McGill’s Office for Sexual Violence Response, Support, and Education (OSVRSE) has long been underfunded and overburdened, indicative of the McGill administration’s failure to prioritize support for survivors of sexual and gendered violence. The office was formed in 2016 by the Office of the Dean of Students (ODoS) under the McGill Policy Against Sexual Violence, and many have since voiced concerns of inaccessibility and mismanagement.
Early in the Fall 2022 semester, OSVRSE closed its operations due to a staff departure over the summer that left one employee working in the office, according to documents recently obtained by the Daily. This information was not made public; there was no email sent or other communication made to the student body that OSVRSE had closed, the website did not indicate that the office had halted operations, and the office’s booking system was kept open. Yara Coussa, collective member of the Union for Gender Empowerment (UGE), founder of McGill Neurodivergent Self-Advocacy Collective, and Queer McGill coordinator, wrote to the Daily to say that stakeholders in organizations catering to gender minorities and women who are more likely to experience sexual violence were not made aware that OSVRSE had closed. “This means that we wrongfully directed numerous survivors seeking mental health support to OSVRSE,” she writes, “I found out the service was not functional by directing a student who needed support to it, which is devastating and unacceptable.” Others, like Arts Senator Sam Baron, as told in a statement to the McGill Tribune, were only made aware of the office’s closure after seeing that bookings were unavailable for the entire month of October.
It was not until December 4, 2022, the day before Fall semester classes ended, that the McGill community was informed that OSVRSE was inoperational. In an email sent to the student body, Dean of Students Robin Beech vaguely spoke of a “long-term plan” that had been delayed by “staffing shortages,” explaining that “an unexpected departure at the start of this semester highlighted the need to implement the office’s planned revamping.” The email further explained that the office would be “revamped” during its closure, a process that would include an expansion from two to five permanent positions, and that “support will be transferred back to OSVRSE from January.” No other details concerning the timeline of the office’s reopening were disclosed. Beech’s email concluded that “you will likely hear more about these developments soon,” but as the Winter semester begins, no further developments have been shared with the McGill community, and there is no indication that OSVRSE will be resuming its operations anytime soon.
Given that OSVRSE was McGill’s primary support service for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence – providing confidential, non-judgemental, and non-directional support, per the office’s mandate – it is deplorable that the university did not give any indication of the office’s closure or provide alternative resources for survivors until months after the fact. Seeking and receiving support from OSVRSE was already a difficult process for many to access and navigate. Attempting to understand this halt in operations without any explanation as to why bookings are unavailable or why the office is not staffed poses yet another obstacle to receiving institutional support from the university. For those seeking urgent care in the wake of sexual violence, this closure is likely to delay progress in an already difficult healing process.
While the ODoS Case Management Team has now temporarily taken on the caseload of OSVRSE, some survivors may feel reluctant to share their experiences directly with the McGill administration. Furthermore, OSVRSE offers psychological support to survivors in the form of counselling, support activities, and workshops. While Beech’s email indicates that those working in the Case Management office can assist with accommodations and priority referral to the Wellness Hub, the Hub cannot offer the same targeted support as OSVRSE. Although the Hub provides mental health services, students face barriers to accessing such care due to staff storages and notoriously long wait times for counselling. While there are other support organizations for survivors on campus, the fact that survivors were not pointed to these alternatives until months after OSVRSE’s closure demonstrates that the university does not prioritize supporting and protecting the well-being of survivors as it claims. Furthermore, the fact that the office’s closure – which was never explicitly stated but instead branded as a “revamping” – was only shared with students over the finals period, when students are generally less tuned into campus events and when student newspapers are in recess and when student newspapers are in recess, seems conveniently timed to prevent backlash and organized response from the community.
As the semester progresses, demand transparency and accountability from the university concerning the closure and restructuring of OSVRSE. Call on the McGill administration to allocate more resources to supporting survivors by creating effective, well-funded, and well-staffed support infrastructure and services. If you are a survivor of sexual violence, you can access support services independent from the McGill administration through the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Student’s Society or through SSMU’s Anti-Violence Coordinators, who can be reached at email@example.com. Other community resources include the Montreal Sexual Assault Support Centre, which is open 24/7. Should you wish to contact a Case Manager from the ODoS, you can contact them by phone at 514-398-1881 or 514-398-4990 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An earlier version of the article stated that there is no indication that OSVRSE will be resuming its operations anytime soon. OSVRSE has since reopened at a limited capacity on January 3, 2023.