On October 11, Our Turn, a national student-led action plan to end on-campus sexual assault and gendered violence, hosted an information session with the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) to announce the organization’s launch. Our Turn is a coalition started by Carleton University students who felt that the school’s sexual violence policy was insufficient. So far, 14 universities from eight provinces have signed onto the action plan and committed to creating their own task force to combat gendered violence and sexual assault on campus.
The speakers at the information session included SSMU VP External Affairs Connor Spencer, Student Life Coordinator for the Concordia Student Union (CSU) Leyla Sutherland, and Our Turn national committee members. Representatives from student groups like the Sexual Assault Center of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS) and the Community Disclosure Network (CDN) were also present.
Spencer discussed the importance of the work already being done by grassroots organizations on campus, emphasizing that activism around this issue has always been student-run: “What was really exciting to SSMU about the Our Turn project […] was that it took grassroots initiatives that were already happening on campus […] and [gave] them the tools and the resources that they need.” Spencer said. “What’s really important within that is recognizing that on this campus especially the movement around sexual violence has always been student-led.”
“What’s really important within that is recognizing that on this campus especially the movement around sexual violence has always been student-led.”
Sexual violence at McGill
Spencer and the representative from the CDN addressed the McGill context, explaining why this conversation is especially important now, and why SSMU is taking steps toward a gendered and sexual violence policy separate from the university.
“Here at SSMU we have a very specific context. For those who are not from McGill you may not know but […] we had a rough year last year,” said Spencer, referring to the resignations of David Aird and Ben Ger in March 2017. Aird was last year’s VP External Affairs, Ger was SSMU President — both were publicly accused of sexual assault. “Like a lot of campuses across Canada we had a bit of a crisis, and it was decided […] that this needs to be a conversation now.”
The CDN was formed to specifically address the allegations towards David Aird and to pursue alternative justice for the women he assaulted.
“We initially formed as an ad-hoc group created by survivors and their allies in order to pursue action against a specific individual through a third-party reporting system after finding traditional avenues of justice to be insufficient, explained the CDN representative.
The representative who spoke at the event was also one of the women Aird assaulted. Her experience following the assault highlighted the continued failure of the university in holding students accountable for their actions.
“I desired anonymity but found that that wasn’t an option in traditional avenues,” she said, “and at the time as now I had no faith that the process at the level of the university as it stood would be survivor centered or guarantee my visions of justice, or would ensure my safety and comfort on campus and I didn’t know what to do and I felt really alone.”
“At the time as now I had no faith that the process at the level of the university as it stood would be survivor centered or guarantee my visions of justice, or would ensure my safety and comfort on campus and I didn’t know what to do and I felt really alone.”
Looking forward, she emphasized the need for a revised sexual assault policy at the university level, but also recognized that this will not be the complete solution:
“I hope that McGill and campuses across Canada can [improve] the mechanisms of justice and accountability. We know it’s going to take more than a policy to combat sexualized and gendered violence on university campuses […] but to our minds at the CDN, without a policy that supports survivors who seek out institutional processes, there can be no justice.”
McGill’s policy graded a C-
As a part of its launch, Our Turn graded the sexual violence policies at the universities that have signed on to the Action Plan. McGill received a C- because the policy is not a stand-alone policy, and does not provide any avenues for justice if someone is assaulted by a faculty member.
“I hope that McGill and campuses across Canada can [improve] the mechanisms of justice and accountability. We know it’s going to take more than a policy to combat sexualized and gendered violence on university campuses.”
Spencer referred to the risks of conflating sexual assault with academic infractions, as academic officers are not trained with dealing with sexual assault, “[The policy] refers to the code of student conduct, which means that the same people that are doing the discipline for academic infractions, are […] reviewing sexual violence cases, and that the sexual violence cases are going through a document that was written specifically for academic infractions, which is the code of student conduct” said Spencer.
The conversation then turned to the broad mandate of Our Turn, and the work being done to combat gendered and sexual violence. “We really want to work on continuity so being able to have a […] an action plan in place that can be used to process and function in different cities on different campuses,” said Caitlyn.
The discussion ended on a positive note, with the speakers looking forward to positive change in the future – “All students deserve to feel safe on their campus and all students have a right to a campus free from sexual violence.”