victim. Perhaps that’s true, concedes Professor MacKay, but there is little
doubt that alcohol is a major factor in terms of individuals recognizing
whether there is consent and in reading the signals correctly.
Moreover, he says that a “hypersexualized culture” among youth complicates matters further. That was clarified for Professor MacKay when he
headed the Nova Scotia Task Force on Bullying and Cyberbullying, established by the province in May 2011 after teenager Rehtaeh Parsons killed
herself when photos of her alleged assault circulated online.
The Saint Mary’s task force report concluded: “A hypersexualized
culture, alcohol use, a hook-up culture, the persistence of rape myths and
a lack of appropriate educational preparation all contribute to this confusion and uncertainty.” It also pointed a finger at campus athletic culture
and said it isn’t just students who are at risk: three faculty members also
reported to the task force that they were victims of sexual assault.
The task force concluded that universities can and should play a role
in changing attitudes and behaviours. It recommended that Saint Mary’s
develop a code of conduct and redesign orientation week activities, placing less emphasis on partying and drinking. The university, it said, should
identify a sexual violence response team and properly train team members, adopt education campaigns to increase students’ understanding of
consent, address alcohol and drug use, and implement a bystander program – measures the university has announced it will begin implementing during this academic year. Finally, the report called on the university
to conduct effective investigation and adjudication of sexual assault cases.
This last recommendation presents the biggest challenge for universities, as it requires them to strike a balance between accommodating the
needs and rights of victims with those of alleged offenders. Last October,
the Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal published an anonymous letter from
a student at Lakehead University who alleged she had been raped off-campus by a classmate. She wrote that when she sought accommodation
from her program chair, it was denied.
“My only request was for [the chair] to tell me if I had any classes the
following semester with [him],” she wrote. Her request to write final exams at a separate location was also turned down. “I was shocked,” she said.
“How many others have tried to come to the faculty for answers or help
and been turned away like this before me? How many others have been
forced to sit in a classroom with the person who violated them?” After the
letter was published, the president of Lakehead set up a task force. It recommended that Lakehead hire a human rights officer to deal with these
kinds of issues and adopt a new sexual misconduct policy and protocol.
More recently, the University of Ottawa suspended its entire men’s
hockey team for the 2014-15 season following the allegation of sexual
assault in Thunder Bay, after an independent report found “an unhealthy
climate surrounding the team,” said President Allan Rock. The decision
to suspend the team was supported by many – but it also came under fire
from people who felt the university hadn’t done enough and those who
felt it had gone too far. In August, Thunder Bay police charged two of the
players, the captain and assistant captain, with sexual assault.
The adjudication of student misconduct, including sexual assault
complaints, differs from a criminal investigation or trial. It generally operates in Canada under a “balance of probabilities,” says Corinna Fitzgerald, member-at-large of the board of the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services. That means an investigator must
decide whether a claim is more likely to be true than not true, rather than
proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Allegations of sexual assault can be
very difficult to resolve because typically there are no witnesses and the
incidents often involve alcohol and drugs. Gaye Wishart, adviser on harassment prevention and conflict management at Dalhousie University,
says many students who come to see her don’t want to pursue criminal
charges, so the university ends up issuing a no-contact order against the
accused, making timetable changes and providing other accommodations.
Even so, most experts say universities need to do a better job tackling
the issue, just as they have with mental health. But change will be difficult.
“You are dealing with larger social problems,” says Professor MacKay, and
these won’t be solved easily or independently. But, if institutions don’t
make a better effort to respond “how can you have really effective learning
in an unsafe, discriminatory, sexist kind of environment?” he asks.
“You can’t really. We have to find the means and the ways to do it.”
“Defining what is consensual and what is not
is really the critical foundation on which everything
is built. We can and need to educate everybody
on campus so that there is no real doubt about this.”