Mei-Ling Is Not Alone

Student Politicians Speak Out About Racism and Sexism at Concordia

  • Graphic Laura Lalonde

I.
“I had absolutely no idea that it would be that bad.”

That’s how Mei-Ling, an anonymous former student politician, describes working at Concordia’s Arts and Science Federation of Associations, a body that represents over 15,000 students.

Now she’s filing a complaint to the Quebec Human Rights Commission for discrimination and harassment.

In March 2014, Mei-Ling sat down at one of the communal computers in the ASFA office for printing. That’s when she noticed the vice-president of social affairs was still logged onto Facebook. And she found conversations about her between him and the president of the association.

The conversations included things like: “I’m going to try to fuck her at the first meeting,” and “Well whatever, if she doesn’t suck our dicks: impeached.”

This particular conversation happened before the executives had all met. “They had only seen my photo,” she said. “I was one-dimensional.”

At one point, later on in the thread, they referred to her as a “chink slave.”

“The terms were so explicit I didn’t feel human,” Mei-Ling said. “They described me as a sex object, a bird—I’m not even kidding.”

When Mei-Ling found the messages, she went to the Dean of Students. There, she was told that her story was a common one in student associations. Also, the Dean couldn’t help her without a quote from the Office of Rights and Responsibilities.

That quote arrived during that same meeting, and it said the conversations were private and Mei-Ling was alone to handle the situation.

So she went to the Centre for Gender Advocacy, and the Legal Information Clinic, and eventually was referred to Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), which filed the human rights case.

She’s seeking moral and punitive damages. But she’s also demanding mandatory sensitivity training on race and gender for ASFA execs for the next two years.

Mei-Ling says after she found the messages she stopped going to the office in the daytime. She asked her parents to accompany her at night, because she was afraid something would happen to her. But she was determined to complete her projects and her mandate, which ended in May.

She says the behaviour extended beyond a Facebook chat.

She described ASFA as a “toxic, blatantly misogynistic, sexist, racist environment that stifled how student leaders should be creating positive change.”

Other ASFA executives and councillors told The Link they had seen signs of this toxicity, but had no idea it had been so bad. They described ASFA as a “fraternity,” a “boys club,” full of “beer-pong culture.”

Most sources were also quick to point out that not everyone at ASFA shares the mindset of these two executives. There’s an expectation for council to act. Quickly.

The next ASFA council meeting is on April 9 at Loyola, but a petition is circulating to have it held downtown instead.

“Mei-Ling somehow became an outsider in this very clique-y political world that is ASFA,” said Vithu Namasivayam, president of the Urban Planning Association. Even now, some Member Associations are blaming the current situation on her character.

Combatting racism and sexism within the organization should be a priority, he said. “If there’s a place that we should start, it’s probably here.”

One former ASFA member described student leadership as a “high,” a popularity contest of who could get laid more.

“It wasn’t a safe place for women,” one ASFA representative said. And although she never felt threatened, she did feel disrespected as a woman.

“I know [one of the executives involved], and I know that he isn’t sexist or racist,” she said, admitting that this “unsafe” culture is normalized.

What is agreed is that the federation and university need to send a clear picture that this is not okay.

“This is not about being politically correct, it’s about complying with the Quebec Charter of Human Rights,” said Fo Niemi of CRARR, the civil rights organization.

Mei-Ling asked that her real name not be used, because she does not want to be targeted for cyber bullying, or have this case follow her in the future. She is also still a student at Concordia.

But she says she already felt bullied at ASFA.

“They made it very, very hard for me to complete things,” she said.

At the end of her mandate, Mei-Ling was accused of financial mismanagement because her budgets hadn’t been properly updated.

The ASFA council suggested cutting $500 from her honorarium for a deficit in her portfolio that added up to $91.

At the final council meeting, Mei-Ling was called out for: 1) not holding events in the original budgets, 2) going over-budget for events and 3) holding events not included in the budget.

She was the only executive to have her finances scrutinized.

Mei-Ling had submitted requests for quotes regularly about her spending and kept receiving different numbers.

“I wasn’t just making expenses left and right,” she said. “I thought I was on the right track.”

When she first heard from the finance committee that her budget was out of order, she says she filled out the forms immediately to fix it. She never heard back from the committee.

In the end, council agreed to give executives their full honorarium of $1,500 for the year. But Mei-Ling didn’t receive her bonus—meanwhile, the president received a bonus of $3,000.

According to ASFA bylaws, “each Executive may also receive a bonus of up to $1,500.00,” as decided by the council.

Mei-Ling only received her honorarium two months ago—even though her mandate ended in May.

The men involved in the Facebook conversation, and other current ASFA executives did not respond to The Link’s request for comment.

These cases are not exclusive to ASFA.

Jane was a former student representative for the Concordia Student Union and would often work on the computers at the union’s office.

After leaving her email open one day, another person at the union found photos of her without clothes on and distributed them around the office.

She found out months later. She was horrified. She wanted answers.

“I really hoped it wasn’t true,” she said.

She confronted the person that had been blamed. “It wasn’t me,” he told her. “But I’m really glad I got to see those pictures.”

Eventually, she learned it had been the doing of an executive. But this came after they told her to “calm down.”

After requesting some sort of action from the CSU and the university, the Office of Rights and Responsibilities finally agreed to hear her case. But by then she felt hopeless and dropped it.

“For every person that comes to lodge a complaint, there are many who will not,” said Anaïs Van Vliet from the Centre for Gender Advocacy.

They call the current complaint procedure incredibly complicated, with an emphasis on mediation.

“Which can be really tricky if you’re someone who has experienced violence,” said Van Vliet. “That you’re being asked to meet with the person that has harmed you, to try to come up with some sort of resolution.”

If Mei-Ling’s case proves anything, it was the reason why victims don’t report, they said.

“Something that we have to remember is that this is not an isolated case,” Anne-Marie Roy said. “This is something women face everyday in positions of leadership.”

Roy is the president of the University of Ottawa’s undergraduate student association. In February, she was sent screenshots of a Facebook conversation between male students with graphic sexual descriptions about having oral and anal sex with her.

Although this isn’t restricted to campus life, Roy says it’s important that, moving forward, universities take sexual violence and sexism seriously.

“I think the message that universities send women across Canada is that they’re more concerned with the success of young men than they are with the safety of women on their campuses,” she said.

The University of Ottawa doesn’t have a stand-alone sexual assault policy, but has adopted recommendations that include having mandatory courses around sexual violence.

Before that, approaches to sexual violence hadn’t been focused on survivors experiences, Roy says. Victims face legal threats if they come forward. “The legal system empowers perpetrators of sexual violence over those who live it.”

Roy’s case included five past and present student leaders in the conversation. She received the screenshots anonymously, and was threatened with a lawsuit after copies of the messages were distributed at a board of administration meeting. Her story spread across the nation.

“If these guys weren’t threatening me legally, I’m not sure reporters would have been as interested in the story.”

“The university has to understand that it’s not a question of damage control. It’s not a question of just Mei-Ling,” said Gabrielle Bouchard, the Centre’s Peer Support and Trans Advocacy Coordinator.

“Mei-Ling is just one person who was in a good enough space in her life to be able to speak of these things.”

“Mei-Ling somehow became an outsider in this very clique-y political world that is ASFA,” — Vithu Namasivayam, president of the Urban Planning Association.

II.
This isn’t the first time ASFA execs have been called out for downplaying harassment. In August, a debate over the necessity of a three-hour consent workshop led to an apology letter written to the Gazette by the president of ASFA.

“We are working hard to prevent any occurrences of sexual violence at our events, and to educate our peers about the issue,” he wrote.

ASFA then partnered up with the Sexual Assault Resource Centre and SextEd, an anonymous mobile sex education service.

When asked about implementing mandatory consent workshops in residences, President Alan Shepard told The Link in September that “saying it’s mandatory, in my view, actually can diminish its effectiveness.”

McGill residences already run a mandatory three-hour workshop on gender, sexual identity and sexual assault through the Rez Project.

“The worst thing is silence,” said Bouchard. “Right now, we’re in structures that encourage silence.”

What is the solution? Bouchard says creating a safer university means having open conversations and mandatory training.

“It’s about providing an environment that is respectful and safe, and safety can be psychological,” said Niemi.

The University of Oklahoma recently expelled two students for leading a racist fraternity chant and closed down the fraternity. These actions took two days.

But the university is also being criticized for handing out a lighter sentence of a year-long suspension to football star Frank Shannon, who was accused of assaulting a female student.

In the winter, explicit and violent posts to a private Facebook group about female dentistry students at Dalhousie became a national issue.

Dalhousie University has been criticized for imposing a restorative justice program, when not all the women involved had agreed, and removing information online that could identify the students in the group.

The Center for Research-Action on Race Relations wants the university to enforce the student code of conduct and operate with zero tolerance for racism, sexism and homophobia.

“I would like to see the president of Concordia come out and say, ‘No, we shall not tolerate this kind of conduct,’” Niemi said.

The Centre for Gender Advocacy has already submitted an open letter to President Shepard, offering to bring back the consent workshops to residences. The workshops were given to students at Grey Nuns in the fall of 2012 for the first and only time.

The fact that these things are happening within student associations should not be a reason for the university to step back, according to former CSU president Melissa Kate Wheeler.

“These assaults are happening largely on campus and Concordia has to take responsibility for that,” she said.

Wheeler is among others demanding harsher punishments and a hard stance against racial and gender violence and discrimination.

“This is an epidemic on a lot of campuses, and Concordia is no exception,” she said. Many students come from out of town and Concordia becomes the only place they think to turn to, she added.

“The creation of the Sexual Assault Resource Centre was a very good first step, but in its current state it’s nowhere near enough.”

The day after Mei-Ling’s story was published in the Gazette, a Facebook page called “Not Safe at Concordia” was created. On Monday it had over 680 likes. Wheeler is encouraging victims of assault and harassment to share their stories confidentially through the page or with mystory@genderadvocacy.org.

Since the Gazette reported on the story, the university has taken an informal stance against misogynistic and racist behaviour.

President Shepard has outlined in an open letter that safety is “paramount,” and that the university has reached out to Mei-Ling.

In the fall, an investigation by the Toronto Star revealed that only nine out of 102 post-secondary institutions in Canada have a special sexual assault policy—which is supposed to provide clear guidelines when dealing with issues of sexual violence.

Since then, Ontario colleges have adopted a policy and the University of Ottawa accepted 11 sexual violence task force recommendations.

A review of Concordia’s sexual assault policies was launched in December. Concordia’s current code of rights has no mention of sexual assault.

Chris Mota, the university’s spokesperson, said an initial review of a sexual assault policy has since broadened to include sexual harassment.

“They’re also going to look at our processes. If this student didn’t get the kind of advice or if we weren’t as clear as we could have been, we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” she said.

She has said Concordia will work on ensuring that students get the information they need, giving them a “very clear roadmap of where to go.”

But until the recommendations are made by the end of the semester, there’s no word on implementing consent workshops.

“Lets see what the recommendations of the deputy provost’s working group come up with,” Mota said.

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