, trauma-informed policies are being passed and that review processes are being followed.”

McNally says it should not fall on students to determine whether legislation is more effective than the MOU. “Students need to be on campuses with strong sexual assault policies, with strong support systems and have campuses that are willing to tackle this very pervasive issue,” she says. “Students who are studying on campuses in this province deserve to feel safe.”

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