Content warning: This article contains mentions of sexual violence.
At a meeting on February 23, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Legislative Council discussed SSMU’s response to reported acts of gendered and sexual violence committed by former VP External David Aird, which came to light in the lead-up to his resignation on February 22.
“Upsetting” lack of action
The Community Disclosure Network (CDN), a group of survivors and allies, which had formed in order to take action against Aird, published a statement on February 21 describing Aird’s alleged history of gendered and sexual violence. According to the statement, when students had brought the matter to the attention of SSMU executives last semester, their response had been underwhelming. The CDN criticized available avenues of recourse as “insufficient and undesirable,” and pointed to a perceived culture of inaction among the executives.
President Ben Ger stated at Council that SSMU had received reports in the Fall 2016 semester of behaviour from Aird which “made individuals feel uncomfortable,” at which point “consultation was done internally” within the SSMU executive team. The executives’ response to these reports had been to establish private weekly ‘check-ins’ between Aird and Ger, a course of action that was sharply criticized by councillors and members of the gallery.
“When the first case of harassment came up to the exec team, why was this information kept secretive?” asked Environment Representative Tuviere Okome.
“This executive was in this room with women who have potentially experienced sexual violence,” added Okome. “This is embarrassing, but even more so, as a woman, especially as a Black woman, it’s so upsetting that this happened.”
“This executive was in this room with women who have potentially experienced sexual violence. […] This is embarrassing, but even more so, as a woman, especially as a Black woman, it’s so upsetting that this happened.”
VP University Affairs Erin Sobat said that the complaints about Aird’s behaviour which the SSMU exec received in the fall did not include reports of sexual assault. Sobat said that “it would have been difficult to proceed with a motion for removal” at that point, but recognized that “more could have been done to assess the risks to members posed by the individual at that time and try to collect more information.” Had there been reports of sexual assault, the executive would have taken “more severe steps,” he said.
Ariane Schang, Computer Science Undergraduate Society Equity Commissioner, questioned Sobat’s justification, noting that the weekly check-ins established between Aird and Ger proved that the executive team “had identified [Aird] as a threat.”
“I think that the SSMU exec […] probably had a solid understanding that there was a danger, because [Aird] was having to receive further consent education on a one-on-one basis,” said Schang.
Ger, however, defended the check-ins as “the most action we could [take] at the time.”
Asked if minutes were taken or attendance recorded at the check-ins between Aird and Ger, Ger said that no such record was available, adding that “people in other offices […] nearby” might be able to confirm that the check-ins did in fact occur.
Arts and Science student Kiana Saint-Macary challenged the notion that respecting the complainants’ desire to remain anonymous was incompatible with stronger action. Saint-Macary is the co-president of Jeunes néodémocrates du Québec (JNDQ), the Quebec youth wing of the New Democratic Party (NDP), where Aird briefly held an executive position in the fall of 2016 before resigning following complaints about his behaviour.
“Immediately after hearing that there [were] complaints, not of sexual assault but harassment, we got David [Aird] to resign from the [JNDQ] executive,” said Saint-Macary, adding that in doing so the JNDQ was still able to maintain the anonymity and respect the wishes of the complainants.
“I think that the SSMU exec […] probably had a solid understanding that there was a danger, because [Aird] was having to receive further consent education on a one-on-one basis.”
“I think there has been proof […] that when you threaten [Aird] with exposure, he is willing to resign,” Saint-Macary continued. “I think that the fact that he never […] felt enough pressure from the [SSMU] executive to resign – even before you knew about his assault – is an indicator that he didn’t feel that you were ever going to do anything that was going to really punish him or reprimand him for what he was doing.”
“You didn’t do enough to […] get him away from a position of power yourselves, and I’m really disappointed in the SSMU executives,” she added.
Ger and Sobat confirmed at Council that the SSMU executive had not asked Aird to resign. Asked whether executives would themselves consider resigning at this point, Ger said that they were not considering resignation. He later added that he would be willing to “have a conversation” regarding the matter if there were widespread calls to do so.
Accusations of feigned ignorance
Several councillors expressed concern over the fact that Ger did not refer the handling of the reports received in the fall to the correct oversight channels, such as the SSMU Board of Directors, which is in charge of human resources at the executive level.
Malaya Powers, U3 Arts student and co-president of NDP McGill, cast doubt on the claim that SSMU had not received reports of sexual harassment or assault committed by Aird in the fall, arguing that this contradicted the CDN’s statement. Sobat responded by saying that any reports made to individuals affiliated with SSMU did not reach the executives, noting that this pointed to a flaw in existing reporting procedures.
“You didn’t do enough to […] get him away from a position of power yourselves, and I’m really disappointed in the SSMU executives.”
“What I’m hearing tonight, frankly, I think, is a lie, that SSMU did not know that [Aird] was sexually harassing people on campus, so I want to say tonight to every survivor […] that I believe you, and a whole group of us believe you,” said Powers.
Law Representative Romita Sur confirmed that “quite a few members on this Council had received messages from survivors, saying that they had consulted and let the executive know about the harassment.” Sur also noted that concerns about Aird’s behaviour had been raised at a confidential session of Council where executives were not present, in early December 2016.
“This is not something new, people were aware of this issue,” said Sur.
Moving forward, Sobat committed himself to working with the CDN to implement its demands to SSMU, in particular the development of a SSMU sexual assault policy that would facilitate accessible complaint procedures and response protocols. Currently, SSMU’s equity policy fails to mention sexual violence. Ger further committed to issuing a statement that would acknowledge SSMU’s responsibility in perpetuating rape culture and contributing to gendered violence on campus.
Council adjourned around 8:30 p.m. in a sober mood, having discussed matters related to Aird’s resignation for roughly ninety minutes.
Motions postponed to the next meeting of Council due to the early adjournment include the adoption of a policy on unpaid internships, revisions to the Indigenous solidarity policy, amendments to internal regulations, and proposed referendum questions regarding constitutional amendments and an increase to the Athletics fee. Ger will seek to adjust the referendum timeline to make up for the resulting delay in approving questions.
“What I’m hearing tonight, frankly, I think, is a lie, that SSMU did not know that [Aird] was sexually harassing people on campus, so I want to say tonight to every survivor […] that I believe you, and a whole group of us believe you.”
Ger said that Aird’s responsibilities would be divided among the other executives following his resignation. Sobat will ensure SSMU’s representation to the Association for the Voice of Education in Quebec (AVEQ), as he has been attending AVEQ meetings jointly with Aird.