Content warning: sexual violence and assault
On Tuesday, April 17 the executive members of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) and Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) sent a letter via email to Quebec’s Minister of Higher Education, Hélène David, reporting McGill University’s failure to uphold the mandates of Bill 151. Bill 151 mandates that, “higher education institutions must, before 1 January 2019, adopt a policy to prevent and fight sexual violence” and “specifies the procedure for developing, disseminating and reviewing the policy and requires institutions to report on its application in accordance with stated parameters.”
The open letter to Madame David asks the Minister to open an “external investigation on the handling of complaints against academic staff by the Dean’s office over the last five years.” SSMU and PGSS write that this request follows the circulation of SSMU’s open letter, signed by over 2,300 students as well as around 100 student groups and organizations, which was released earlier this month on April 4 and followed by a student walk-out co-conducted by SSMU and the Concordia Student Union (CSU) on April 11.
SSMU and PGSS wrote that “[d]uring the consultations on Bill 151, we expressed our concern: without accountability mechanisms supported by your cabinet, we have no way of ensuring that our institutions respect their own policies, or the law itself.” The McGill Daily spoke with SSMU VP External, Connor Spencer, earlier this year regarding gaps in Bill 151 and its policies.
In the letter, Madame David is urged to uphold Chapter IV of the Bill entitled “Surveillance and Accompanying Measures,” which states that “the Minister’s Office has the ability to impose surveillance and monitoring measures…on institutions that do not enforce the provisions of Bill 151.”
SSMU and PGSS wrote that “[d]uring the consultations on Bill 151, we expressed our concern: without accountability mechanisms supported by your cabinet, we have no way of ensuring that our institutions respect their own policies, or the law itself.”
SSMU and PGSS further cite Section 17 of Chapter 4, which states: “If an educational institution fails to comply with its obligations under this Act, the Minister may, at the institution’s expense, cause those obligations to be performed by a person the Minister designates.”
The email also contained an attachment with a letter from 148 faculty members of McGill University, expressing support for SSMU’s Open Letter.. In the letter, the undersigned members of faculty wrote, “As teachers, we have a commitment to upholding a learning environment where students feel safe, supported, and able to challenge themselves. It would be in violation of this duty for us not to add our voices to those of the students. We believe that sexual relationships between students and faculty who are in a position to influence their academic and professional progress should be banned.”
The letter further states that the “lack of transparency concerning how complaints are handled against faculty members who abuse their positions of power in this way creates a toxic work and learning environment, and often places an invisible burden on other faculty members.”
The signatories include faculty members from the departments of World Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, History, Political Science, Philosophy, Psychology, departments which the student open letter specifically addressed as having certain faculty members who are known to be perpetrators of sexual violence towards students. However, the letter also includes the signatures of faculty members from other departments such as Medicine, Mathematics, Chemistry, Social Work, Education, Environment, and Law.
“I’m here standing in solidarity with close to forty percent of students who have experienced some form of sexual violence at their time in university [a] large majority of them Black, Indigenous and racialized women, trans folk, and gender non-conforming people.” -Sophia Sahrane
Faculty members, like SSMU and PGSS, also call for the launch of an external investigation: “We believe it is not only important for McGill to launch the external investigation called for by the SSMU and the 2000+ individual students who signed the open letter, but to also publicly acknowledge the fact that this issue affects the entire McGill community and the university’s public reputation.”
The open letter to Minister David affirms the commitment of SSMU and PGSS in following through with this request and putting the thoughts and experiences of survivors of sexual violence at the forefront of the movement. “We are ready to meet you in person to discuss this problem in more detail, and we encourage you to put the voices of students and survivors of sexual abuse at the heart of all discussions about violence on campus,” the letter states.
In an interview with the McGill Daily, the VP External of SSMU, Connor Spencer, explained, “we also really need to intersectionalize those conversations […] a lot of the stories that have been getting media attention are the ones led by white women […] and it’s historically not been an issue that white women are leading on […] so there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on that level.”
During the walk-out, Sophia Sahrane, the Research and Education Coordinator of AVEQ, reiterated this point: “I’m here with you all today standing in solidarity with SSMU and the CSU [Concordia Student Union] with CASE [Concordia Association of Students in English] but more importantly I’m here standing in solidarity with close to forty percent of students who have experienced some form of sexual violence at their time in university [a] large majority of them Black, Indigenous and racialized women, trans folk, and gender non-conforming people.”
In a joint interview with CKUT and the McGill Daily, Spencer also explained the nature of McGill being used as an example in the drafting process of Bill 151.
“We are ready to meet you in person to discuss this problem in more detail, and we encourage you to put the voices of students and survivors of sexual abuse at the heart of all discussions about violence on campus,” the letter states.
During consultations regarding the drafting of the Bill, McGill students as well as a McGill administrator in one case, explained to Minister David how certain mandates and mechanisms of Bill 151 failed at McGill, such as the absence of a definite timeline for the survivor whose report is being processed. Spencer said that the Minister responded to these accounts by saying that these McGill representatives should adopt a broader view of things, and not limit the discussion to McGill. Spencer counters, “we do need to talk about McGill and Concordia to see how these policies are working on the ground because there’s still […] that misconception that once we have a policy all the sexual violence goes away.”
“There needs to be accountability mechanisms through Bill 151, because the students don’t trust their institutions to uphold their policies, and the students [who] were telling [Minister David] […] were Concordia and McGill students who already had policies against sexual violence that were not working,” she explains.
“We do need to talk about McGill and Concordia to see how these policies are working on the ground because there’s still […] that misconception that once we have a policy all the sexual violence goes away.” -Connor Spencer
She continued, “I get upset a little bit when the first question [from the media] is always ‘what specifically did they do’ and the sensationalization […] around that. We need to focus on the fact that there […] are complaints processes that are supposed to help folks but instead are retraumatizing them and leaving them abandoned […] I’ve just lost too many friends to this complaint system now […] I know so many people who have dropped out or like stopped their academic careers completely […] because they could not come to this campus anymore. […] I just really don’t want that to keep happening.”