Proposed governmental changes aim to make sexual violence reporting at Ontario universities more survivor-centric
C/O Aditya Joshi
cw: sexual violence
The provincial government of Ontario is proposing changes to sexual violence and harassment policies at post-secondary institutions.
These changes are being made to Ontario regulation 131/16. This was implemented in January 2017 to establish a standard of sexual violence policies in colleges and universities.
The changes, proposed in January 2021, will ensure that students reporting sexual violence or harassment are not asked about their past sexual history. Furthermore, individuals reporting will not face consequences for violating the institution’s alcohol and drug policy.
The proposed amended regulation would require post-secondary institutions to update their sexual violence policies. There would be no additional costs or burden on the institution or students.
These changes aim to reduce the fear and stigma that survivors may face when reporting gender-based violence. The proposed changes come from policy recommendations made by the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance in Spring 2020.
The McMaster Students Union is a member of OUSA and contributed to the policy recommendations. The paper was co-authored by former MSU Vice-President (Education) Shemar Hackett and AVP Provincial and Federal Affairs Angel Huang. Many of the recommendations also mirrored similar suggestions made by the MSU Sexual Violence and Response policy.
The paper outlined the current challenges with gender-based and sexual violence prevention and response, including disclosure and reporting.
The disclosure and reporting section included an explanation of how institutional hierarchies make it more difficult for students to report sexual violence and harassment. The paper went on to explain the existing insufficient education and training for campus police, staff, faculty and student instructors.
OUSA explained that there is a lack of knowledge on how to respond to gender-based violence and support survivors in a trauma-informed and survivor-centric way.
Among other suggested resolutions, OUSA recommended strengthening legislative and regulatory frameworks such as Ontario regulation 131/16.
“We know that gender-based violence and sexual violence is not just a problem at institutions but a systemic problem across society and it certainly exists [on] campuses. At McMaster, but also across the provinces, we've heard from students and advocates and experts that the current policies are not survivor-centric and they're not friendly toward people to come forward [to report],” explained MSU VP Education Ryan Tse.
On March 16, McMaster University staff member, Christopher McAllister was arrested and charged with sexual assault. McAllister had ties to the department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour, which underwent a climate review in July 2020 for systemic and cultural issues linked to sexual violence and harassment.
Other allegations in the PNB department, such as the June 2020 charge on Scott Waters for two counts of sexual assault, are still being investigated by McMaster as of February 2021.
“I think this [proposed change] is important because hopefully, it will help to build a little more trust between the community and the institution but, more importantly, just make the policy safer and provide more accountability,” said Tse.
The proposed changes by the Ontario government will make the province one of the only in Canada to legally prevent survivors from having to answer irrelevant questions and be prosecuted by substance use policies.
Tse explained that in the future, OUSA looks forward to continuing their advocacy for the other policy recommendations they made to ensure policies are more survivor-centric, evidence-based and informed from the lived experiences of survivors.
“This is a really good first step and it's nice to hear that the government is listening to the voices of students . . . It's really important that students continue to speak out and speak up for these changes, through OUSA but through other means as well,” said Tse.
cw: mention of sexual assault
Following what the university calls “serious allegations” of policy breaching, Scott Watter, an associate professor in McMaster’s department of psychology, neuroscience and behaviour, has been suspended from his position and is no longer allowed on campus.
Maureen J. MacDonald, dean of science, was the first to communicate these decisions in an email sent on Feb. 19. According to Wade Hemsworth, the public relations manager for McMaster, MacDonald’s email was sent to “those who could potentially be impacted by the situation,” including students, faculty members and staff. The email stated that an unnamed faculty member was under investigation.
The email noted that there were “serious allegations that could involve a number of policies, including McMaster’s Sexual Violence Policy” but did not disclose any specific details pertaining to the allegations in order to “safeguard the privacy of those involved”.
The recipients of MacDonald’s email were also informed that undergraduate courses would be reassigned to another instructor. However, the email did not detail which courses this reorganization would impact.
On Feb. 21, students enrolled in History of Psychology, or PNB 3HP3, received an email from Ali Hashemi, a sessional instructor at the university, informing them that Hashemi would be the instructor for the remainder of the semester.
History of Psychology was one of the two courses Watter was assigned to teach this year. The other course, Human Perception & Cognition, or PNB 2XA3, was delivered during the fall semester and is a mandatory requirement for the honours PNB program.
When undergraduate students returned to class after reading week, they began to piece together who the email and allegations were referring to. There are 69 students taking History of Psychology this year, while the PNB program and faculty of science consist of an estimated 800 and 7000 undergraduate students, respectively — meaning that the majority of students were not informed of the situation.
“Us students only recognized that [the email] was in regard to Dr. Watter as his project students and his classes were reassigned . . . I think only sending his [current] students the email was worrisome as these allegations are of serious concern and not even the whole PNB student population was told,” explained Alex, a fourth year PNB student who asked that only their first name be used.
“It makes us think about how many other things may be happening at the university that we are not being told about — which is scary.”
On March 19, The Hamilton Spectator publically reported that Watter was the professor under investigation. Watter is one of two professors who ran the Cognitive Science Lab at McMaster, which was established in 2003. Students have described him as a core professor in the faculty, having taught several mandatory courses over the years.
In a statement published in the The Spec, Watter’s lawyer, Brent Foreman of SimpsonWigle Law, confirmed that Watter had been placed on “non-disciplinary leave of absence without loss of pay”.
“To date, Dr. Watter has not been provided with particulars of the allegations and he does not know whether an investigation by the university actually has commenced,” said Foreman in the statement obtained by The Spec.
On March 20, Hemsworth confirmed to the Silhouette that an investigation of a PNB faculty member was launched and Hamilton police were made aware of the allegations. The details of the investigation are confidential. Hamilton police spokesperson, constable Lorraine Edwards, confirmed to The Spec that they have commenced an investigation.
“Once Dr. Watter receives the particulars of the complaint, he intends to provide a full and complete response and to vigorously defend himself against the allegations made against him,” Foreman stated to The Spec.
As news of the allegations came to light, some students were disappointed in the way communication pertaining to the matter was handled.
“I’ve seen a very slow trickle through the department, a lot of word of mouth. For example, there are a couple of second year [students] in my lab who had [Watter] for their second year cognition course in the fall term. They had no idea what had actually happened,” explained a fourth year PNB student who wishes to remain anonymous.
“I think it’s [been] very hard [on students], especially having it be through word of mouth, because it’s not very sensitive to survivors. We don’t know who they are. They may be listening in on conversations and I think it’s sad that it played out this way,” added the student.
When asked to comment on why the Faculty decided to communicate solely with Watter’s current students, Hemsworth stated in an email that “the Dean’s email [from Feb. 19] was sent to those who could potentially be impacted by the situation, including graduate and undergraduate students, faculty members and staff.”
“I think the key thing is that it has changed how the department feels quite a lot even if you haven’t been directly affected. PNB is a very close knit department and it’s not unusual to be friendly with professors . . . so it’s really upsetting to have someone take advantage of that and the department is really feeling it right now,” explained a fourth year PNB student who wishes to remain anonymous.
Those in need of support can access resources through the university’s Sexual Violence Response Protocol, and can contact Hagar Akua Prah, the sexual violence response coordinator, at [email protected].