Suzanne Fortier, McGill Principal.

News | Sitting down with the Principal

Suzanne Fortier talks mental health, sexual violence, and fentanyl

On October 27, Principal Suzanne Fortier, Student Services Executive Director Martine Gauthier, and Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Ollivier Dyens sat down with campus media to answer their questions.

Before the question period began, Fortier took the chance to discuss the importance of respect on campus, drawing parallels between conflict and lack of respect in the McGill context and her understanding of the Rwandan genocide.

Speaking of her recent trip to Kigali, capital city of Rwanda, Fortier said, “It is impressive to see a country rebuild itself with a lot of strength and resilience. […] it is a reminder for all of us to be vigilant about respecting other people, no matter what they come from, no matter what their religion is, no matter what their ethnicity is. We need to respect people as equal to us […] when you go to a place like Kigali, or Rwanda in general, you see what happens when you let go of that vigilance, when you let go of those principles. […] Whenever [….] a situation on our campus where I see any signs of this happening, I will not be there watching it passively. We all need to stand up, very clearly, to defend the principles of our university. […] As principal, there is no role in my job that is more important than protecting the principles of our university and making sure that people who come to our university can be assured that they will be treated with respect.”

“When you go to a place like Kigali, or Rwanda in general, you see what happens when you let go of that vigilance, when you let go of those principles. […] Whenever [….] a situation on our campus where I see any signs of this happening, I will not be there watching it passively.”

Bull and Bear (B&B): In September of this year, yourself and Deputy Provost Ollivier Dyens came into a SSMU senate caucus to advocate against the idea of a fall reading week. Why, in your opinion, should McGill be one of the only major universities in Canada to not have a fall reading week?

Suzanne Fortier (SF): We are not similar to many universities in that many students come from outside of the immediate community. […] If you start the semester early or end it later, it has an impact on a very large proportion of our students, and […] when we consult the students, we don’t have unanimous views on whether or not, and how to do it. Some students are worried about paying rent in August, or not having enough time for their holiday break anyway. […] It’s not practical, this is not a cause for us because of practical considerations, and particularly [what] the students we consult share with us.

McGill Daily (MD): We recently recieved a concerning email regarding McGill Mental Health Services. The author says, “McGill has just about eliminated actual treatment services, especially expert psychotherapy services.[…] McGill Mental Health psychiatrists […] are dismayed by recent changes, but are too frightened to act themselves, [therefore] have already left or are planning to leave.” While the new changes involved are well intentioned, students have also expressed discontentment. How does McGill’s administration respond?

Ollivier Dyens (OD): [The author of the letter] has had problems at McGill, […] and I think that would give you some perspective as to who this person is. […] I would find it very interesting that this person tells us what to do at McGill when this person is not at McGill, doesn’t know what’s going on at McGill […] I don’t put a lot of value on what this person is saying, you can look it up for yourself.

Martine Gauthier (MG): Our counselling area is the area that really provides the support for our students, and we’ve increased capacity in that area. We’ve increased capacity for students, […] we’re looking for different ways to expand our services. […] We’d added two case workers […] we’re also going to be adding triage advisors.

“Our counselling area is the area that really provides the support for our students, and we’ve increased capacity in that area. […] We’d added two case workers […] we’re also going to be adding triage advisors.”

Le Delit (LD): So McGill’s policy on sexual violence has been rated a C-, what do you think about this score and how do you plan on making it higher?

SF: We now have a sexual violence policy approved by senate, we were one of the first universities in this province to have a policy. […] It is essential to separate the support that people must recieve right away when they need it, […] from the investigation that must occur. When you’re under a difficult situation, suffering, it’s not the time to assault you with an investigation.

OD: For the first time in our history, there were no reported incidents of sexual assault at Frosh. Somehow, the things we are doing […] are improving. There’s been […] workshops across the university for students. […] The Provost has created an office, we’ve hired another person, there’s an implementation committee that’s been struck, […] there’s also a committee that’s looking at a survey […] these two groups will come together, tell us their recommendations on how to implement many of the recommendations. My concern is not how we compare to other universities, my concern is having the best, safest, most welcoming environment for everyone.

“For the first time in our history, there were no reported incidents of sexual assault at Frosh. Somehow, the things we are doing […] are improving.”

McGill Tribune (MT): In an email you sent to the entire student body, you announced an investigation into allegations of antisemetism at this most recent General Assembly. Can you expand on the mandate of that investigation, and also verify whether you are investigating whether SSMU breached it’s charters or bylaws?

SF: It’s an allegation [of antisemetism], and we have to do the fair thing, and investigate. But I think we have to ask ourselves, how many people on our campus are subjected to situations that are discriminatory, disrespectful, and so that’s a longer piece of work that we need to do, and that’s why the task force has been set up. […] We have a person with whom we will discuss the exact process of the investigation, and the scope of the investigation. […] If a similar situation occurred where all the women had been voted out, I would do the same thing.

B&B: Given the fentanyl crisis that’s currently going on, what steps have been taken to address the Quebec government’s policy on who can distribute Naloxone kits?

MG: Dr. Hashana Perera, who is our director of Health Services, has been very active on this front, and actually began preparations this summer as she saw the trend moving east. So this week we actually finished training, we have as of this week trained a hundred people to actually administer Naloxone. […] Our McGill Student Emergency Response Team (MSERT), […] security, […] floor fellows, […] residence life managers, […] night stewards. We have over 100 […] antidotes on campus.

“This week we actually finished training, we have as of this week trained a hundred people to actually administer Naloxone. […] We have over 100 […] antidotes on campus.”

MD: Issues of allegations of sexual assault against a McGill professor have been unresponsive, relatively, and students investigating sexual violence at McGill are constantly being stopped by the administration. Holding abusive professors accountable is just as important as investigating allegations of antisemetism, why is this not taking place?

SF: People at this university are not fully aware of the laws of our country and province, regarding privacy and access to information. […] When it comes to access to information, there are certain things that are to be kept private. You will not hear about investigations […] the absence of information does not mean the absence of investigation. […] If people ask us questions that we cannot answer, publicly, that is because we have privacy legislation that we must abide by.

B&B: Accessibility is a major concern for students with injuries, or simply mobility issues on campus. What can be done to improve accessibility on campus?

MG: In our OSD, McGill reinvested almost a million dollars. […] We hired a number of positions, among them an accessibility officer. [He] knows our campus very, very well, and is working with another advisor, who is a gentleman who uses a wheelchair, and together they have been […] identifying areas that could be improved through very simple methods.

MD: You mentioned that while we dont hear about [investigations regarding sexual violence], it doesn’t mean that there is no investigation. But we’re talking about multiple faculties, with a range of—

SF: Let me put it very simply. If there is an allegation, a serious allegation, we do investigate. I don’t want to talk about a specific case here. I’ll talk in general. If there’s a serious allegation, we will investigate. Now, we will investigate in the context in which we live, which has a respect for privacy, and a respect for […] universal justice. […] Sometimes people in society in general, and at McGill, want to have a public disclosure when this is not allowed, not permitted, and not appropriate.

“If there’s a serious allegation […] we will investigate in the context in which we live, which has a respect for privacy, and a respect for […] universal justice. […] Sometimes people in society in general, and at McGill, want to have a public disclosure when this is not allowed, not permitted, and not appropriate.”

MD: Yes, I agree with you that we should work within the rules, and privacy and rights are very important, but at the same time, what we’re seeing is recurring patterns of professors. It’s almost become common knowledge to students, and—

SF: This is what you’ve heard. […] If there are serious allegations, we will look into it […] within the authority that we have in a university. We are not a court of law. We are a university. So let’s make sure we understand where we have authority, where we don’t, what we can do, what we can’t. This is the context here.

“We are not a court of law. We are a university. So let’s make sure we understand where we have authority, where we don’t, what we can do, what we can’t. This is the context here.”


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