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Beyond Minimum Standards in British Columbia: The University of Victoria

A day at the University of Victoria in Canada speaking to grassroots prevention and support organisations, university staff responsible for investigations of sexual misconduct, and student activists. Throughout my day, I conducted three interviews:

  1. Anna-Elaine Rempel and Jenn Krogfoss from the Anti-Violence Project.

  2. Leah Shumka and Lane from the Equity and Human Rights office of the university.

  3. Keddie Hughes and Kenya Rogers, law students who created the Students for Trauma Informed Lawyering project.

Location: University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

Anna-Elaine, Jenn and Camille smiling in an office.
Left to right: Anna-Elaine Rempel, Jenn Krogfoss and Camille Schloeffel

I had a fantastic time at the University of Victoria which is located on the southern end of Vancouver Island. Taking the ferry across from Vancouver to Victoria and exploring the city of Victoria was one the highlights of my trip. This place is very high on my list to visit again if I were to travel to Canada!

I was lucky to talk to six people who bring three different perspectives of how sexual violence is being addressed on campus at the university.

Canadian legal and policy context

British Columbia (Provincial level)

As it was my first interview in Canada, Jenn Krogfoss and Anna-Elaine Rempel from the Anti-Violence Project provided me with an overview of the legal and policy context at state and federal levels in relation to sexual violence in universities. Rempel has worked a lot on legislative reforms, including activism that led to the establishment of the Sexual Violence and Misconduct Policy Act which came into force in 2017. This British Columbia law requires all publicly funded universities to have sexualised violence policies, but with no further detail on what must be included or any accountability mechanisms. Although this policy only enforces universities to meet minimal requirements to address sexual violence on campus, it still ensures that all universities have policies that set the standard of conduct and expectations of when misconduct occurs. 

This legislation was developed as a direct result of student activism, which came to the fore after a high-profile case in British Columbia received lots of media traction and public outcry. Alongside the implementation of this legal requirement for the sector, the British Columbia government also established a provincial advisory group, which includes student representatives, community organisations, government representatives and other experts. Rempel is a member of this committee. I note that grassroots organisation, Students for Consent Culture (SFCC), authored a report titled Moving Beyond Potential: Building Justice for Students in British Columbia, which critiques the Act and provides 11 essential minimum standards to be embedded in its next iteration to better address the needs of student victim-survivors and create safer campuses across British Columbia. This displays that while further work is still needed to improve the legal framework, it is an effective starting point that brought many universities up to a minimum standard.

Considering my own experience in Australia, a law like this would be of great value. Many universities continue to fail to do even the bare minimum to prevent and respond to sexual violence, such as developing clear best-practice policies and making them available to students. Establishing a legal framework would ensure that all tertiary education institutions, particularly residential halls and student accommodation, are accountable and incentivised to develop and implement clear and consistent sexual violence policies. 

Canada (Federal level)

At the federal level, there are a few key reports that have been developed by an anti-sexual violence organisation in consultation with students and activists groups that are significant to Canada's reform agenda. These reports have been developed by Possibility Seeds, a Canadian social change consultancy dedicated to gender justice, equity, human rights and inclusion.

  1. Courage to Act Report  provides promising practices, key policy areas, and prevention plans as the foundation of a framework to address and prevent gender-based violence at post-secondary institutions in Canada.

  2. Our Campus Our Safety Action Plan  provides 10 comprehensive evidence-based calls to action for both post-secondary institutions and governments to meaningfully address campus sexual violence.

I learned from Krogfoss and Rempel how external activism at a provincial level is so important. It sets up student activists with levers to pull for their institutions to take them seriously. It also demonstrates that there is a need for political pressure to spotlight universities and to uplift student victim-survivor activists along the way to create these sorts of structural changes. 

Anti-Violence Project

As noted above, my first interview was with Jenn Krogfoss and Anna-Elaine Rempel from the Anti-Violence Project (AVP). AVP provides anti-oppressive and sex-positive services, advocacy and action on and off campus to people of all genders, in partnership and collaboration, in order to address and resist all intersecting forms of violence. At the time of interviewing, Krogfoss was a Support Coordinator and Rempel was a Volunteer Organiser and student at the university. In the role of Support Coordinator, Krogfoss is responsible for running AVP’s peer support program, being available during regular support hours and the Community Care Circle, overseeing peer support volunteers, and conducting follow-up and referral services. In the role of Volunteer Organiser, Rempel is responsible for overseeing and coordinating AVP’s volunteer program.

Both Krogfoss and Rempel were so warm and welcoming when speaking with me. They also showed me where they do their work, and I could see how much care and thought went into ensuring all of the support rooms are set up comfortably.

“Our ability to be self-organising in providing essential services for students alongside other essential services [which] student societies provide is critical.”

– Jenn Krogfoss

AVP started in 1993 as an initiative of the University of Victoria Student Society. It continues to operate under this union and is entirely funded by student fees. Being a part of the student union instead of the university means that AVP is given legitimacy to operate under law. If they were operated by the university, this would risk university leaders being able to cut their funding or kick them off campus (which could be possible with changes in university leadership or as retaliation to activism). This is important for AVP because of their involvement in activism on campus.

“We are very critical of the university and we hold the university accountable for how they handle sexualised violence.”

– Anna-Elaine Rempel

An example of a recent critique is how the university has not responded to the problematic reports of gender-based violence and sexualised violence perpetrated by campus security staff when responding to incidents. AVP also works to bring attention to the focus on policing and security without any clear peer-support structures or engagement with AVP to provide training or support to students.

AVP currently has four coordinators and one student-staff position. All coordinators are limited to working between 20-24 hours per week, unless extra funding is available. They also have a volunteer program where students can sign up to be volunteers (if they complete the 40-hour training block) to become peer support workers and/or facilitators of their prevention education workshops. AVP provides support services to anyone, inclusive of students, staff and community members. Their support is limited to emotional support and providing resources and information in the form of drop-in sessions or by appointment, rather than therapeutic or ongoing support. In this way, they provide confidential emotional support and information to people seeking to navigate the broader service system. AVP also delivers prevention education workshops on topics such as understanding consent culture, practising boundaries and supporting survivors.

Krogfoss leads AVP's Community Care Circle, which is a solidarity space for people to gather, share and learn from each other. This group provides a space for people to think about how we can make change on campus through student-led initiatives, as the institution is more likely to listen to students in numbers. AVP also leads a Men's Circle which is open to any male students at the university to come together and talk about sexual violence, consent and related issues in an autonomous safe space.

AVP works collaboratively across campus and with community services on all of their initiatives. They spend a lot of time building these relationships to move beyond the transactional and towards genuine partnerships. An example of one of their collaborative initiatives within the university is Sexualised Violence Awareness Week, which is held every year in September. This is in collaboration with areas of the university, such as the Equity and Human Rights Office, the Office of Student Life, the Athletics Department, Residential Services and the International Student Office.

AVP's proactive engagement with the university on a regular basis and their work to hold them accountable demonstrates their commitment to always putting the safety and wellbeing of students first. This sort of meaningful collaboration across all levels of the institution is what is making students safer on campus and supporting their needs following an experience of violence.

Working with people who have caused harm (perpetrators of violence)
“Everything we do is based on reciprocal relationships.”

– Anna-Elaine Rempel

While AVP does not have structures or programs in place for people who have caused harm, they do share information about their organisational perspective on this and provide resources on their website for people who may have caused harm. They do this because they have noticed a significant increase in people reaching out to them for support after causing harm.

Krogfoss and Rempel are strong believers in transformative justice and that everyone is capable of causing harm and of changing their behaviour.

“We view humans as non-disposable and capable of change. We do not treat people as disposable.”

– Jenn Krogfoss

While restorative justice is aimed at repairing or restoring an individual after experiencing harm, transformative justice aims to transform the relationships, societal structures and institutional structures that allowed the violence to occur. Transformative justice recognises the intersections of people's identities and experiences that may contribute to their choice to cause harm to another person. If people are willing to learn (or unlearn) why they caused harm, then there is opportunity to ensure harm is not done again.

There are many layers of accountability for people who cause harm, such as a genuine apology and commitment of steps they will take to change their behaviour. Unfortunately, at the University of Victoria and the broader community, there are no easily accessible programs to help perpetrators of violence go through this accountability process. I'm also unaware of any program that offers this specific service in any Australian universities as an accountability process. However, I did learn about a program at the University of Minnesota in the USA when I visited that could be explored by other universities and adapted to their local context [read more in my blog here].

In saying all of this, Krogfoss and Rempel make it clear that safety for victim-survivors and the community always comes first. If a person who has caused harm is not willing to be accountable for their actions and change their behaviour, then safety measures need to be put in place (such as removal from the university and/or residential hall). Transformative justice requires people to engage voluntarily, which is a massive barrier to overcome as many people are not willing to reflect on their actions and be responsible for what it has done to another person.

Krogfoss and Rempel spoke about how the way in which universities tend to have removal as the only option for perpetrators of violence is a form of rejection and shame that the perpetrator may not respond well to. This punitive approach equates the entire person and their identity to the heinous act they committed, when in reality it is much more complex. We’re actually dealing with human brains and behaviours so we need to understand how humans work. Transformative justice works on a relationship level this gets forgotten a lot.

“Sexual violence is the product of systemic structures, not just individual actions.”

– Jenn Krogfoss

A wall of resources for people to take outside the AVP drop-in office. A piece of paper reads: Help Yourself, and below are brochures on pegs hanging on the wall.
A wall of resources for people to take outside the AVP drop-in office

Equity and Human Rights office

Next, I interviewed Leah Shumka, the Associate Director of the Conflict Engagement and Investigations team within the Equity and Human Rights office of the University of Victoria. Shumka leads the strategic and day-to-day oversight of both the sexualised violence and discrimination and harassment portfolios, including environmental assessments, disclosures and reports, and the associated mediation and investigation resolution processes.

Shumka was hired by the university in 2017 to develop and implement a sexualised violence policy following the introduction of the Sexual Violence and Misconduct Policy Act. Shumka's key task was to create a centralised office to provide consistent messaging to students, staff and faculty about preventing and responding to campus sexual violence. They created a ‘one-door’ model where all services were in the same unit and the same procedures applied to everyone. Shumka reflected on how she is trying to be accountable to the community and be collaborative with data and reporting. This is demonstrated through the Equity and Human Rights Office’s annual reporting of initiatives, priorities and ongoing response work. This transparent reporting of disclosures, reports, outcomes and next steps is something that student activists have been calling on Australian universities to do without much success.

Shumka and her team treat sexualised violence as a human rights issue rather than a misconduct issue. Shumka explained that sexualised violence is a societal issue that requires a range of intervention points and cannot be solved through misconduct investigations and punitive outcomes. Putting this into practice, Shumka uses local data, statistics and stories to inform their various initiatives in partnership with students through targeted focus groups and with expert guidance. They deliver different forms and focuses of intervention, ranging from awareness campaigns, presentations, one-off workshops and more intensive six-week programs. They also recently developed a new program for staff and faculty that focuses on understanding abuse of power, how to respond to disclosures and support survivors which is tailored to their context.

Another staff member (who recently graduated from the university), Lane, also joined us for this interview. They spoke about how important this staff and faculty program is because of how difficult it is to engage faculty and staff in education unless it is facilitated by their peers. Until recently, many of these education initiatives were led by students (such as by AVP volunteers), meaning staff and faculty tended to disengage due to power hierarchies and classism. Shumka and Lane have worked to ensure that programs for faculty are peer-led and facilitated by academics, whereas student programs are also peer-led and facilitated by students.

As Lane was an activist during their time as a student up until recently, it was reassuring to me that their experience doing this work voluntarily was considered seriously and they were employed by the university to formally lead the work. We need more of this in Australian universities!

Students for Trauma Informed Lawyering

Keddie Hughes and Kenya Rogers are law students who recently started working on a new advocacy project called Students for Trauma Informed Lawyering. Both with extensive advocacy backgrounds on sexual violence and related issues in their undergraduate degrees, they both bring so much expertise to trauma-informed practice already. What they are seeking to do now is to translate this into legal practice and to influence their law student peers and their teachers of the positive impact trauma-informed lawyering can have on the community.

Hughes is a passionate advocate for the elimination of sexual violence and was a leader on this in her previous university during her undergraduate studies at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Specifically, she sat on a committee responsible for implementing the university's sexualised violence policy and played a massive role in advocating for its content to be in line with SFCC's 11 minimum standards. Hughes also sat on the hearing panel of specific sexual violence cases and noticed how there was a complete lack of knowledge and trauma-informed approaches to these cases by staff. As a result, Hughes helped create a dedicated Survivor Support Centre in her role as a member of the student union. This Centre was successfully established and is being run by the union delivering workshops, training, advocacy and a peer support phone and text line.

Rogers is another inspiring advocate and community-engaged researcher focused on dismantling rape culture and building communities of care. Rogers wrote her Masters thesis on this issue, Honouring the Stories of Student-Survivors: Trauma Informed Practice in Post-Secondary Sexualized Violence Policy Review. Through Roger's own personal advocacy and in her research, she speaks about how students are undeniably subject matter experts that deserve to be platformed and listened to. She informed me that since the legislative changes (mentioned above) have come into force, the new issue being posed is institution's compliance with these laws and how sexual violence work is being corporatised by the sector. For example, companies with little to no expertise in sexual violence prevention or response capitalising off these laws to sell products to universities that are not evidence-informed, trauma-informed, survivor-led or catered to the local community. Rogers is also on the provincial advisory committee for campus sexual violence and response, which advised BC Campus on the training resources they developed and have available on their website for anyone to utilise.

Together, Hughes and Rogers are advocating for trauma-informed lawyering, including teaching of law, and have a dream of creating a syllabus on trauma-informed lawyering. Their idea is that a class that could be given to law students on trauma-informed approaches to lawyering. They are also interested in developing a system for students to catalogue and submit syllabus content.

My time in Victoria was an exciting introduction to how Canadian universities and activists are addressing the issue of campus sexual violence. It also showed me that we can and will do better in Australia – with the evidence, resources and support of wonderful people like Anna-Elaine Rempel, Jenn Krogfoss, Leah Shumka, Lane, Keddie Hughes and Kenya Rogers.

In solidarity,

Camille Schloeffel

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