Quebec is set to invest $23 million over five years in a new campus sexual assault strategy, as thousands of students prepare for back-to-school activities and the return to classes.
Minister for Higher Education Hélène David called it a "first in Quebec" and said that the policy, which takes effect immediately, would be two-pronged — focusing on both prevention and better support for victims after the fact.
It's not a coincidence that the plan is being launched the same week thousands of CEGEP students start classes and a week before many university students attend frosh events — a period in the year when many new students engage in partying and heavy drinking.
The announcement comes less than a year after a number of reported sexual assaults at Laval University once again brought the issue to the fore.
David held a series of consultations in the months that followed and said a vast number of Quebec and Montreal educational institutions took part.
She said the policy will target colleges and universities, which will now be forced to adopt a sexual assault prevention policy if they haven't already.
She also plans to present a bill to the National Assembly in the coming weeks in order to cement portions of the province-wide strategy into law.
"Ministers change, but the law remains," she said.
She said her new policy would "strongly encourage" educational institutions to offer "academic accommodations" on a case-by-case basis for survivors who may want to avoid a perpetrator who shares a classroom or building with them.
"The university or the college has to very rapidly take a decision, not be like, 'We'll think about that and you'll hear in two or three weeks.' You know what will happen? She'll say 'Okay I [won't] go back to my program.'"
"Universities must take responsibility, not in the months or weeks after but in the days," David said.
If all goes according to plan with the bill, she'd like to be able to enforce that mandate more strictly.
She says despite the success of the Sans oui, c'est non! (Without Yes, It's No!) campaign at Université de Montréal, the current available resources don't always go far enough.
Included in the new plan is the creation of on-campus sexual assault resource centres, where survivors can get an appointment within hours of making a request.
The centres would be staffed with trained professionals who can provide information about medical or police intervention.
The strategy does not include any information about sanctions for students who are accused of sexual assault, with David saying that universities and colleges already have disciplinary committees in place to handle student misconduct.
On the right path, advocacy groups say
Some groups that were involved in the consultations said the new strategy is a step in the right direction.
"I'm really, really happy with the announcement. We've seen Minister David take real initiative on this issue," said sexual assault survivor Ariane Litalien.
Milène Lokrou, from the Sans oui, c'est non! campaign, is also pleased.
"I think it's a good path in the right direction. We don't know yet because the strategy has to be implemented in all the universities and colleges, so we will have to wait and see."
The Association for the Voice of Education in Quebec (AVEQ) also said it welcomes the strategy, but has some concerns.
It wonders how the $23 million will be allocated across campuses in Quebec.
"We need to find out whether resources will be genuinely accessible for all students in Quebec," said Häxan Bondu, AVEC's coordinator of Sociopolitical Affairs for AVEQ and a student at Université du Québec à Chicoutimi.
Bondu also added that education about sexual violence needs to start much earlier.
"We must not forget that the culture which feeds sexual violence is not born on campuses: prevention of this violence must also take place before postsecondary education, and as soon as possible," Bondu said in a statement.
By the numbers
In January 2017, a research team based at the Université du Québec à Montréal surveyed 9,284 people who work or study at six of the province's French-speaking universities.
They found that more than 3,400 respondents — or 36.9 per cent — reported being a victim of some form of sexual violence by someone linked to their university.