After weeks of silence from the University regarding three McGill students charged with sexual assault and forcible confinement, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Ollivier Dyens released a statement last Thursday on behalf of the University.
In the statement, which was emailed to the McGill student body on November 21, Dyens alleged that the University “did not fully recognize the effect that such events, even if they take place off campus, can and do have on our student population.”
The three students, who all played on the Redmen football team until the end of this season, were charged over 15 months ago, according to the Montreal Gazette. The Montreal Gazette stated that the paper called the University when the students were charged, however the University claims it did not learn of the incident until May.
Since the charges have come to light, the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS) has been vocal with its demands that the University take action, publishing an open statement as well as a letter in the Link newspaper at Concordia.
In an email to The Daily, SACOMSS Externals Camille Tastenhoye and Kelly Schieder wrote, “SACOMSS feels that this statement is a step in the right direction. We hope to see these measures implemented as soon as possible.”
“I think we misjudged the reaction of our community, and we realized we needed to speak to our community,” Dyens stated in an interview with The Daily.
Dyens continued, identifying student senators as one of the reasons behind the statement’s recent release. “They told us, you should have made a statement saying ‘this is important, we take this seriously’ [...].”
In the statement, Dyens also noted that the University is planning to hire a “Coordinator” who will report to the Dean of Students, and work with university groups such as SACOMSS.
“The initiative from the Deputy Provost’s Office (Student Life and Learning) to employ a new, full-time Coordinator regarding sexual assault is an important first step to improving resources for all on campus,” Sarah Turner, Co-Chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Women (SSCOW), told The Daily in an email.
“While the forum is a good first step, we feel it is important to continue working proactively to provide support to survivors in many different ways. This means ensuring that the forum, as well as the other measures specified, are enacted and upheld.”
The SSCOW is one of five committees that form the Joint Board-Senate Committee on Equity, and recommends University policy regarding under-represented groups.
“I was pleased to see that the Deputy Provost Ollivier Dyens noted that this new position would work collaboratively with the student-run Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS),” said Turner.
However, the University’s effort to reach out to the community was disputed by SACOMSS Externals. “To our knowledge, the administration has not approached us about working together, but we hope that they do,” Tastenhoye and Schieder said in the release.
Additionally, Dyens stated that the University will hold a forum discussing “the issue of consent in [sexual matters].” Joey Shea, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) VP University Affairs, will be one of the co-chairs of the forum.
Shea stated that the forum mentioned in the statement is in its early stages. “One thing that Ollivier [Dyens] did tell me was that he didn’t want to be preaching to the choir [...] he wanted it to be for those people who wouldn’t normally be having a conversation about consent.”
“What we really want to enforce and really want to emphasis is a change of culture,” said Dyens. “That we develop a culture of respect and understanding, and that culture stays with you not only when you are on campus but also when you are off campus.”
“While the forum is a good first step, we feel it is important to continue working proactively to provide support to survivors in many different ways. This means ensuring that the forum, as well as the other measures specified, are enacted and upheld,” Tastenhoye and Schieder stated. Additionally, it is important that a sexual assault policy be created for McGill.”
“Personally I’d like to see more resources directed to support SACOMSS which is an incredibly important resource; and also to the Social Equity and Diversity Education office (SEDE) for their crucial work in cultivating a respectful, diverse, and supportive campus,” said Turner.
In an effort to contribute to McGill’s initiatives in reconciling issues of prevailing sexual assault, SSCOW designed and distributed 250 posters detailing resources available on campus for those who have been sexually assaulted, raped, or harassed.
“It’s important information to have available quickly around our campuses,” said Turner. “We wanted to get these up fast given the recent sexual assault charges made against three McGill students, so that all students are aware that SSCOW takes these charges seriously; and so that everyone is aware of the resources and support available,” said Turner.
One of the major criticisms directed toward McGill in the period following the charges is the fact that the University lacks an explicit policy outlining how it responds to sexual assault, nor does it have any policy that mandates support services. SACOMSS itself is a service that runs solely on student and volunteer support.
When questioned as to why McGill lacks such a policy, Dean of Students André Costopoulos explained in an interview with The Daily that “assault is dealt with in the Student Code of Conduct, so any kind of physical abuse, harassment, dangerous activity [...] so we do have a policy in the form of article ten of the code of students, including sexual assault.”
“Now should there be a certain article that deals with sexual assault separate from other forms of assault – that is a good question and when we review the policy that is one of the questions we will be looking at,” he said.
However, Costopoulos could not give a set date as to when the policy would be reviewed, stating that “these are living documents that are always open to question and interpretation and changes.”
Dyens echoed a similar sentiment, saying that he didn’t “have an answer to that question, but we realized we needed to look at these policies and procedures.”
“Now we need to keep in mind that it is really important that there is presumption of innocence and due process,” he continued. “These things need to be kept front and centre with everything we do.”
When asked what she would like to see come of the forum in January, Shea noted, “One of the things that I would like to get people to start thinking about with the forum is, we have had a lot of responses like ‘obviously rape is really bad, and we don’t condone it at all but think of the other side, this has ruined these people’s lives and what if they are innocent, and these poor boys, there is another side.’”
”[To] start the conversation of why those thoughts and those comments are incredibly harmful and damaging and can’t be disassociated from a broader context of patriarchy and rape culture [...] and to start to get people to understand [with the forum] why that is the case.”