Toward an intersectional sexual assault policy

Students criticize the consultation process

Written by Cem Ertekin | Illustration by Stephanie Ngo

McGill has been widely criticized for treating sexual assault cases dismissively, and a student-led Sexual Assault Policy Working Group (SAPWG) has been drafting a comprehensive sexual assault policy for the University since the 2013-14 academic year.

In April 2012, three former R*dmen football players were charged with sexual assault; although the prosecution dropped the charges in November 2014, the plaintiff said that “the way the trial was dealt with wasn’t fair at all.” Students were kept in the dark about the case until November 2013, when an article published by the Montreal Gazette revealed that the three players had been allowed to remain on the team despite an active sexual assault case against them. The SAPWG, with members affiliated with the Union for Gender Empowerment (UGE), the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS), Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG) McGill, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) staff and executives, and other students, emerged following backlash to the administration’s response. The group is still working on the proposal, which has recently been criticized for lacking in intersectionality.

The proposal of a comprehensive sexual assault policy was first announced by student panelists at a Forum on Consent held in February 2014, following the backlash. It called on the administration to develop a pro-survivor sexual assault policy, to ensure that the policy would apply to all members of the McGill community, to create a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator position, and to include measures to build a safer space on campus.

“The policy proposal that was announced at the Forum on Consent laid out the groundwork for what the policy would include, the kind of values it would abide by – [it was] basically a mandate for a policy,” Cecilia MacArthur, SSMU Academic Research Coordinator, explained to The Daily in an interview. According to this mandate, the working group would ensure that the policy be proactive, pro-survivor, anti-oppressive, and accessible.

The next milestone of the project happened in November 2014, when the working group held a town hall to ask for feedback from the community at large. Following the town hall in November, more students became involved with the SAPWG, which started the third and current phase of the policymaking. According to MacArthur, most members of the SAPWG wanted to have the policy approved by Senate by May 2015.

In March, the group reached a critical juncture. MacArthur explained that the working group consisted predominantly of white, cisgender, and able-bodied people, which prompted the SAPWG to seek input from groups on campus that represented more marginalized voices. “We felt like doing anti-oppressive trainings, or trying to think critically, while still being a group with the demographics we had would not be enough to say we had [...] maintained the anti-oppressive pillar of the policy,” MacArthur said.

However, the QPIRG-McGill Board of Directors had substantial concerns about the policy and felt that the push to submit the policy to Senate was preemptive.

“QPIRG-McGill’s Board was concerned about the lack of intersectionality in the drafting of the policy. We’ve been incredibly supportive of and grateful for the work that the working group has been doing, but felt that we needed to push – and still need to push – the [sexual assault policy] to reflect practices around anti-oppression and anti-racism,” said Ella Belfer, a member of the QPIRG-McGill Board of Directors, in an email to The Daily.

“Sexual violence is gendered and racialized, and the [sexual assault policy] needs to be able to recognize and address these dynamics explicitly. While we know it wasn’t easy for individuals in the working group to delay the submission of the policy, we’re optimistic about the efforts that have been made by the working group since our conversations in March,” Belfer continued.

“I think one of the big issues in the way we approached getting feedback last year was that it was very much like, ‘this is the policy, how can we insert these things?’” MacArthur said. “I think we all assumed that they were going to be minor edits when we did our intersectionality consultation.”

According to Talia Gruber, a member of the SAPWG, this problem stemmed from the fact that the SAPWG focused too much on what could be passed at Senate. “We got so focused on what we could pass, what we thought the administration would take from us, that we pushed aside all of the main reasons why we wanted to come up with this policy to begin with,” Gruber said in an interview with The Daily.

Marginalized people are often disproportionately affected by sexual assault. The policy draft from March did not explicitly mention how people are differently affected by sexual assault because of their identities.

“We’re not claiming to be the voice of intersectionality, but to us, and hearing what other people have been saying to us, there’s nothing in this document that talks about how different people with different identities experience sexual assault differently,” Belfer said.

Some also criticized the working group for rushing the policy. In response, Gruber said that trying to work within preexisting frameworks was frustrating. “When you’re trying to work with these policies that are already existing [and] that are [...] not even close to what we need them to be, you want [new policies] to be pushed as soon as possible – work out the details later,” Gruber said. “Then we had to take a step back and say, ‘Whoa, that’s not enough.’ If we’re not taking the time to make this better, we’re failing.”

In an interview with The Daily, Dean of Students André Costopoulos explained the difficult nature of passing any policy through McGill’s Senate.

“This is a major piece of policy that’s going to have major implications within the community and we have to get it right. If you look at the Charter of Student Rights for example [...] it took ten years to get [it] from the first discussions to passing at the Senate,” Costopoulos said.

SSMU VP University Affairs Chloe Rourke, whose predecessors Claire Stewart-Kanigan and Joey Shea were closely involved with the policy, said that it is understandable that members of the SAPWG wanted the University to adopt the policy as soon as possible. “There is a certain urgency to the policy and the need for it. But I think in the end [...] consensus was reached that it’s better to bring a policy later that everyone felt better [about] and [that] was more in line with the values of the working group, than to bring one that was less so,” Rourke said.

The SAPWG has consulted with various groups on and off campus over the summer and plans to spend the rest of this semester improving the quality of the policy. These groups include the Joint Board-Senate Committee on Equity and its subcommittees, the Office for Students with Disabilities, the First Peoples’ House, Accessibilize Montreal, and Concordia’s Centre for Gender Advocacy. The SAPWG’s plan is to bring the policy to Senate by March.

There will be a town hall on intersectionality in the policy on November 19. Furthermore, those who wish to bring their comments to the working group can do so by emailing by November 22, at which point the group will review the comments.