Struggles won and struggles to come:

Policy against Sexual Violence at McGill

By Zikomo Smith, Sports Editor -- November 30th, 2016
(Lauren Benson-Armer / The McGill Tribune)

“For many of us, we just felt relieved that the policy had passed,” Postgraduate Students’ Society (PGSS) Equity Commissioner Angela Yu said.

On Nov. 22, McGill Senate unanimously passed the Policy against Sexual Violence. Erin Sobat, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) vice-president (VP) University Affairs, felt cognitive dissonance amid the applause.

“There were a lot of congratulations and applause,” Sobat said. “I personally felt a bit of mixed feelings [...] because here are people who rejected a student draft that in some ways had a lot of similar elements just over half a year ago and are now here voting unanimously and espousing the importance of this [….] It is ironic to say the least.”

Sexual violence is undoubtedly one of the most pressing issues on university campuses. A 2015 CBC report found that “more than 700 sexual assaults were reported to Canadian Universities and Colleges” in the five years prior. However, these numbers only reflect officially reported cases; the statistics revealed by university student surveys demonstrate a reality that is much worse. McGill University’s Sexual Assault Climate Survey 2015 reported that 30 per cent of students “have been touched sexually without consent,” 50 per cent have reported “witnessing inappropriate or crude sexist or gender based remarks, unwelcome sexual attention, advances, and request for favours,” and 10 per cent have “experienced violence of a sexual nature.” Furthermore, 31 per cent reported “that sexual violence is a problem on campus.”

For years leading up to the creation of the Policy, McGill students have fought tooth and nail for the university administration to address sexual violence. Survivors have re-lived their trauma by writing articles about their experiences of sexual assault at McGill in order to spur the university towards action. Student advocacy led to the creation of the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students' Society (SACOMMS) in the 1990s. Furthermore, the work of the student-led Sexual Assault Policy Working Group (SAPWG)—formed in the wake of sexual assault charges against three Redmen Football players in 2013 who were still allowed to play on the football team while under investigation—was crucial in the development of the Policy. The group did advocacy work, activism, and helped to develop the policy in collaboration with various student groups and the McGill administration.

It is understandable that students felt frustrated when the former dean of students André Costopoulos and Associate Provost (Policies, Procedures and Equity) Angela Campbell refused to take SAPWG’s proposed Sexual Assault Policy to Senate in March 2016. In an interview with the McGill Daily in April, Campbell said that incorporating the concept of ‘intersectionality’ was a sticking point between McGill and the SAPWG.

Intersectionality posits that one must consider how a variety of social factors—for example, gender, class, race, and disability—interrelate to differentiate the way each individual experiences oppression, including sexual violence. It is just one of many aspects of the Policy; however, the tension over the term is one distinct example of the tug-of-war between the student groups and the administration in producing the policy.

In response to the rejection of their proposal, SAPWG sent an open letter with 1,300 signatures criticizing the McGill administration for not “[prioritizing] supporting survivors of sexual assault […and not recognizing] the ways that institutional sexism, heterosexism, racism, colonialism, classism, and ableism affect individuals’ experiences of sexual violence.”

The initial McGill Draft Policy against Sexual Violence which followed did not explicitly use the term ‘intersectionality’. Campbell originally believed that the word would alienate some members of the McGill community.

“I think at the outset […] my main concern was making sure everybody understood that term,” Campbell said. “It felt elusive to someone who doesn’t have the humanities-based education [....] The initial draft was trying to explain intersectionality without using that word.”

In the months between the draft and the final policy, SAPWG and its supporters such as PGSS and SSMU had to advocate strongly for the inclusion of the concept of intersectionality.

“We had to have some concerted conversations about why [intersectionality] was important if we wanted to be accountable to marginalized groups on campus,” Yu said.

The advocacy was effective. Campbell claims that there has been a change in the way the administration has viewed this issue.

“The discourse has really changed,” Campbell said. “Things are coming up on campus where the term is being used. For example, there is the equity report on systemic discrimination, and there the term is used and explained [....] I think it is becoming more mainstream.”

Sobat concedes that the administration’s attitude towards the issue has changed. But, he believes that this process could have been expedited had administrators incorporated the concept when SAPWG first included it in their proposal.

“I feel the past six months of the policy development has been getting [the McGill administration] to a place of understanding where they recognize that what students are saying is important, not just based on their own feelings, but also on years of [student-led] research, work, and consultation,” Sobat said. “And that is still frustrating for me, that the process went that way.”

In four months time, the policy will come under review with student consultation. Although the exact format is yet to be decided, Sobat hopes that a committee comprised of students, faculty members with research experience regarding sexual violence, and external experts can review the policy at arm’s length from the administration.

“I think the administration, to their credit, has recognized that a policy is not the final point,” Sobat said. “They have committed to this iterative process where there are various review processes built into the policy.”

Likewise, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Dr. Ollivier Dyens claims that McGill will continue to revise the policy.

“Every policy is a living document,” he said. “So a policy is a first step in moving the document, so it is not set in stone forever. This is the first step. We will keep revising it.”

Both students and administrators have acknowledged the need to consult students in the Policy review. It is necessary to prioritize student safety and to address their concerns: In the U.S., a number of universities have sought to protect their reputation at the expense of the survivors to damaging effect. Baylor University went so far as to discourage a student from reporting her case of sexual assault.

Deadspin reporter Diana Moskovitz, who has covered the Baylor sexual assault case, has seen first-hand the effects of administrations that put their own interests over their students.

“There has to be some way of having some level of accountability built in because the powerful people left unchecked in [the U.S.] have a pretty strong history of making really bad, selfish, ill-informed decisions to protect the institutions,” Moskovitz said. “Baylor [is] just [...] the most recent example, but not the first, where left to [their] own devices with no public oversight and no ability to check in, [acted in a way that], when the details come to light, they make you think ‘how could a sane person do that,’ but they did.”

(Albert Park / The Mcgill Tribune)

One way to introduce accountability in Canada is through provincial laws. Some provinces—such as Ontario, Alberta, and Nova Scotia—require universities to develop a sexual assault policy. According to Campbell, Quebec will soon have similar requirements. Sobat is skeptical that provincial oversight alone is the best way to keep universities accountable to their students.

“I think the issue that we run into, and hopefully, we learn from the States, is that the people making decisions in government are not all that different to those making decisions in university administrations in terms of their expertise and understanding of these issues,” Sobat said. “You risk reproducing those structures [when relying on government for accountability….] The most interesting idea I have heard is some community-based accountability model that would have oversight in the university.”

Universities should be accountable to the voices and needs of their students. To this end, it is essential that survivors’ experiences are also taken into account when building effective policies. Two volunteers from SACOMSS facilitated focus groups with sexual assault survivors to receive input from survivors during the McGill Draft Policy review period from Sept. 22 to Nov. 22.

“[The] focus groups [were] a response to that need to centre the responses [of survivors],” Yu said. “If we do want to centre survivor voices, it is important to recognize that different people have different communication styles. Part of centring survivors is recognizing that plurality.”

Heeding student voices will become more important as the study of Sexual Violence at McGill, under the policy as a part of the review process, investigates how the policy harmonizes with McGill’s Student Code of Conduct and disciplinary procedure. In particular, the controversial concept of the ‘McGill Context,’ which governs McGill’s jurisdiction in disciplining students, will need to be clearly defined.

“It has become really clear that nobody who has been working on the policy has a really clear idea of what the McGill context is, and where the expectations of the university apply,” Yu said.

“Students will be consulted,” Dyens said. “The McGill Context is a complicated issue that we need, as a community, to find a solution together.”

In order for effective consultation to occur, it is important that students are able to connect in an empathetic dialogue with members of the administration. Yu believes that some progress has been made in this area.

“What is difficult is when people come into the conversation without [wanting] their minds [changed],” she said. “It is important to find those key administrators who are willing to stretch and have those uncomfortable conversations. Working this year with [Campbell] and [Dr Christopher Buddle, dean of students] was a breath of fresh air. While we do not agree on everything, it feels like there is more of a collaborative relationship there.”

Nevertheless, there is still work to be done: Some students have raised concerns about the policy’s ability to effectively punish perpetrators. This will be a difficult area to review, considering that discipline through the Code of Student Conduct is done on a case-by-case basis, that privileges the privacy of the people involved. This sets up a sensitive situation, as there is a necessity to balance confidentiality with the need to produce data on how potential perpetrators are disciplined.

“The new Office of Sexual Violence Response, Support and Education will be gathering data on items such as the number of disclosures, number of formal reports made, and data about frequency of incidents by different members of the community,” Buddle wrote in an email. “Specific data about dispositions are not always possible given confidentiality, although the major policies that handle Disciplinary Process do report their statistics, publicly.”

The road to developing a working Policy Against Sexual Violence has been beset with frustrations and setbacks. Yet, survivors of sexual assault, their supporters and groups like SAPWG and SACCOMS persisted in their efforts; their respective roles must always be remembered. As the policy is implemented, there will be difficulties and uncertainties, and students will continue to advocate and engage the administration to address the issue of sexual violence on campus.

“There has been a shift where the administration has come to recognise the importance of this policy and mobilizing this issue on campus when rape culture is explicitly and insidiously perpetrated,” Yu said. “There has been stretching and shifting, but that by and large came out of very strong student demands and community demands that required hard work from many people [....] A lot happens behind the scenes. The process has demonstrated [that] it is okay to be ambitious, because that dialogue does make a difference.”


A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Yu and Sobat facilitated focus groups with sexual assault survivors. In fact, Yu and Sobat organized and scheduled the focus groups, which were facilitated by two volunteers from SACOMSS.