News  SSMU forum addresses gendered and sexual violence

Formulating a pro-survivor approach to a systemic problem

On Tuesday April 11, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) and the Community Disclosures Network (CDN) hosted an open forum addressing gendered and sexual violence. The purpose of this forum was to discuss new reporting and recourse procedures for survivors within the context of the SSMU. New measures were outlined, including mandatory response training for SSMU leadership, a “pro-survivor framework”, and a transformative justice approach toward abusers. This presentation was followed by a discussion period, during which attendees gave feedback, asked questions, and introduced their own ideas.

The open forum followed two high-profile resignations within SSMU’s executive team this semester. Within weeks of each other, Ben Ger and David Aird both resigned from their respective posts as President and VP External of the Society amid allegations of gendered and sexual violence. In the wake of these incidents, SSMU has faced intense scrutiny over its failure to handle systemic misogyny more effectively.

At Tuesday’s open forum, a representative of both the CDN and SSMU summed up the current situation: “It is important at this time to recognize that SSMU is complacent, whether intentionally or not, in perpetuating gendered violence. For that we are truly sorry.”

A pro-survivor approach

Following this statement was a presentation that highlighted SSMU’s planned course of action, formulated from information collected in survivor focus groups. This new policy outline rested on what the presenters called a “pro-survivor framework.”

The presenters defined this pro-survivor approach as “[being] able to support the survivor in their experience and assist them in the exploration of avenues as well as acting with integrity.”

“You have to 100 per cent believe the survivor,” a CDN representative explained, “and fully be there for them, and if for whatever reason you don’t think you are able to do that, to […] help them find someone else who could help them navigate any of these avenues.”

“It is important at this time to recognize that SSMU is complacent, whether intentionally or not, in perpetuating gendered violence. For that we are truly sorry.”

The presenters then outlined some concrete measures for implementing this pro-survivor strategy. These included the possible suspension of abusers from SSMU, training for SSMU executives on the handling of disclosures and reports, and the creation of a public guide outlining the disclosure and reporting process.

“We want to really emphasize a step-by-step, ‘if you choose this avenue this is what will happen’ [approach],” explained a presenter. “We spoke about the creation of a guide that will complement [a soon-to-be-developed] policy […] on how to deal with situations of disclosures and reporting.”

Discussing challenges to implementation

The CDN members later facilitated an open discussion with attendees in order to receive feedback and suggestions. The concept of temporarily suspending an alleged abuser from the SSMU became a point of concern.

“I’m concerned that there’d be backlash against the survivor,” explained an attendee. “Let’s say you have this person removed. If you do an investigation and you don’t find anything you can act on and you have to just revert back to the status quo, […] that might make everything worse.”

Presenters were unable to offer a solution to this potential issue, admitting that it must be addressed before a policy is implemented.

The conversation later evolved into a discussion about the role McGill Athletics must take in the area of sexualized and gendered violence. With a history of inaction in cases where players were accused of sexualized and gendered violence, such as in the Redmen sexual assault scandal of 2013, students have expressed concern over the future of disclosures and reporting. One student asked whether or not there were current conversations happening between the administration and McGill Athletics on this topic.

According to a member of the CDN, “one conversation between Athletics and the administration is […] ‘why are you pointing all your fingers at [McGill Athletics] when you have frosh?’”

“There’s kind of an animosity right now,” they continued, “that Athletics is getting a lot of the pressure. […] They’re a little resentful that they […] were targeted first.”

“You have to 100 per cent believe the survivor, and fully be there for them.”

Another student condemned this claim, calling it “deeply problematic.”

“I don’t know how they can continue to have these events functioning the way they do,” the student continued, “and say they care about gendered and sexualized violence.”

The discussion also touched on topics of current and new ways to educate students on sexualized and gendered violence, particularly involving the pre-frosh consent education video and Rez Project.

“A lot of people,” commented The Daily’s reporter, “were way more willing to find ways to get around the video, skip through the video…there needs to be a more full-proof plan of how to get people to [participate in consent training] without finding loopholes.”

Rez Project – the training programme on issues of gender, sexuality, and sexual violence which students in residence are ostensibly required to attend – was criticised for similar reasons.

“It’s a really good start,” said one attendee, “but that doesn’t even address any of the off-campus students or anybody that isn’t in rez, and I know that is a vast majority of students. We need to find something else as well.”

The proposed “transformative justice” approach to taking action against abusers sparked debate. This term was defined by the presenters as “purposely trying to keep someone within the community, but change their behavior,” or more colloquially, “love the person, hate the behavior.”

“I’m concerned that there’d be backlash against the survivor.”

One student saw major faults in this approach:

“At what point, when someone refuses to take responsibility, do you say that transformative justice is not working?” they asked. “Doesn’t [this approach] just open up the possibility of [violence] happening again? […] Couldn’t that possibly be taking advantage of the survivor’s benevolence in the first place?”

“There could be repetition of behavior with either option,” a CDN member responded. “Ultimately, it is a decision the survivor has to make.”

Training measures are also expected to be implemented, according to the CDN. There is a possibility that this training will be added to the workshops which club executives are required to attend in order to maintain “active” status. If the executive members fail to attend these workshops and a club remains inactive for more than two years, the group will lose its club status.

After concluding questions, comments, and remarks, a presenter from the CDN finished the event with an open question to consider.

“Right now we are in a campus crisis” she stated, “How do we continue these conversations when this is not the hot topic in September anymore?”

The final decision was to create a listserv of interested parties to which information could be relayed and conversation could continue into next year.