An update from the U of A's Sexual Violence Response Coordinator

Current initiatives to address and prevent sexual and gender-based violence.


Students at the University of Alberta have been tirelessly advocating for the U of A to improve its responses to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and to do more to prevent it. This past year, Provost and Vice-President (Academic) Steven Dew made a number of commitments, one of which was to appoint a Sexual Violence Response Coordinator (SVRC) to strategize, coordinate, and oversee communications, training and education. As the person appointed to that position, I have drawn from the university’s mission statement to articulate a commitment to a ‘vibrant and supportive learning environment,’ as a means of both addressing and preventing SGBV.

It is time for a course correction — that is, to shift our focus away from a singular reliance on investigations, discipline and punishment as the primary response to SGBV. A vibrant and supportive learning environment — inclusive of classrooms, labs, workplaces, residential, recreational and social spaces, and all of the elements that make up and support our learning community — is an environment where sexual violence cannot thrive. It is equally inhospitable to racism, harassment, bullying and gender-based violence of all kinds.

Survivors of SGBV have a right of equal access to that learning environment and they should be empowered as active participants in any process or remedy with that aim. Survivors should be the driving force behind the university’s response to SGBV, which should always start with the question: what needs to happen in order for the person subjected to SGBV to fully participate in university life? But for true transformation, building prevention into every response means also asking: what needs to happen to create an environment that is free from SGBV so that everyone can fully participate in university life?

I’ve met several times with Chancellor Garritty and am grateful for her support on this important work. “We have the opportunity to create an environment where everyone on our campuses — students, faculty, staff and community members — feel safe and able to pursue their goals without fear of sexual and gender-based violence,” she shared. “This is how we can work together to ensure that future generations of students graduate from our university with expectations, skills and behaviours that transfer to their work and home environments, their communities and their personal lives.”

It is time to create space for interpersonal accountability, for those who cause harm to be able to take responsibility, commit to change, offer reparation, and make positive contributions to the learning environment. But interpersonal accountability doesn’t go far enough; it is time to lean into institutional accountability, and to empower community members to participate in the creation, repair and maintenance of the vibrant and supportive learning environment to prevent SGBV in the future.

This is both a new and an ancient perspective, one that relies on and fosters human connection, empathy, and a community-based vision of a violence-free university. It is simultaneously aspirational and practical, and creates a roadmap for policy, education, and action. It requires not only a change in the way we approach SGBV, but also a commitment to learn from past (and future) mistakes and to nurture that vibrant and supportive learning environment.

Current Initiatives

1. Review and revision of the Sexual Violence Policy Suite and the Code of Student Behaviour to comply with the Minister's letter regarding SV policies

Minister Nicolaides (Advanced Education) and Associate Minister Issik (Status of Women) have issued a letter to all 26 public post-secondary institutions directing us to review and revise our Sexual Violence Policies and Procedures, and to modernize and align them with best practices as identified in the Courage to Act project by November 2022. Because the Code of Student Behaviour contains the procedure for student violations of the SV Policy, it will also be amended. The Code revisions required by the ministers' letter will be completed first, followed by further updates for approval by Spring 2023.

2. Formation of a Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Advisory Council

I have invited representatives from across our university, including students, staff, and faculty from all campuses and areas, to advise me as I work on new initiatives, develop networks of expertise, and recommend policy changes. Our introductory meeting will be in May or June 2022, and I will provide an update to the community about our progress.

3. Creating a Disclosure Support Network to take the burden of navigating our systems away from survivors

As part of the SV Policy revisions, I'm working to enhance our capacity to provide accurate, transparent and timely information on the various options available to those who disclose they were subjected to SGBV. To that end, I am creating a Disclosure Support Network (DSN), formed by a group of existing service units where the staff will receive enhanced training. This network will also help me collect data on what survivors are seeking from our university and their satisfaction with our response. The DSN will be implemented in November 2022 to coincide with the SV Policy revision.

About Deb

Deb Eerkes is the Sexual Violence Response Coordinator, seconded from her previous position as Director of Student Conduct and Accountability. In addition to her work as one of the University Discipline Officers, she initiated the university's academic integrity program and designed the restorative justice approach currently used in the residence system. Her work in sexual violence includes co-charing a review of the University of Alberta’s response to sexual assault, leading the development of the University’s Sexual Violence Policy Suite, and co-chairing a working group examining the use of restorative justice in the context of sexual violence at the University of Alberta. She is also the co-lead for the Reporting, Investigation & Adjudication working group for Courage to Act, a multi-year national initiative to address and prevent gender-based violence on post-secondary campuses in Canada, and a co-author of A Comprehensive Guide to Campus Gender-Based Violence Complaints.