Editorial: We Need a Code that Better Supports Sexual Violence Survivors

  • Graphic Laura Lalonde and Graeme Shorten Adams

Concordia University released a report this past Wednesday outlining recommendations to its existing sexual harassment policy, which President Alan Shepard said would hopefully be fully implemented by the end of the school year.

In the 17-page report, a working group of different university representatives—led by Deputy Provost Lisa Ostiguy—recommended increasing resources for the Sexual Assault Resource Centre, implementing yearlong consent and rape culture training, redesigning a new centralized web hub of resources and creating a standalone policy on sexual violence.

This is all good news that The Link endorses, but there are past and current complaints of sexual violence still largely unaddressed by the university’s existing procedures and policies.  

The working group does recommend reviewing the school’s Code of Rights and Responsibilities—which outlines informal or formal complaint processes—for “potential inequities” regarding the “time delays, representations and appeals process.” Concordia will also look into the response time for cases of sexual violence at the Code’s next regular review process. Which is also good, but this implies that the Code, as it is, is problematic.

In fact, in the past few years there have been at least four cases of sexual violence complaints received by the Office of Rights and Responsibility (ORR) that it ultimately could offer little to no help with. One of the cases is the well-publicized sexual and racial harassment that Mei-Ling suffered as an executive with Concordia’s Arts and Science Federation of Associations.

Another case, which appeared in a Montreal Gazette story published in May, involves a student under the pseudonym “Cathy” that made a formal complaint with the ORR after she says her ex-boyfriend assaulted her twice on campus. Following police intervention and reinstatement of a past restraining order, Cathy realized she was no longer safe at school and made a formal complaint against her former partner on March 24.  

A tribunal panel hearing of students, as outlined by the Code, was set for Sept. 8, but will now be postponed until the criminal proceedings are resolved. Cathy is not enrolled in classes this semester. She fears for her safety while her ex remains a student at Concordia.

The university is directly implicated in Cathy’s decision to postpone her schooling. A five-month delay to attempt resolution is unacceptable to begin with. Now an indefinite period could put her academic career at Concordia in jeopardy. Within the Code, it even states “a Hearing Panel shall be convened as soon as possible after receipt of the notification by the Secretary and normally within 20 Days.”

Reasoning for the delay is not fair. The Link won’t argue for or against the merits of court or tribunal rules and procedures, but certain circumstances which disproportionately affect groups like survivors of sexual violence should be prioritized.

Common sense is required. The student feels unsafe. Resolution is needed now.

Until recently, Cathy’s restraining order almost became a roadblock, since she and her ex can’t be in the same room for the tribunal. This was solved by having her advocate attend the hearing for her. And, oddly, complaints can’t go forward during final exams—usually in April, or the summer months of July and August.  

Cathy also said that ORR informed her no disciplinary action could be taken against her ex-boyfriend without a formal complaint. This statement appears outright wrong, considering an emergency protocol exists to handle this type of dangerous situation.

The Protocol on the Coordination of Urgent Cases of Threatening or Violent Conduct is “designed to ensure that the responsibility for decision-making is vested in the hands of management.” For “incidents of threatening or violent conduct,” the protocol outlines how an advisor should investigate the situation, collect information and provide any type of support for the student, even temporary leave.

It is unknown why this emergency protocol was not used to protect Cathy and remove the onus of filing a complaint and formally confronting someone who is threatening her livelihood.

It is also unclear why so much pressure is put on a complainant—who is once again in a distressing, dangerous situation—to practically conduct their own investigation.

In the Code, it states that the complainant must consult and bring any individual that could help their case, while they are also asked to provide additional documentation as evidence before tribunal. They basically have to lawyer for themselves, unless they obtain a student advocate through one of two advocacy centres on campus. This is not required, however.

Can Concordia not appoint a qualified representative to conduct an investigation for all complaints—or at the very least for those of a violent and dangerous nature? At the University of British Columbia, this is exactly how discrimination and harassment complaints are dealt with.  

Within UBC’s own code of procedures, it states that after an individual submits a complaint, a representative from its Equity Office can choose to conduct an investigation involving consultation with the complainant, respondent, university faculty and relevant documents.

Once concluded, the representative will offer recommendations on how to further proceed. At no point does the complainant have to do anything more than provide their account of events for the representative to review. It makes no mention of having to appear in front of a panel to plead one’s case.

Concordia’s Code needs reform. The recent sexual assault policy review says as much, but it leaves any potential change to the Code’s next “regular review.” It is not known yet when this will happen.

Hopefully, it’ll happen within the year, but it would probably require its own working group to review the 34-page document over the next months.

Until then, nothing is preventing survivors of sexual harassment and assault from feeling like they’ve been failed by a system that ought to protect them.

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