Who’s in Charge And What’s Being Done to Change Its Blighted Culture?
On the front page of asfaorientation.ca, there is a digital clock counting down the seconds until the “Launch Week” for Concordia University’s Arts and Science Federation of Associations (ASFA) on Sept. 3.
The countdown to the annual orientation for first-year students, and the departure from its former “Frosh” moniker, could signal a shift from a hostile and unsafe environment revealed to the local community only last semester.
Media coverage in March exposed that Paul Jerajian and Sean Nolan, ASFA’s former President and VP Social respectively, exchanged sexually and racially explicit Facebook messages about a female colleague with Chinese and Italian heritage in 2013.
The victim, Mei-Ling (a pseudonym to protect her identity), saw those messages on a shared computer in the office. She continued her executive role for the remainder of year, but was denied an honorarium of $1,500 and additional bonus due to minor financial discrepancies on her year-end report.
She didn’t receive her money until January of this year after meeting with ASFA’s financial committee. Since then, she has filed complaints with the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission against both ASFA and the two individuals for discrimination and harassment.
The Centre for Research Action on Race-Relations is representing Mei-Ling as the complainant. Fo Niemi, executive director of CRARR, says they are seeking moral and punitive damages totaling $10,000, as well as assurances that institutional culture changes will occur to address what he labels “systemic discrimination” within the association.
“We don’t want it to be left to individuals,” Niemi told The Link. “[We want] culture change that is conducive to learning, where people feel respected and whole at the university.”
ASFA has agreed to “fully cooperate” in mediations with Mei-Ling, according to a statement recently released and devised by its council. Both parties are waiting for the commission to set a date, Niemi says.
“There is a new leadership and I have faith that they will do their best to restore equality, and work towards changing the culture in a grassroots manner,” Mei-Ling told The Link in an email.
Council’s statement further reads, “ASFA takes responsibility for the environment that its members and Mei-Ling experienced during the years in question, including a racially and sexually aggressive atmosphere.”
Apologies can be made easily, Niemi says. What CRARR is focused on is the student association creating a procedural mechanism that can better protect a victim of discrimination and lead to less retroactive action, he adds.
The newly rebranded orientation begins soon, and Niemi is hopeful mediation starts before then so that “any frosh activity will not carry seeds of sexual bias and violence.”
Council decided against hiring a lawyer and has appointed independent councillor Mariah Gillis and VP External Jenna Cocullo as their representatives.
“[The] best thing we can do is resolve it in a way that helps everyone achieve closure and convince people that we’re really serious about [a culture change],” Gillis said.
The investigation against Jerajian and Nolan is ongoing, and could take anywhere from two to six years for the commission to complete, according to Niemi.
“We believe have enough evidence to support the complaint,” he said.
Since Mei-Ling went through the Dean of Students and the Office of Rights and Responsibility for help, and they ultimately could do nothing, Niemi says that the university is legally liable for negligence. At this point, they have not formally pursued a complaint against the school, but they are still within the time period to do so, he adds.
Melina Ghio, last year’s VP Finance, had a motion to annul Jerajian’s 2014-2015 honorarium, which passed in May. At this same meeting, council spontaneously appointed Ghio as interim president until by-elections in October.
Ghio resigned in July. All executives are on an interim basis due to ASFA’s failure to meet quorum in its March general elections.
According to Lianne Barnes, ASFA’s VP Communications, the interim executive team’s roles are “all over the place” as they prepare for “Launch Week.”
“Losing Melina was a big hit,” Barnes said. “Luckily, she left in the very early stages where nothing was set in stone.”
Negative connotation surrounding the “Frosh” name for orientation led to its change which will subsequently mark a culture shift within all of ASFA, says Barnes, who served as VP External last year.
“I’m hoping ASFA can get positive visibility moving forward,” she said.
“I’m hoping ASFA can get positive visibility moving forward,” VP Communications Lianne Barnes said.
New students bonding through excessive alcohol intake is less of an emphasis for “Launch Week.” Past alcohol-fueled events, such as a pub-crawl or a beer party at an overnight camp, are no longer part of the festivities, according to Barnes.
“It doesn’t have to be just about drinking,” she said. “[We] want to orient them, which is the point.”
The supervision over orientation is also experiencing changes. In the past, ASFA just had volunteer “Frosh leaders” who would be put in charge of groups of “Froshees.” This year, they will also have 30 coordinators to oversee the leaders, according to Gillis, who chairs ASFA’s Sensitivity Training Committee and is part of the Orientation Committee.
Leaders can drink, but coordinators cannot, and their job is to ensure that leaders behave appropriately, Gillis says. Also, all supervisors are now restricted from having sexual relations with “Launch Week” attendees and would see dismissals for violation of this rule, she adds.
The Centre for Gender Advocacy will provide two days’ worth of sexual consent training to coordinators, which coordinators will then in turn help provide for the leaders, according to Gillis.
The Centre will also provide a two-to three-hour consent workshop for “Launch Week” attendees on the first day. This will address last year’s issue of consent becoming an afterthought to the proceedings, according to Barnes.
“It was a ten-minute thing where people were already drinking,” she said. “Before anything starts, they’ll have a sit-down meeting.”
Coordinators will be paid $50 per day for four or five days of work, according to David Ness, ASFA’s VP Finance. Leaders are not paid, but they have reduced admission prices for events, says Cocullo.
Upon request, Ness told The Link he is unsure whether the “Launch Week” budget can be released publicly yet, but that it probably will be before winter. A portion of the budget has been allocated to ASFA’s member associations so that they can hold their own orientation events, according to Barnes.
“[We want] more MA autonomy so they can stand out, and people can learn who they are,” she said.
Multiple sources confirmed with The Link that Ness has been asked by council to step down for breaching procedure with confidential documents. Ness says this is not the case, and that if council asked him to resign, he would, but they haven’t.
“If I resign, all of ASFA’s accounts would be frozen because you need two signing authorities,” he said.
Beyond orientation, parties within ASFA are planning a potential restructuring of the association’s role for its approximately 15,000 undergraduate constituents. For this, it was brought up at a June 18 council session to hire a coordinator, according to minutes taken from that meeting.
On ASFA’s Facebook page, a post advertised the position as aiding the Strategic Planning Committee in a “culture change over the summer.” Requirements included being an undergraduate student and working in student government for at least a year.
Former Concordia Student Union President and current CSU councillor, Benjamin Prunty, has been hired to this position. The same post advertised its pay as $15 per hour for an average of 10 hours weekly, which maxes out at $900. Ness could not confirm Prunty’s contract.
Prunty told The Link that his intention in applying to be coordinator was to help facilitate a visioning process for ASFA. To discover this vision, he recommended the Strategic Planning Committee hire another consultant, Ayla Khosroshahi, who he has previously worked with.
Cocullo is also on that committee, and she says Khosroshahi will act as a “facilitator” in the process of defining a new vision for ASFA. Council still needs to approve these plans, and a potential meeting with executives from all the member associations is in the works for September, she adds.
“I hope to see ASFA give more agency to MAs and take on a more coordinating role to help with finances and events,” she said about her personal vision for the association moving forward.
In the council session where Jerajian was dismissed from his role at ASFA, a motion also passed to have mandatory sensitivity training implemented for all forms of ASFA leadership. As chair of the Sensitivity Training Committee, Gillis says that working on this initiative is postponed until after orientation.
“[It] is a whole other animal and logistical nightmare,” she said.
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