The morning after I finished writing the feature story you see in this issue, the CBC reported that students at the University of Brandon who report sexual assault are required to sign a “behavioural contract” that tells them not to talk about the assault once it becomes a formal complaint, except to counsellors. After the CBC’s report, the president of that university announced it will no longer be used, that there had long been discussion to no longer use the contract, and that it regrets using them for so long — they were “not helpful” and “inappropriate.” But at one point, enough people thought it was a good idea that it was added to an official university process.
Here at UFV, a similar document, one that is slightly less limiting and uses less casual language, exists. While it is not a legally binding document, and students who report are not technically barred from reporting their stories to, for example, the police, the effect, whether intended or not, is one of silence. Yes, universities have to respect the privacy of all their students, and yes, the majority of students at UFV are above the legal age, and can expect to be treated as adults. However, for a student separated by only a couple years from high school who has possibly never had any experience reporting a criminal act, if they are experiencing trauma, not completely sure of how their words will be taken but absolutely sure that they will be picked apart, confronted in ways they dread, to be faced with a pile of paperwork, and for that paperwork to section off the world into people you can and cannot talk to, giving the student no choice in the matter, is about as unhelpful as it gets.
This is just one part of the story, part of the process, but it contributes to the overall reluctance to speak about harassment and assault, the idea that to approach an institution with a formal complaint is a frustrating process likely to end in defeat — something anyone who’s followed similar stories at other campuses in North America knows about.
Here’s the thing about this story: The Cascade did not seek this story out. In a word, you can’t: reporters should not be coaxing information out of anyone not yet ready to speak about this, and seeking out a “best-case scenario” when reporting sexual assault, as just about everyone saw with the Rolling Stone story from two years ago, isn’t the right way to go about things either. But what did happen here is that, without intending to, reporters, including myself, at the paper heard about people who had been affected. We heard about it in lineups, in conversations that started out on unrelated subjects, we heard about it in the cafeteria, in coffee shops, at a festival in Vancouver when we brought up that we go to UFV. Now, as you’ll see in the article, not all of these people were comfortable going on the record to talk about it in a newspaper. They were not subject to any fact-checking or formal interviews, and so technically this is hearsay, these are just conversations, and not proof. But the statistics show that for everyone that does speak up (such as the person who went on the record for the story in this issue), there are others who don’t.
How did the reporting happen? Well, we spoke to students, some of them former students. They told us what they experienced. Working from what we know about institutional practices across the country, we noticed a clear pattern — UFV does not look to be vastly different from other universities. I’m not sure why, except for believing in the language of marketing, we would have expected anything else — no university is simply special or exceptional, but they are different.
That difference can come from leadership. The next step in the reporting was interviews with administrators, who, if you write for the news section of The Cascade, partly because of UFV’s smaller size, you end up seeing pretty frequently. In the questions and responses that will come from this article, there are often two tendencies: analyzing the survivor’s stories for inconsistencies and weaknesses, and looking for someone to blame for any injustice. I can’t control how people will feel about this reporting, but I do think that both of those approaches are flawed; they’re too easy. As the mass of reporting on sexual violence at universities shows, there is nothing simple about this: changing leadership, changing policies, adding awareness campaigns, even reporting on this does not offer a long-term solution. But what we know is that we can’t get to long-term solutions until the basics are covered.
Universities will, it seems, never be the first to talk about anything potentially negative that happens under their watch. They will always follow, in the case of public universities, legislation from above, and, it seems, only move with slow deliberation, caught behind the masses of contradictions that can come from making a decisive decision to change.
But, because of the timing of the provincial government’s decision, we know that some change will have to happen. Institutions like to dwell as little as possible on mistakes, they like to “learn from them” and move on to something new, to turn that mistake into an opportunity, maybe. And so one is before them now: people that work at UFV, including the ones who directly handle complaints, have, if they want to quantify them, probably hundreds of responsibilities — priorities mean some of them get less time than others. As this becomes a priority, because of new legislation, what parts of it will get more or less attention: the policies, the politics, the people who lose sleep because of this, ideas like equality, communication that isn’t just trumpeting success, the language we use, the signs we see? There’s a lot of unknown territory here for UFV. In its response, the university can follow the path of damage control we’ve seen at other institutions reacting to the news that, no, not every student feels safe and supported here. But students know: we need something more.