Former Students to Take Concordia to Quebec Human Rights Commission

Women Say University Failed Them, Mishandled Sexual Violence and Harassment Cases

  • Concordia’s sexual violence policies received a score of D- minus in a document drafted by 14 student unions. File Photo Claire Loewen

Three former Concordia University students are going to the Quebec Human Rights Commission after they say the university mishandled their sexual violence and harassment cases between 2014 and 2016.

The women, who are going by the names Maria, Cathy, and Felicia, sought the help of the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations to bring their separate cases to the Quebec Human Rights Commission. CRARR is also assisting Felicia in her case against Concordia at the Quebec Administrative Tribunal.

As of Monday, a combined $120,000 in damages is being sought by two of the women. CRARR is awaiting the last bits of information from Maria before officially filing her complaint, according to Fo Niemi, the centre’s executive director.

Niemi says that her complaint will be against her harasser, a student at the university. She is also considering filing a complaint against the university, he says, “for failure to support her and protect her from harassment based on her gender.”

“When the problem arises, they try to sweep things under the carpet,” says Niemi, explaining that the three cases are an example of the university’s “process-oriented” approach to handling complaints.

“There is an organizational culture problem here at this university,” Niemi says. “[Their policies] don’t seem to go to the root of the problem, but look at it in a very superficial way.”

He claims that their policies, including the stand-alone sexual violence policy and recently amended Code of Rights and Responsibilities, serve as boxes to check off.

Melodie Sullivan, the university’s senior legal counsel, argues that is not the case, and what CRARR sees is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of sexual violence cases that are seen and handled by Concordia’s Office of Rights and Responsibilities.

“The big piece that’s underwater is the every day of processing these requests,” says Sullivan.

In the 2015-2016 academic year, 420 university code infractions were reported to the ORR. Of those, 33 pertained to sexual harassment, five of which included allegations of sexual assault. The year before there were 29 reported infractions, four of which involved sexual assault allegations.

Who Can I Turn To?

Since experiencing harassment at the university, all three women have stopped taking courses at Concordia.

Felicia, a former employee of Concordia’s bookstore, says she was fired after telling her manager about being harassed by a coworker and asking not to be scheduled to work with him. That experience has left her unable enter the university without a friend or family member, she says. Last spring was her last semester at Concordia.

“I didn’t have any support. I didn’t know what to do anymore,” she explains. “I was crying in school, I was crying in my classes—it was too much.”

Her grades suffered as a result, necessitating that she apply for readmission to Concordia, she says. And because of her poor GPA, she is unable to transfer to another university.

“I feel like I’m the one being penalized. […] Because [the university] didn’t want to impact his studies, they impacted mine instead.” – Maria

Cathy, who was assaulted on campus by another student in 2015, felt that the decision reached by the student tribunal was a sign that the university did not want her there. They ruled that her harasser would receive 30 hours of community service.

“I remember her saying, ‘They don’t care,’” says James, a friend of hers, speaking on her behalf. “She really felt like they had taken away the thing she had worked for for so long.”

He says that since that decision was reached on May 20, 2016, she has stopped trying to go to school.

Maria, who was harassed by another student for a year and a half, says her GPA fell significantly while waiting for a hearing with the Office of Student Tribunals.

The panel found Maria’s harasser guilty, for which he received a letter of reprimand.

She wishes that she would have received extensions on her midterms, or credits for the classes that she had to miss in preparation for the hearing. She insists that she had two weeks notice to prepare a 300-page evidence package, despite university regulations that say a complainant must submit evidence 20 days before the hearing.

“I feel like I’m the one being penalized,” Maria says. “Because [the university] didn’t want to impact his studies, they impacted mine instead.”

Jennifer Drummond, coordinator of Concordia’s Sexual Assault Resource Centre, says the accommodations Maria sought could have been made.

The university’s sexual violence policy stipulates that the Sexual Assault Response Team, a group formed to help a student navigate a sexual violence complaint, can “contact and work with all relevant departments/units to address related internal issues for the survivor/victim.”

“We encourage people to come to SARC,” Drummond says. “That way, if that’s their first stop, I can coordinate services and support around that person.”

Lisa Ostiguy, Concordia’s deputy provost, emphasizes that the university encourages other on-campus resources to connect individuals with SARC so that Drummond can organize the response team. Those services can be counseling, health services, or security.

That way, Drummond says, they can minimize the number of times a survivor must disclose their story by ensuring they aren’t bounced around from service to service. Maria says that was not her experience.

“I did everything by the book,” she says. “I went on my own and I sought out all the resources the school supposedly has, and I was just ping-ponged back and forth.”

A Failing Grade

Our Turn, an action plan developed by 14 Canadian university student unions, evaluated the schools on how survivor-centric their sexual violence policies are and posted their results on Wednesday. Concordia received a score of D-, or 52 per cent. The just-above-failing grade landed them at the bottom of the list.

The detailed breakdown of the scoring explains that the universities were graded on whether the policies ensure that the complaint will be upheld, no matter if the respondent leaves the school, if online activity is included in the policy, and whether intersectional impacts on sexual violence are considered, among other elements.

Mary-Jo Barr, Concordia’s spokesperson, says there are inaccuracies in the document—Concordia lost six points for reportedly not having a stand-alone policy, which it does—and that they are in the process of following-up with the student groups involved in preparing it, because “it doesn’t reflect” the work that has been done at the university in the last three years.

The Link was unable to reach CSU executive Leyla Sutherland, who was involved in drafting the action plan, for comment.

The Link encourages survivors of sexual violence seeking support to visit the Sexual Assault Resource Centre, located in H-645 at the downtown campus // 514-848-2424 ext. 3461 // sarc@concordia.ca.

More to come on these cases and on-campus sexual violence in The Link’s next magazine, out on Nov. 7.

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