Including the Voices of Survivors

As Quebec Consultations on Sexual Violence Near, No Word Yet on Concordia’s Participation

A study from UQAM in 2017 of six francophone Quebec universities found that of the about 9,600 respondents, about 40 per cent have experience some sort of sexual violence. Graphic Morag Rahn-Campbell

In less than two weeks, a room full of Montreal university administrators will gather to discuss gendered violence on campus.

It will be the latest in the province’s consultations on the matter. These meetings are being used to determine what institutions can do to better prevent and respond to sexual violence, said Higher Education Minister Hélène David in January when the consultations were announced.

The problem is that in the room full of administrators, there doesn’t seem to be any space for survivors of sexual violence, said Concordia Student Union Academic and Advocacy Coordinator Sophia Sahrane.

In response, the CSU passed a motion at their last council meeting on Wednesday, March 8, demanding that the university take the consultations seriously. They want to see the university actively involve individuals with something meaningful to contribute.

There have already been four consultations, one each in Chicoutimi, Sherbrooke, Quebec City, and the latest in Gatineau on March 13. The consultation set to take place in Montreal will be the final one.

Kristen Perry, the mobilization coordinator of the Association for the Voice of Education in Quebec, attended some of the past consultations and said that they surpassed her expectations. AVEQ is the provincial representation of the CSU.

When the consultations were first announced in January, AVEQ released a joint statement with the Association pour un solidarité syndicale étudiante explaining that they “believe that it is not administrators, who have in most cases failed survivors, who should be consulted, but the survivors themselves.”

The statement continued, saying that those with lived experiences with sexual and gender-based violence should be involved in constructing policies that will guide “disciplinary processes.”

In attending the consultations, Perry said that while university administrators still have a strong presence in the meetings, invitations had also been extended to community groups who are actively involved in helping prevent sexual violence and supporting survivors on campus, such as Québec contre les violences sexuelles and Regroupement Québécois des centres d’aide et de lutte contre les agressions à caractère sexuels.

The extended invitations, she said, means that “they have representation, but it [is] representation that’s [been] chosen.”

The process would have been more inclusive if individuals could have volunteered themselves to participate, Perry said.

“In my ideal situation, people would be able to volunteer to come forward and talk about things because often people who would have the most knowledge would not be administrators of schools,” she explained.

That is the CSU’s fear with the upcoming Montreal consultations.

If Concordia only sends administrators to the consultations on the university’s behalf, “then we’re going to have a bunch of white, old men around the table deciding how to prevent gender-based violence against mostly women, trans women and gender non-binary people,” said Sahrane. That’s already been done, she continued.

For years, she said, it has been a group of people discussing and deciding policy surrounding a subject that they often have no lived-experience with.

Those affected by sexual violence, Sahrane said, quoting the musical artist Solange, need a seat at the table.

Their concerns, she explained, stem from the fact that the university has not had open communication with the CSU about the upcoming consultation.

“The university definitely did not speak to us about it,” said Sahrane. After AVEQ had filled them in about the consultations in January, she said they had approached the Centre for Gender Advocacy, who had also been left out of the loop. Stacey Gomez, their action coordinator, explained that they had first heard about the consultations from the CSU.

“The way it’s looking, it might just be pure stance,” Sahrane said about Concordia’s participation in the meetings. “A lot of people see this consultation as an opportunity for the university to just be there like, ‘Look at us. We’re the forefront of sexual assault policy and fighting rape culture.’”

“But what are they doing, really?” she asked.

The university could not comment on how they plan to participate by publication time.

The CSU’s motion addresses this concern by requesting that Jennifer Drummond, Concordia’s Sexual Assault Resource Centre Coordinator, be one of the administrators attending the consultations on the university’s behalf.

“JD is so great,” Sahrane said of Drummond.

“We need to centralize the resources on what sexual assault is and keep it fluid because it changes all the time,” — Sophia Sahrane, CSU Academic and Advocacy Coordinator

Lana Galbraith, the CSU Sustainability Coordinator who drafted the motion, explained that the motivation for the official position came from a meeting of student unions from around Quebec at the University of Sherbrooke.

The unions gathered, she said, to strategize on how to approach the upcoming consultations. The idea was that they wanted to reinforce each other. But, she said, they could only do so if they, as a student union, had taken a formal stance.

“It was a good idea in abstract,” she said of the meeting in Sherbrooke, “but the problem is that we can only agree to things that we have positions for.”

Galbraith also said that at the meeting, it became clear that Concordia is much more advanced than other schools, in terms of preventing gender-based violence and supporting survivors—something that she said is troubling.

“Something that I’ve realized after meeting with a lot of other student unions, is that Concordia is very advanced for supporting survivors,” Galbraith said. “I think that’s really unfortunate, because we’re not doing really great ourselves.”

Last spring, the university released a new policy regarding sexual violence. The problem with the policy, as identified by the Centre for Research-Action of Race Relations, is that it does not override any of the university’s existing policies or frameworks on how to deal with sexual violence.

In addition to the new policy, Concordia University Part-Time Faculty Association collective agreement, the Code of Rights and Responsibilities, and the Policy on Harassment, Sexual Harassment and Psychological Harassment all dictate how the university should deal with these situations. The first three all contain slightly different definitions of harassment, while the last simply refers to a handful of Quebec acts, charters and codes.

“We need to centralize the resources in a policy, on what sexual assault is, and keep it fluid—because it changes all the time,” said Sahrane of the new policy. But, she said, it is a first step and while “the university is slow, but they pick up on these things.”

Perry is equally hopeful. “It’s better than expected, I think,” she said. “Not ideal, but it’s working as it needs to, in general.”

She said that it seems as though the consultations will lead to new provincial legislation that will guide universities on how to deal with sexual violence on campus. Due to differences between each school, she said it can be hard to “legislate specifically.”

Right now, Perry said, “they’re just trying to find out what people want to be included in that law and what would be the best mechanism to prevent sexual violence and support survivors.”