On Monday October 16, The Students’ Society of McGill Undergraduates (SSMU), held an open forum for the development of a gendered and sexual violence policy.
Approximately ten people attended the forum. These individuals were mostly members of student groups such as the Sexual Assault Centre of McGill’s Student Society (SACOMSS) or representatives from campus media. Connor Spencer, the SSMU VP External, was the sole representative of the SSMU executive in attendance. A livestream was provided by TV McGill (TVM) and the video is available on their website.
Spencer, who led the forum, began the discussion by acknowledging Indigenous land rights and discussing the events that transpired last year which catalyzed the campaign for a Sexual and Gendered Violence Policy within SSMU. Spencer referenced the allegations made against former SSMU President Ben Ger and former VP External David Aird, which resulted in their respective resignations.
Spencer made it clear that she wanted the forum to serve as a space for people to air their concerns, discuss rape culture on campus, and explore possible routes SSMU could take moving forward to develop a Sexual and Gendered Violence Policy.
“How are folks feeling about the conversations that are happening on campus? How are they feeling about the conversations that are happening at the [administrative] level? How are they feeling about the conversations that are happening at the grassroots level?” Spencer asked. “Where [does SSMU] fit in between that and how can we construct what we do next around addressing those feelings and concerns?”
Advocating for survivors of gendered and sexual violence has always been a student-led movement at McGill. This work has been done on a volunteer basis, most often by marginalized students.
“Almost always this labour that is done around sexual violence is unpaid, and the folks that are doing this labour are majority women or non-binary folk, and often of color,” said Spencer. “The delegitimization of labour that goes into this work is something SSMU has been complicit in in the past and I really, really hope that moving forward we can find a way to not be complicit.”
“Almost always this labour that is done around sexual violence is unpaid, and the folks that are doing this labour are majority women or non-binary folk, and often of color.”
One attendee raised concerns about the difficulty involved in mobilizing the student body on these issues, and the limited participation by a select group of students.
“The challenge that I see is often in these conversations it’s the same people over and over again,” continued the attendee in question. “A lot of these people have a lot of experience, […] and that’s really great, but something I worry about in these conversations [is] how we get students to actually say what they need, because to me that’s basically what informs us.”
On October 12, SSMU passed a motion acknowledging that rape culture is present on McGill’s campus and within SSMU. According to Spencer, who submitted the motion, she felt it necessary that student union members be conscious of the real impact rape culture has on campus.
“We read the motion, it was voted on, no one had anything to say. That terrifies me,” Spencer continued. “I think the movers and I were a little surprised [by] that, and the speaker did a really great job of [saying] ‘Not just questions or debate about this motion, but would anyone like to make any statements?’ And it was just silence. That showed me that we need to address more [of] the specific things that we as elected student representatives can be doing.”
One member of the audience expressed frustration with the recent defunding of events like Culture Shock and Social Justice Days, suggesting that SSMU should continue to provide funding for programs and events that provide education and mobilize the community.
“The challenge that I see is often in these conversations it’s the same people over and over again.”
Spencer noted that “ideally students will be offered a choice in pursuing a report process when the SSMU policy is put into place.” She continued, “There will be issues in making a policy [due to] lack of resources and a lack of expertise. […] The student executives do not have as much information as other campus groups which are dedicated to gender and assault issues.”
Spencer further contended that SSMU has a responsibility to its constituents, especially because some of its drinking-oriented events pose a particular risk for sexual violence. Some smaller measures have been implemented, namely a blacklist for events. Should a student report to an event organizer that he or she was made to feel unsafe by an individual, or if an event organizer finds that an individual behaved inappropriately at an event, said person would not be allowed at future events.
Dorothy Apedaile, a U4 science student, raised concerns about this issue. “[Something] to keep in mind when looking at these large events is [that] often we come in with the attitude of how we [can] change the entire event, coming in from the outside and not realizing the work that is happening within these circles to combat sexual violence.” She continued, “I worked very closely with the frosh community this summer to bring in new policies for them […] I think there is a lot of movement within these communities to address violence, sexual violence, and the issues that come up [at these campus events]. […] I think they’re sometimes an easy target when we talk about rape culture […] I think it needs to be looked at in the bigger picture, besides just these events on campus.”
“I worked very closely with the frosh community this summer to bring in new policies for them. […] I think they’re sometimes an easy target when we talk about rape culture.”
SSMU has only recently begun to discuss adopting a formal procedure for handling allegations of sexual violence. As it stands, the only resource is a short sexual harassment policy in the SSMU employee manual. Currently, SSMU provides no resources to help members of the student union manage recovery from sexual assault or violence.
Continued discussion on the policy will occur throughout the year in the form of focus groups, forums for survivors, and another open forum.
“The hope is to continue consultations throughout this semester and into next semester, once we get a baby draft,” said Spencer. “We’re still figuring out what that process is going to look like and it’ll largely be informed by what the students tell us.”