Commentary | A survivor-first approach

McGill needs a student-informed sexual assault policy

Let’s start with the negative: right now, there is no sexual assault policy at McGill. In fact, there is no formal document of any kind specifically dealing with sexual assault. McGill has official guidelines for “Mobile Computing and Communication devices.” It has a “Policy on use of the Wordmark and Insignia of McGill University.” It also has a Harassment and Discrimination policy – but there is no sexual assault policy at McGill.

Last week, a website went live, hosting our proposal for what such a policy could look like. The proposal came out of a series of meetings held between representatives of our various groups, all of whom represent or work with people who have experienced sexual assault on the McGill campus and in the McGill community at large. We conducted research on sexual assault on Canadian campuses, policies and practices at other universities, and publicized cases of sexual assault at McGill.

We also talked with each other, discussing our groups’ institutional knowledge about sexual assault and consent, rape culture, and how survivors can best be supported. Part of what brought our groups together was a belief that if there’s one policy a university needs, it’s a sexual assault policy. Rape culture is widespread in Canadian and Quebecois society; statistics show that one in four Canadian women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and national media frequently publicize narratives that blame survivors or deny the reality of their experiences.

Part of what brought our groups together was a belief that if there’s one policy a university needs, it’s a sexual assault policy.

As widespread as rape culture in Canada is, though, the problem is especially pervasive on university campuses. According to the Sexual Assault Centre of the Hamilton Area, 29 per cent of female undergraduates in Canada reported incidents of sexual assault. The Canadian Federation of Students also tells us that, “One survey showed that 60 per cent of Canadian college-aged males indicated that they would commit sexual assault if they were certain that they wouldn’t get caught.”

This is a difficult topic to discuss, but McGill is far from immune to this problem. One thing is certain: we don’t lack a sexual assault policy because sexual assault and rape culture are not a problem at McGill. Last semester, national media reported that three members of the McGill Redmen football team were charged with kidnapping and sexually assaulting a Concordia student. Their coach and members of the administration had known about the charges for a year and done nothing.

Cases like these draw much-needed attention to the issue, but media sensationalism can also distort the reality of sexual assault at McGill. The Sexual Assault Centre Of McGill Students’ Society offers support every day to members of the McGill community who have experienced numerous forms of sexual violence. As far too many students, staff, and faculty members know, sexual assault does happen here.

We consider it one of the greatest strengths of our proposal that it originated within groups representing the body of the university that has the greatest immediate experience of sexual assault and rape culture – the students.

Still, we write this in a spirit of optimism and conciliation. This year, the McGill administration has taken concrete steps to show that it is aware of the problem of sexual assault at McGill and is invested in taking action against it. Administrators have met with members of our various groups in good faith, with open and constructive conversations about what can be done to raise awareness about consent, fight rape culture, and offer support to survivors. This semester’s Open Forum on Consent gave members of the McGill community a much-needed opportunity to discuss consent and rape culture out in the open, with the feeling that they were being heard and taken seriously by the administration. Importantly, the administration also recently announced the hiring of Bianca Tétrault to the new position of “Liaison Officer (Harm Reduction),” with a specific mandate to address the problem of sexual assault at McGill.

Our proposal is offered in recognition of these efforts on the part of the administration. We consider it one of the greatest strengths of our proposal that it originated within groups representing the body of the university that has the greatest immediate experience of sexual assault and rape culture – the students. This proposal is built on the long experience and substantial institutional knowledge SACOMSS has developed from dealing firsthand with the needs of survivors and their allies, experience that is unique on our campus.

Of course, not every sexual assault policy would necessarily do much to support survivors and combat rape culture at McGill. Our proposal specifically calls for a pro-survivor, consent-based policy, recognizing the diversity of survivors’ experiences and the need for multiple systems of institutional support. A ‘traditional’ policy based solely on determining guilt and giving out punishments would simply continue the practice of sidelining survivors and focusing on the experiences and concerns of those who commit sexual assault. For a policy to do any good, it must put survivors first.

The situation at McGill remains untenable, and we will not forget those who have been forced to suffer in silence over the past decades at a school that would rather look away from their experiences and needs.

We remain convinced, however, that a policy is utterly necessary. Without a permanent policy on the books, McGill cannot meaningfully claim to be committed to a long-term strategy for defeating rape culture and sexual assault. Individual administrators may do their best to support survivors and combat rape culture, but over time, administrators come and go, and the problem remains. In a society where rape culture is deeply embedded and institutionalized, responses by entities like McGill must be institutional and permanent.

We thus call on all members of the university community to support our initiative. Campus groups can endorse our proposal, while individuals can register their support through an online petition linked to on our proposal’s website. Up until now, McGill lagged far behind other universities in dealing with sexual assault. By law, every U.S. university must have a policy. The University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto – the Canadian universities McGill most frequently compares itself to – both have policies and numerous well-trained individuals on campus tasked with supporting survivors and dealing with the ramifications of sexual assault on campus.

The situation at McGill remains untenable, and we will not forget those who have been forced to suffer in silence over the past decades at a school that would rather look away from their experiences and needs. Yet as the issue of rape culture on campus becomes a topic of increasing public interest in Canada, McGill has the opportunity to become a leader and establish a reputation for dealing with sexual assault and rape culture in a courageous, open, and pro-survivor manner. Please join us in making McGill a campus of consent.


To view the proposed policy on sexual assault, visit www.sexualassaultpolicyatmcgill.com. To contact the authors of this piece, please email sapp.mcgill@gmail.com.


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