“Our government will not tolerate sexual violence on university and college campuses. As a society, we have a duty to do everything we can to prevent sexual violence, to fight it and to ensure that victims are never again left to fend for themselves.” This was the main message from Quebec’s minister of higher education, Pascale Déry, when the province revealed its new action plan on Feb. 13.
Like the province’s intervention strategy, the new action plan stems from the Act to Prevent and Fight Sexual Violence in Higher Education Institutions, adopted by the province in 2017. The act requires all Quebec postsecondary institutions to establish a sexual violence policy that includes directives for implementing awareness-raising, training and safety measures, and for creating a centralized point of contact for reception, referral, psychosocial and support services.
A $25-million budget hike
To help institutions meet their obligations under the act, the new action plan is backed by $54 million in funding, which includes $29 million in recurring funds remaining from the 2017–2022 strategy and $25 million in new funds from the 2022–2027 Integrated Government Strategy to Counteract Sexual Violence, Domestic Violence and to Rebuild Trust.
Esther Chouinard, head of media relations at the ministry of higher education, said the significant increase – nearly double the initial amount – will help address the recommendations from the expert committee’s Rebuilding Trust report and the evaluation report that came out of the 2017-2022 strategy.
Where the funds will go
Of the total budget, $37.5 million will go directly to postsecondary institutions. Manon Bergeron, a professor in the department of sexology at Université du Québec à Montréal and holder of the research chair on sexist and sexual violence in higher education, is delighted with the announcement. Her work has helped reveal the magnitude of the sexual violence problem at colleges and universities. A survey published in 2016 – titled “Sexuality, security and interactions in a university setting: what students and employees are saying” – revealed that nearly 37 per cent of people studying or working at Quebec universities reported suffering at least one form of sexual violence committed by another person affiliated with the university.
“There has been considerable mobilization around the issue in Quebec since the act was passed. Communities and universities have had to implement a series of measures. Training and services have had to be improved to meet the needs of victims. Resources were needed. All of this certainly required funding,” she said.
According to Dr. Bergeron, a number of promising initiatives have taken shape in higher education over the past five years, but it’s important to continue building on them.
For example, aware that fewer than 10 per cent of sexual violence survivors report the incident to their university, Dr. Bergeron and her team conducted a research project to better understand and remove the roadblocks that lead to underreporting. The study results should be released this coming April. “The findings will be used to propose changes to current practices, perhaps to the provincial act or to institutional policies. Ultimately, this will help improve the services offered,” explained the researcher, who also plans to disseminate the results nationally and internationally.
“There are many new initiatives emerging, but they still need to be evaluated to see if they’re delivering the desired changes,” said Dr. Bergeron, who hopes institutions will foster a culture of evaluation to ensure that their actions and services truly help prevent sexual violence.
She also said that maintaining and even intensifying the dialogue between the research and response communities is essential to developing best practices and establishing a culture of respect and, consequently, seeing a significant decrease in cases of sexual violence in universities and CEGEPs. “In that regard, I welcome the action plan, which provides funding for both research and response,” she said.