Concordia and McGill Students Stage Walkout to Denounce Campus Sexual Violence

“The Way Sexual Violence Complaints Are Handled Needs To Change.”

Protesters held signs denouncing sexual violence on campus. Photo Jackson Long

When asked if they heard of abusive professors within their universities, about 450 McGill and Concordia students raised their hands.

The sound of students chanting, “This will not blow over! We will not be silenced! I am believed! I am valid! We deserve better!” thundered in the community square of McGill’s downtown campus, in front of the James Administration building on Wednesday.

The Concordia Student Union and the Students’ Society of McGill University collaborated in holding a rally denouncing the way both universities handle sexual assault complaints. One week after SSMU sent an open letter to McGill’s administration calling for an external investigation to be launched into the Office of the Dean of Arts.

“As students on this campus we have a duty to protect our friends, to protect each other,” said Connor Spencer, the vice president of external affairs with SSMU.

Five professors at McGill were recently accused with sexual misconduct on campus, according to the CBC.

SMMU said an external investigation is needed to hold the alleged faculty accountable and to force the university to respond more appropriately to the needs of students.

“That’s why we at SSMU are no longer accepting that the reason for administration’s inaction in addressing problems they are aware of stems from students’ inability to file formal or detailed enough complaints to warrant investigation.”

Spencer told the crowd that when she first came to McGill and was 17 she was sat down with women in their fourth year who warned her about a list of professors and teacher’s assistants to avoid in order to keep herself safe.

Earlier this month, Concordia’s Philosophy department sent a statement students to address recent complaints of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour within the department. The letter didn’t say if any investigations were launched or how many complaints were filed.

“We’re talking about the lives of students, we’re talking about academic success, we’re talking about their mental and physical health, we’re talking about their whole lives and this is not enough anymore,” said Sophia Sahrane, the coordinator for education with the Association for the Voice of Education in Quebec.

Photo Jackson Long

Concordia Association for Students in English believes the English department wants change and said they’re hopeful this change will happen. CASE President Debbie Gemme said it will only begin if Concordia start listening to students.

“We reiterate our demands for a clear and transparent investigative process, for the university to be clear about what constitutes legitimate and defensible evidence in the eyes of investigative authorities, and for faculty members to receive mandatory consent training which addresses the risks of power and power imbalances in student-teacher relationships,” she said.

Spencer said that if McGill doesn’t acknowledge there’s a problem with the existing climate, policy, and procedures on campus and commit to launching an external investigation into the office of the Dean of Arts by Monday, students will be reporting the university to the minister of higher education’s office for being in contradiction of Bill 151, the recently passed provincial act to prevent and fight sexual violence in higher education.

“We will ask minister [Hélène David] to step in and intervene in the continued violence on this campus where you will not,” she said.

Earlier this year, a task force on sexual misconduct was launched at Concordia, having their first public consultation on short notice on March 28.

CSU Academic and Advocacy Coordinator Asma Mushtaq said she and her team have been trying to meet with the Deputy Provost Lisa Ostiguy since October to discuss concerns and recommendations specific to improving the current protections and accommodations for survivors of sexual violence, but said meaningful conversations have yet to happen.

“It’s been quite challenging to move this forward,” she said. “If anything it’s part of a perceived delayed tactic now, because neither the task force process is seeming to lead where we want it.”

“We definitely don’t want the year to end on a neglect on their part,” Mushtaq continued.

Mushtaq doesn’t think that in four months the task force will be able to adequately capture student experiences and concerns. She also said she’s skeptical of the force’s ability to churn out a report on what the climate is at Concordia, and their capacity to make useful recommendations.

She said that asking members for enhanced disclosure is compromising student confidentiality by not knowing who’s going to be receiving these concerns.

“If it’s anonymous then the university doesn’t have someone to respond to but they say they take the concerns seriously,” said Mushtaq.

She also described Concordia’s Sexual Assault Resource Centre as the best thing students have access to, but said the staff there are overworked and the centre is still underfunded. However, Concordia President Alan Shepard recently said the university plans on allocating more resources to the SARC to better serve students.

“Students feel extremely abandoned and gaslit by their institution right now and just how many people were here today shows that,” said Spencer.

She said universities would rather protect their reputation than the wellbeing of their students.