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A Manitoba University Made Sexual Assault Survivors Sign a Gag Order or Be Expelled

The contract requires students who report sexual assault to "remain silent," while a Brandon University student described the process as "humiliating" and "horrifyingly ignorant."

Jake Kivanc

Jake Kivanc

A Manitoba university has axed a policy that forced survivors of sexual assault to sign a contract that would prevent them from speaking out about their assault or else be expelled from the school after complaints surfaced Tuesday.

The document, referred by Brandon University as a "behavioural contract," requires students who report sexual assaults to the university not to talk to their abuser, and are not allowed to discuss the event with anyone but a counsellor or permitted administrative staff.

According to Stefon Irvine, chairperson of the Brandon University Student Union (BUSU)'s LGBTTQ collective and spokesperson for the campus' #WeBelieveSurvivors group, the document was unearthed when a survivor broke their silence about having to sign the contract after reporting it university staff.

"We had heard rumours through the grapevine about something like this for a while, but we had a very brave person come forward and tell us about it recently," he told VICE.

"This is the administration's way of sweeping it under the carpet. If they say zero sexual assaults happened on campus because they're all being silenced, then what they're really saying is that survivors are lying about their stories."

In a copy of the document provided to VICE, the guidelines state that complainants who break the rules may subject to "disciplinary behaviour including but not limited to suspension and/or expulsion from Brandon University." The person who brought the document forward, wishing to remain anonymous, told VICE that administration has made no effort to contact her since the group went public with the allegations.

"They've been getting away with this by silencing me," she told VICE. "People need to see what's going on here because we don't deserve to be silenced."

The woman, who says she was assaulted in the fall of last year, reported the incident to the university the following day. What followed was what she described as an "insulting" process: she was paired up with a counselor who she claims was not trained to deal with sex assaults; she claims she was told by administration that she would eventually "get over" the assault and she was told specifically not to speak anyone else about it, despite her growing mental distress, which she expressed to the university.

She also told VICE that Brandon University staff had suggested to her that she faced trauma or sexual assault by family members when she was younger. When she told them that she was offended and expressed confused by such accusations, the staff suggested that she was blowing things out of proportion.

"The administration treated me horrendously," she told VICE. "They kept saying it was my family or that I was overreacting. They kept asking, 'What's making you depressed and suicidal?' They basically ignored the fact that I just experienced a horribly traumatic event."

The woman has since brought the incident to the police and is seeking outside counselling. She told VICE she hopes that the administration will reach out to her and apologize for what they did.

Dr. Corinne Mason, coordinator of the gender and women's studies department at the university, calls the revelation "not surprising" given the skepticism of sex assault complaints by administrative staff.

"This 'gag order' treats survivors and perpetrators as equals in the 'incident,' and it treats the person who reports sexual assault in a disciplinary manner," reads a statement from Mason provided to VICE.

"This letter was obviously written without much knowledge of sexual assault, and without survivors' needs in mind."

The accusations follow a growing conversation around sexual assault both on and off university campus, with events such as the Jian Ghomeshi case and reports on failing to support victims at universities such as Brock and Dalhousie being catalysts for a discussion about rape culture in Canada.

Irvine told VICE that BU's We Believe Survivors chapter would be sending the administration a formal list of demands, including but not limited to a complete release of the number of reported sexual assaults, publication of the behavioral contract, and a move to evaluate how the administration deals with sexual assault on campus.

Brandon University was unavailable for an immediate interview, but said that they would provide VICE comment via email. As of publication, the university has not done so.

UPDATE: At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, university president Dr. Gervan Fearon told reporters that the administration would be no longer requiring students to sign behavioural contracts. Fearon says the university determined the contracts were "not appropriate" for sexual assault cases, and that the university would have a new sexual assault strategy by the fall.

"We made a mistake," he said.

Follow Jake Kivanç on Twitter.