Commentary | Making McGill space truly safe

New student initiatives aim to address ineffective systems for processing harassment complaints

It is not unusual to hear of a professor making sexist remarks during a lecture, of uncomfortable situations arising in health services, or of an administrator making racist or classist comments. Many people on campus brush these occurrences off as insignificant or the norm, thinking along the lines of, “Not everyone can be accommodating, some people are just offensive. I’m not going to be the one to say anything. I’ll just suck it up. It’s not a big enough deal to go through the hassle of reporting it.”

At the beginning of each semester, we’re assured that if we have any concerns about our life on campus, there are outlets through which we can submit complaints or give feedback. There are apparently structures in place to ensure the safety of people on campus – but they go unused, either because people don’t know they exist, or because they’re not accessible even to those who are aware of them.

To approach the office of the Ombudsperson about a dispute with a professor over a paper grade is one thing; a case of overt discrimination or harassment is another. If a student decides to approach the University about an issue through the assessors of harassment, sexual harassment, or discrimination, they will encounter a long process of “informal resolution.” This process is consensual yet intimidating, as the student can continue explaining their case until an Assessor deems their complaint legitimate enough to take to yet another level for “formal action” and another person to convince: the Provost.

While these particular outlets are confidential, they aren’t anonymous. And few students would feel comfortable going through a process that requires them to expose themselves about a sensitive experience to an administrator not once, but as many times as is necessary before their experience is Deemed “legitimate.” Not only does this alienate students, it would cause discomfort for staff members filing claims against their employers.

Here, the levels of bureaucracy and red tape for which community members often criticize McGill prevent our campus from being maintained as a safer space. There are various committees and offices at McGill created for the purpose of maintaining safety, preventing discrimination, and supporting “diversity” – but their ineffectiveness ultimately harms students and staff. In reality, they don’t exist for students, but rather to maintain McGill’s image.

If we criticize the University for hiring a homophobic professor or supporting problematic research, it’s easy for the administration to point to a committee or an office to handle our complaint. Unfortunately, the inaccessibility of such outlets has not prevented students from being tested on research that paints homosexuality as the result of a genetic disorder or a hormonal imbalance.

Students and staff must begin voicing their concerns in a forum that they construct for themselves. The McGill community must create tools that support daily experiences of campus space. The safety net provided by the administration to make campus a safer space has holes. The disconnect between the administration and its lived community has grown to a height of insurmountable proportions, and in our frustration our only hope is to begin tunneling under, smashing through, or even tossing our messages over to make our opinions heard.

Improvements are being made but the process will be slow without pressure. The Social Equity and Diversity Education Office is hiring LGBTTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, and queer) and Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity advisors. Positions like these will be most effective if informed by the community on our needs and concerns.

There are also groups of concerned students seeking to address rising concerns about discrimination and oppressive practices in classrooms, services, and other spaces on campus. This semester, students will be conducting an anonymous survey-based evaluation of these spaces. The goal of this survey will be to uncover where on campus members of the community are feeling unsafe, and why. The McGill Anti-Racist Coalition has launched a card campaign through which students can submit anonymous complaints to their professors throughout the semester.

Active efforts, autonomous of the University, are one effective avenue through which members of our community can take back some control over our spaces. We cannot let the University forget that we are the people who live and learn in them.

For more information about either of the student projects mentioned above, you can contact discriminationsurvey.mcgill@gmail.com or see discriminationsurveymcgill.wordpress.com. Surveys will be made available in locations across campus for the next month. Look for people wearing pink armbands.


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