Approaching one year since multiple allegations of sexual assault were reported during Western University’s 2021 orientation week in London, Ont., student leaders across Canada have released an action plan for “institutions and governments to address and prevent sexual violence on campus.”
The 10-step plan, titled Our Campus, Our Safety, highlights various recommendations, including a requirement for sexual violence prevention training and education to be mandatory for all students; ensuring academic accommodations and complaint procedures are readily available for survivors; and that more institutions follow “campus climate” survey’s regulated by the province.
The recommendations were outlined by students from 20 post-secondary institutions and national organizations.
“Decades of tireless activism by student survivors, leaders, advocates, and their allies, have brought the issue of sexual violence at post-secondary institutions to the fore,” opened the action plan’s introduction. “This year alone, we witnessed large student walkouts at post-secondary institutions and high schools across the country with demanding safer campuses, tailored action plans, comprehensive standalone sexual violence policies, and institutional accountability, to name a few concerns.”
Western University created an Action Committee on Gender-Based and Sexual Violence (ACGBSV) in October 2021, about a month after roughly 9,000 Western students had walked out of class to protest what they call a “culture of misogyny” on campus.
The massive walkout came in the wake of a series of allegations made during Western’s orientation week where widespread social media posts alleged 30 students had been drugged and sexually assaulted at the Medway-Sydenham Hall residence on Sept. 10, 2021.
That same night, a first-year student was assaulted near Western Road and Sarnia Road, and later died of his injuries in hospital.
“As a student at Western I had never really seen anything like that before,” said Ziyana Kotadia, vice-president of university affairs for Western University 2021-2022 students’ council and contributor to the national action plan. “We know that incidents of gender-based violence take place every year, but this was the first time that there had been such a spotlight on it.”
In investigating the allegations, London police said no formal complaints were filed and the investigation remains open.
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“When sexual violence occurs on a university campus, it is devastating for survivors and their families,” wrote Florentine Strzelczyk, Western University’s provost and vice-president for academic programs, in a statement to Global News. “A ripple effect also extends to the whole community.
“Universities have long been agents of social change and we recognize we have an important role to play in developing responsible citizens and community leaders who will champion progress,” she continued. “Combatting sexual violence will require a collective effort by the education sector, government and law enforcement, parents, and students themselves.”
According to a recent report filed by Statistics Canada, 71 per cent of students reportedly witnessed or experienced unwanted sexual behaviours in post-secondary settings in 2019. Additionally, one in 10 women reported being sexually assaulted in a post-secondary institution during that same year.
Students are at the highest risk of sexual assault in the first eight weeks of the academic year, according to the Ending Violence Association of British Columbia, and 50 per cent of sexual assaults on campus happen during “The Red Zone” or the first six weeks of school.
Kotadia said that sexual and gender-based violence in a “generational issue,” and the data supports that.
“It means that not only is this vital to address, but it has been vital to address for a very long time,” she said. “We haven’t seen the necessary changes in order to ensure that campuses are safe places for students.”
According to the Our Campus, Our Safety action plan, “sexual violence does not occur in a vacuum,” as Kotadia highlighted the importance of “addressing the intersections of other forms of systemic oppression.”
“I think what’s important here is to make sure we’re taking up a lens that implicates the structures, and the social norms that produce gender-based violence (such as) ableism, sexism, racism, which create and maintain this culture where inequality and violence are normalized,” she said.
“What happened at Western last year illuminates the urgency with which we need our post-secondary institutions, provincial and territorial governments, and the federal government to step up and implement student recommendations, including the student leader action plan,” Kotadia continued. “But ultimately, the issue of sexual and gender-based violence on post-secondary campuses is far bigger than Western.
“This is a national epidemic.”
Outlined in the action plan, four recommendations are aimed at post-secondary institutions, four are for provincial and territorial governments and two target the federal government.
“This violence impacts people deeply (and) profoundly, and to not utilize their (government) power and privilege responsibly in order to make the changes that are needed to keep students safe, is unacceptable,” Kotadia said.
“We need our decision makers to step up and to listen to what students have to say.”
Last April, Western’s ACGBSV released two reports after looking into the allegations that called for the University to “thoroughly re-evaluate OWeek activities, appoint a special advisor to address campus culture and safety, and require all incoming students to complete gender-based and sexual education violence prevention and awareness training before arriving on campus.”
The University’s orientation week is set to begin Sept. 5 and will accommodate approximately 8,000 incoming first-year students and about 900 leaders.
The Safe Campus Coalition, which is, according to Kotadia, a grassroots student organization that does “anti-sexual violence work,” is also running an educational campaign as well as a community solidarity event in marking the anniversary of last year’s walk-out and ensuring that students are aware of available support.
“This violence is a really devastating symptom of patriarchy, that lines the bricks of campus buildings and paves roads all the way up to Parliament,” Kotadia said. “There’s a lot of work to be done on our institutions, on our systems, and we’re really gratified to see this momentum for change on campus. But now is the time to see national action from our federal government and from our local governments as well.”
— with files from Global News’ Shallima Maharaj, Sawyer Bogdan and Andrew Graham