Commentary  Reflections on La Journee de Reflexion

Criticizing the mishandling of campus sexual assault forums

Content warning: gendered and sexualized violence

On Monday, March 21, the fifth and final ‘Journée de Réflexion’ — a series of formal consultations run by the Minister of Post-Secondary Education’s Office on the creation of a new policy concerning sexual violence on campuses — took place at Centre Mont-Royal. This conference was organized as the last formal consultation in a series of five similar “Days of Reflection” to take place across Quebec — the first four taking place in Chicoutimi, Sherbrooke, Quebec City, and Gatineau. Although announced in October by the Quebec government after the highly publicized outrage over a series of sexual assaults at Laval University in Quebec City, these initiatives have not adequately consulted students or groups working around these topics on the ground.

There was no doubt that the atmosphere of the conference was not particularly welcoming – in a room of almost two hundred invited participants, I was one of maybe ten student representatives in that space. There were even less than ten Black, Indigenous, or people of colour participants. Instead, the room was a sea of middle-aged white mid-level education administrators being presented information that was collected by other middle-aged white mid-level education administrators. This leads us to a very important point — the conference was not open to the public. Instead, you could only participate if you were explicitly sent an invitation – and there were multiple stories I heard of student associations being sent an invitation less than a week before the conference, or finding the invite in their junkmail after the RSVP deadline. The only way I was aware of this was as a member of the incoming Executive at Student Society of McGill — not as someone who has been doing grassroots work around combatting sexual violence on campus. Although there was regular contact between Québec Contre les Violences Sexuelles (QCVS), a nonpartisan group of organized activists who are working to tackle how sexual violence is received by society, neither QCVS nor other organizations already working around sexual violence were not consulted during the formation of these events – and QCVS was one of the only groups working around sexual violence that was invited. It became very clear that ultimately, if you didn’t have contact with the Minister of Education’s office, you didn’t get an invite, and therefore did not get a chance to have a say about what this new policy should look like.

The first half of the day was organized around a series of presentations by the Minister herself, and others who presented on either the findings of reports that were commissioned by the provincial government on this subject in October (the most interesting of which was Sexualité Sécurité Interactions En Milieu Universitaire (ESSIMU) – for those who speak French, I highly recommend looking through the findings), or presentations of campaigns that have already have been launched such as “Sans Oui C’est Non” (which I would argue is a good reflection of the overall approach of the government’s: well-intentioned and great in theory, but in practice very superficial in the change it implements), and “Ni Viande Ni Objet.” Halfway through, and after these presentations, there was a 15 minute question period for feedback.

During one of the question periods, McGill graduate and current Asssociation for the Voice of Education in Quebec (AVEQ) Coordinator of Mobilization and Associative Development, Kristen Perry, got up to criticize the lack of accessibility in the space, choosing to switch to speaking in English in solidarity with the English-speakers in the room who did not have access to translation of what was being said, or the information that was being presented. This became especially evident during what was undoubtedly the most important part of the day: when three survivors from the McGill chapter of Silence is Violence stood up during the question period and presented their stories, called for their voices to be included in this space, and in one case, publicly called out particular members of the McGill administration for mishandling and/or dismissing their cases – particular members who were sitting in that room right behind them.

This tactical disruption of proceedings was incredibly important and accomplished two pertinent things. Firstly, it linked the situations and concerns that were being theoretically discussed in these presentations and reports to real experiences, and secondly created a dialogue of accountability that hadn’t been in the space before. The dialogue shifted and was picked up by others in the room – how do we hold ourselves accountable as administrators? How do we hold our peers accountable?

I found myself in the absurd situation of having to translate and summarize what the survivors (who had presented in English) had said to the woman beside me who was a representative from a CÉGEP near Mont-Tremblant, and who only spoke French. I’m sure I was not the only person in the room failing to do justice to the powerful words that the survivors had just spoken. There is no doubt that the room was dominated by French-speakers, which is to be expected, however little to no accommodation was made towards Anglophones in the space, including the Anglophone associations who had been invited. This proved especially problematic in the case of the survivors’ intervention, as all three of the women spoke mostly in English. Without live or even whisper translations offered, there was no way to ensure that these supremely important voices were able to be understood by everyone sitting in a room in order to decide what would happen to cases like theirs.

AVEQ has been very involved in this process since the beginning, including drafting a statement with ASSÉ which heavily criticized the lack of student consultation and survivor-centred frameworks within the process of the consultations. I was told later by Perry that AVEQ had also requested several other accommodations which were not met, such as having active listeners in or outside the space, or that there be a way for people to contribute their thoughts or opinions in a way that did not require them to stand up in front of two hundred people and present into a microphone. It is clear that the conversation as to how to truly make spaces accessible to survivors was not one that was had. It is incredibly brave what the survivors from Silence is Violence did — and not something they and other survivors who spoke up during the day should have been forced to have to do. It was incredibly emotional, and because of the lack of supports in the space, the survivors in turn ended up having to comfort each other. Although each of the testimonies was arguably well-received (with Minister Helène David answering each speaker directly – in French — and an encouragement of the dialogue that was brought up made), there is no doubt that in an initiative led by mid to high-level administrators will be lacking in critical understanding. We have yet to see if they follow-up on the points of accessibility, intersectionality and accountability that was brought up in the room.

Now that the formal consultations are over, AVEQ and other student organizations’ efforts are going into affecting the actual outcome of these consultations — the creation of legislation at the provincial level about how to deal with sexual violence on campuses. Quite a few student groups and grassroots organizations who were present at at least one of the consultations are now in the process of writing a letter to the minister of education’s office with their reflections after these consultations: what went wrong, what was done right, what their hopes are for the new policy, and – most importantly – that they expect to be consulted during the drafting. This is crucial, especially as most of the drafting will be happening over the summer (the hope is to have a policy to implement at the beginning of the new school year in September), when many student organizations are their weakest due to the break in the school year and subsequent dispersion of the student body.

Leaving the conference, I felt both invigorated and frustrated. Invigorated because there was a room of two hundred people firmly committed that “c’est assez” (“enough”), and “il faut agir” (“we must act”), but frustrated because of who was leading this action process, once again rendering the incredible labour done by survivors and their allies on a day-to-day basis invisible. Good intentions can only go so far. If we want to make lasting, sustainable change on our campuses that directly addresses the gendered violence that happens on a day to day basis, those changes need to be implemented from the bottom-up, suggested and crafted by those who have been most affected by these systemic issues, not by our traditional policy-writers. This is exactly the same situation we are now facing with SSMU as we enter into the consultation processes for the creation of a new Gendered and Sexualized Violence Policy. We need to make sure that we work to prioritize the voices of those who have been working tirelessly on the ground and who against all odds — lack of institutionalized memory, an administration that dismisses student labour and pats itself on the back for a new policy but has a horribly long history of not believing nor supporting survivors etc – have remained resilient.