OTTAWA - The largest organization for post-secondary students in Canada is not quite ready to get behind a Liberal threat to consider withdrawing federal funding from universities and colleges that are not serious enough about dealing with on-campus sexual assault.
The 2018 federal budget tabled this week included $5.5 million over five years to develop a national framework aimed at addressing gender-based violence at universities and colleges across the country, which student groups have welcomed as a show of strong federal leadership.
But the Liberals are dangling that carrot alongside a vaguely defined stick.
The budget said that beginning in 2019, the federal government will consider holding back funding from those institutions that are not putting "best practices addressing sexual assaults on campus" into place.
The Canadian Federation of Students, which has been pushing for legislation requiring every university and college across the country to have a stand-alone policy on sexual violence, wants to see more details about the promise.
"This was actually a point in the budget that was slightly concerning to us," said Charlotte Kiddell, national deputy chairperson of the association.
The budget did not include any more details about what the Liberal government would consider to be best practices, which could mean different things to different people, she noted — especially when it comes to applying them to campuses across the country.
"We don't want to see federal funding tied to a kind of poorly defined standard that may not actually be the best measure for strong sexual assault policies according to students," said Kiddell, who wants to see sexual assault survivors involved in designing the standards.
Michael McDonald, executive director of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, said he welcomed the federal leadership but would be concerned if the plan included the potential to roll back money intended for students.
"The objective is to improve safety on campuses without detracting from the learning environment or hurting students," McDonald said.
Science Minister Kirsty Duncan was unavailable for an interview Thursday, but suggested in a statement emailed through a spokesperson that the Liberal government considers the threat a last resort.
"We want to work with provinces and territories, stakeholders, and experts to develop a harmonized national framework to address sexual assaults on campuses, and not withdraw funding," Duncan said in the statement.
"We know that universities and colleges can do better and we will work with them to achieve our common goal," she said. "With that said, if, after consultation and continued discussion, a post-secondary institution does not take action, our government will consider other options to eradicate gender-based violence on campuses."
Still, the Liberal government has not yet specified what kind of federal funding it has in mind.
A 2016 report from the parliamentary budget officer showed the federal government contributed some $12.3 billion to post-secondary education in fiscal 2013-14, when taking things like research grants, student loans, tax credits and transfers to the provinces into account.
Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, said the vague nature of the threat sends a signal that anything could be on the table.
"Not that I think they'd do it, but it is theoretically an unlimited punishment that they could mete out here," Usher said.
He said that could set what he believes is a dangerous precedent, including by making it easier for Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer to make good on his own pledge to end federal funding to universities that fail to uphold freedom of speech.
"They're pointing the way to something that could be used for ill as well as good."
Ontario, Quebec, B.C. and Manitoba already have legislation requiring all universities and colleges to have stand-alone sexual assault policies.
Organizations representing post-secondary institutions said they expect the federal government to take that into account.
"If the government is to set conditions for funding, it will need to be very clear about expectations and take into account the serious efforts that are ongoing at institutions, and in provinces and territories, across the country," Denise Amyot, CEO of Colleges and Institutes Canada, said in a statement.
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