NDP MPP Kristyn Wong-Tam of Toronto Centre introduced a bill Thursday morning in the hopes of creating Consent Awareness Week across Ontario.
The proposed bill follows a national action plan issued by student leaders from over 20 post-secondary institutions and national organizations across Canada for “institutions and governments to address and prevent sexual violence on campus.”
The 10-step plan, titled Our Campus, Our Safety, highlights various recommendations, among them: requiring mandatory sexual violence prevention training for all students; ensuring academic accommodations and complaint procedures are readily available for survivors; and having more institutions follow “campus climate” surveys regulated by the province.
“Recent events in Ontario have led to a heightened awareness of the urgency to address sexual violence and consent,” Wong-Tam said.
“These events include allegations against members of a hockey team for committing group sexual assault, high-profile sexual assault cases in the media, and student walkouts in response to sexual assaults on post-secondary campuses.”
Both the proposed bill and the action plan come as a response to a series of allegations made during Western University’s 2021 orientation week. Social media posts alleged 30 students had been drugged and sexually assaulted at the Medway-Sydenham Hall residence in London, Ont., on Sept. 10, 2021. Roughly 9,000 students later walked out of class to protest what they called a “culture of misogyny” on campus.
“From my personal experience as a student leader at Western last year, I can share how the events that made national news shook our entire university community, as students and student leaders reeled in shock following last year’s orientation events,” said Jessica Look, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, and vice president of external affairs for Western University’s student council.
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.
According to Wong-Tam, Consent Awareness Week would be held each year during the third week of September.
“The week was chosen to recognize and raise awareness of the increase in sexual violence across post-secondary campuses during the first six weeks of a new academic year,” Wong-Tam said.
“The week will function as an annual reminder that Ontarians have the right to be respected and safe where they live, work, study and play.”
Keneisha Charles, a student at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), shared their experiences, saying that “before becoming a university student, consent was not really a word in my everyday vocabulary.”
“Consent looks like asking permission to touch a black person’s hair,” they said. “It looks like asking transgender and non-binary students their pronouns and using them. It looks like asking disabled people what their access needs are and building accommodations into everyday spaces. It’s about our relationships with others, yes, but also with ourselves, the spaces around us, the land and more.
“Consent is at the core of all good relationships and it’s at the foundation of communities that are founded in care,” Charles added.
“Consent Awareness Week is about writing a new story for our young people.”
Officials explained that the week could look “really different” across Ontario, with the hope that it will evolve year after year.
“In my ideal world, universities and student unions can work together, do educational campaigns, programming, and such, with our government’s support,” Look said.
Kayla Han, a steering committee member at the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance and the vice president of government and stakeholder relations with Wilfred Laurier University’s student union, shared how her campus is working to address sexual and gender-based violence.
“Laurier will be guiding several campuses across Ontario to join a movement against sexual violence who have made this issue a key priority this year,” she said, referencing a rally set to be held on the institution’s Waterloo and Branford campuses on Sept. 22.
“As student leaders, we recognize the value of standing in solidarity with our students and survivors and want to emphasize the importance of continuing this conversation beyond Consent Awareness Week.
“It is critical that we amplify the voices of students and survivors who have long spoken about this issue, and adequately provide resources and support so that they can have a safe and welcoming post-secondary experience as they deserve,” she added.
Wong-Tam concluded that she hopes Consent Awareness Week passes as soon as possible with unanimous consent.
Look said that “gender-based violence has long been a concern for generations of students and large-scale change is long overdue.”