News | ‘Silence is Violence’ launches at McGill

Group aims to challenge culture of institutional violence on campuses

This article was updated on Wednesday, September 14, at 11:18 p.m. 

The McGill chapter of Silence is Violence (SiV) launched on August 26, describing itself on Facebook as “a survivor-led collective of community members at McGill to advocate for institutional accountability and tackle rape culture on campus.” The group is part of a wider national network, with chapters already in existence at York University, University of British Columbia, and University of Toronto.

“We need huge, huge systemic changes in Canada to address this issue, and [the] SiV network is at its forefront.”

According to York University’s SiV chapter’s website, the network does not get its name from the silence of survivors, but from that promoted by institutions. It seeks to combat a damaging systemic approach to sexual violence that puts pressure on survivors to keep quiet by casting doubt on their stories and otherwise making their lives more difficult.

“We need huge, huge systemic changes in Canada to address this issue, and [the] SiV network is at its forefront,” wrote Paniz Khosroshahy*, a U3 Women’s Studies student who founded the McGill chapter of SiV, in an email to The Daily.

According to her, there are “administrators [at McGill] that literally re-traumatize students when [the students] report [sexual violence] to them, [and staff that] just sit in a room and repeat ‘I’m sorry that happened to you’ and ‘that sounds frustrating.’” She also stressed that these administrators do not provide material help to ensure safety and access to education.

“Ending sexual violence doesn’t happen by talking, but by taking actual action,” she continued, explaining that for her, the most important thing is ensuring that “students have continued access to education after they’re assaulted.”

“Ending sexual violence doesn’t happen by talking, but by taking actual action.”

Currently there are no systems in place at McGill that prevent a traumatized student from encountering their assailant on campus. This was also the case for Ariane Litalien, an organizer of McGill’s SiV chapter, who was sexually assaulted while pursuing studies at Harvard.

“My assailant lived in my dorm at Harvard, and administrators refused to do anything about it,” Litalien wrote in an email to The Daily. She added that SiV is working to ensure survivors aren’t forced to carry out their education under such circumstances.

As explained on York University’s SiV chapter’s website, the collective does not simply want improvement on these issues. They seek to implement radical change by ensuring that “those who have experienced sexual violence are placed in decision-making and leadership roles.” This would prevent universities from operating in ways that exacerbate trauma due to sexual violence.

“I personally believe that support after a case of sexual assault has occurred is vital […] There are definitely people at McGill who want change and are willing to listen.”

Litalien confirmed that the services already in place at universities such as Harvard are not enough: “We had a Harvard-sponsored Sexual Assault Center, and although I got some incredible help from the angels who work there, the office was severely understaffed and had virtually no power to hold the University accountable for its systematic silencing of survivors.”

A McGill professor who preferred to remain anonymous expressed concern to The Daily in an email: “I personally believe that support after a case of sexual assault has occurred is vital […] There are definitely people at McGill who want change and are willing to listen.”

McGill’s Sexual Assault Policy

McGill’s SiV chapter was also created because of growing frustration toward the University’s lack of response to ,and cooperation with, student demands and initiatives. Since 2013, a student-led working group had been drafting a Sexual Assault Policy for the University, without administrative support. On March 22, 2016, the administration, represented by former Dean of Students André Costopoulos and Associate Provost Angela Campbell, refused to bring the policy forward for approval by the Senate.

Current Dean of Students Christopher Buddle told The Daily in an interview on August 30 that the student-drafted policy has been consulted extensively in developing a new policy to be brought to Senate by the end of 2016. In the interim, however, McGill still lacks official guidelines for handling cases of sexual violence.

“We encourage everyone to provide feedback, which can be done online and anonymously if the commentator so chooses.”

The anonymous professor confirmed this: “There have been calls for feedback over the summer, and a number of groups – including the Senate Subcommittee on Women and the McGill Association of University Teachers (MAUT) – have made a number of recommendations. Faculty members like myself hope to continue to have input during this semester – alongside student groups,” she wrote.

In an email to The Daily, Associate Provost Campbell confirmed that the administration’s draft policy would be published on September 12.

“We encourage everyone to provide feedback, which can be done online and anonymously if the commentator so chooses,” she added.

McGill’s chapter of SiV does not want the policy to focus further on prevention awareness. While it is important, “the phenomenon of consent education [overshadows] any institutional accountability,” Khosroshahy wrote.

“I am involved not because I hate McGill, but because I love it enough to want to make it a better place.”

As such, survivors of sexual assault such as Khosroshahy and Litalien are working to ensure institutions like McGill are held accountable to their students and communities.

“I am involved not because I hate McGill, but because I love it enough to want to make it a better place,” Litalien concluded.

*Disclaimer: Paniz Khosroshahy is a staff writer for The Daily.

An earlier version of this article stated that Paniz Khosroshahy is a Women’s Studies and Computer Science student. In fact, she is now pursuing a degree solely in Women’s Studies. The Daily regrets the error.

An earlier version of this article did not mention that Paniz Khosroshahy is a staff writer for The Daily. The Daily regrets the error.