Subject of informal complaint running for UMSU office leaves woman feeling “failed”

Informal complaints do not denote guilt or innocence, instead focus on mediation

The University of Manitoba's sexual assault policies are being reviewed and updated.

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A former University of Manitoba student said she feels “failed” by the University of Manitoba’s sexual assault policies after a student she filed an informal complaint against ran in the 2018 UMSU general elections.

The complainant, who also worked on campus at the time, was allegedly assaulted in early 2017 by a fellow student while on a University of Manitoba club trip.

The student filed an informal complaint in September 2017. Informal complaints are lodged with the office of human rights and conflict management (HR/CM). While formal complaints can warrant a full investigation, informal complaints are less investigative, and can focus on other remediations such as mediation and restorative justice.

The accused student participated in the informal complaint process and, according to the student who had brought forth the complaint, agreed to undergo consent training.
Participating in the informal complaint is not an admission of guilt, and informal complaints generally do not focus on proving fault.

The accused student said he does not believe sexual assault took place.

The student said she chose not to pursue a formal complaint because she was concerned for her anonymity after learning other students on the trip would be interviewed in the investigation process.

She said that her main objective when reaching out, to both UMSU and later the Manitoban, was to attempt to ensure the accused was not allowed in a position of power.

“I wanted the easiest way that I could have some sort of impact without bothering other people,” she said.

“It felt like a huge burden. But I wanted to make a difference, and I didn’t want this to ever happen again, and I wanted him to be educated about what he did and accept that it was wrong. And understand it, and just be aware of it.

“I don’t think that it should ruin his life, but it’s definitely had a huge negative impact on mine, and it is going to affect me the rest of my life.”

While not all of the requests submitted to the accused student through the informal process were accepted, the complainant said she agreed to the terms presented because she was “tired of fighting.” She said some of the alternative options offered made her feel uncomfortable, including a face-to-face discussion between her and the accused with a mediator present.

According to the student, the informal complaint also resulted in a committee examination to determine whether or not the alleged perpetrator was “a risk,” and it was determined that he was not.

Allegedly, through HR/CM, the student requested that the accused student not contact her further, which the other party agreed to. The student told the Manitoban she was told that should the accused pursue future contact, she could request security or “depending on the situation, sanctions [would] be placed on the student.”

While one option available when a no contact agreement in an informal complaint is violated is assistance from security services on campus, the student can also choose to pursue a formal complaint at any time.

She also raised concerns about the “grey area” of a student with a no contact agreement being filed against them being allowed to place posters with their likeness on campus.

The student said she disclosed the incident to friends and family several times before filing the complaint. She also applied for, and received, an authorized withdrawal from several courses, including one in the winter 2017 term, citing a sexual assault in early 2017 as one of the compassionate reasons. There were also prior complaints that were considered on the withdrawal requests.

The accused student said he believes a formal process was avoided because the evidence would not hold up to scrutiny.

“My belief is that the formal complaint process was not pursued because there was no evidence to support the allegation, the complaint was frivolous and vexatious, and that the complainant would face disciplinary action upon the conclusion of the formal investigation process,” the student said in an email.

The student also said he did not explicitly agree to the consent training and no contact agreement as a result of the informal complaint, but instead was already planning to attend consent training and simply agreed to continue not contacting the student, with whom he had not spoken with in months.

“I do not want to live in a world where people, especially women, fear the submission of a complaint due to inaction by the governing body or reprisal from the respondent, hence the need for policy improvements,” he said.

“But I also do not want that same world to change to one where unsubstantiated claims are given credit without due process.”

For the purpose of anonymity, HR/CM was unable to disclose details of the informal complaint.

It was only after the student learned the alleged perpetrator was planning to run for UMSU executive council that she decided to reach out to the Manitoban.

The Manitoban spoke with several students who know both parties and who confirmed the student disclosed the incident to them before filing the complaint – and well before the accused entered the 2018 UMSU elections.

UMSU was also aware of the informal complaint filed against the student as early as fall 2017, after the alleged victim contacted UMSU to see if there was anything the union could do to enforce the conditions she originally requested the student face through the informal complaint. She had chosen to contact UMSU after learning that the accused was still involved with a club that she had been a member of at the time of the alleged assault.

An UMSU executive spoke with the alleged perpetrator on the issue, but could not go further without the student pursuing a formal complaint.

UMSU has no policies in place prohibiting people who have been the subject of an informal complaint from running for executive positions, regardless of the accusations. This, in part, is because the informal complaint process focuses on discussion and resolution rather than findings of guilt and innocence.

The student said she hopes that coming forward will influence UMSU to put policies into place that recognize accusations of sexual violence without the victim having to go through the re-traumatization of an investigative, formal complaint.

“I think it’s wrong for UMSU to let him be able to run, because he had a complaint against him – a serious complaint, from a student – and I think it’s so wrong,” she said.

The University of Manitoba’s sexual assault policy came into effect in 2016. It was then reopened for review in 2017, and the policy is expected to be finished and in place in September 2019. Allison Kilgour, outgoing VP advocacy of UMSU, said the changes in policy are a natural response to how students are now approaching  the issue of sexual violence on campuses.

“I think with this issue as well, it evolves so dramatically and in so many ways as time progresses,” she said.

“If you look at where we were five years ago as to now, we’ve seen this issue come so much more to light in the prevalence, in the ways it’s being reported, in ways which survivors are willing to come forward and share their experiences, that I think our policies constantly need to be re-evaluated and redeveloped. So I’m really happy that they’re opening these up.”

Kilgour added that, while the formal complaint process can be re-traumatizing, it is the only way available to find proof of fault in an individual.

“I definitely think that I could see how, in some ways, if it doesn’t solve the problem for the survivor, and if they feel as though process didn’t work for them, that breaks my heart, because at the end of the day, this is such a serious issue,” Kilgour added.

“And the formal complaint process can be a very tough one, because you’re not guaranteed complete confidentiality, you’re not sure if you’re going to be privy to all of the information happening, and it can be something that a lot of survivors just don’t want to go through. However, with the informal process, I understand how they can’t, per se, assign guilt, as there hasn’t been an investigation.”

The student said she decided to tell her story in hopes of bringing about positive change.

“Even though it happened to me, it can happen to other people, and it has happened to other people and they haven’t reported it,” she said.

“So it doesn’t necessarily need to be a me-versus-him, but rather, what can we take away and learn from it, and how can we use this story to make change.”

Correction: This article originally stated that revisions to the U of M’s sexual assault policies were announced in 2016 and would be re-reviewed in September 2019. The Manitoban regrets the error.