On December 6, 1989, a lone gunman walked into a class of engineering students at École Polytechnique, separated the men from the women, and killed 14 women. The event would eventually come to be known as the Montreal Massacre. Among other details that came to light were the gunman’s hatred of women, as well as a list of notable women in the public sphere he planned to kill. This act of violence against women took place at a Canadian educational institution and was committed by a man who observed women making progress in a field traditionally dominated by men.
Following the tragedy, feminists and women’s groups offered an analysis of the Montreal Massacre as a political act of misogyny and continue to organize women to the anti-violence movement. In 1991, the Parliament of Canada declared December 6th the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, connecting sexist violence to women’s inequality. Moreover, the tragedy served as a stark reminder of campus safety within educational institutions, and their broader role in advancing the status of women.
Despite this history and the lessons learned, the state of sexual assault on Canadian university campuses to-date demonstrates that there is still much work to be done.
Recently, influential Canadian authors came to the defense of notable writer Steven Galloway, who was suspended from his tenured position at the University of British Columbia after a female student made sexual assault allegations against him. Signees offered no support to the complainant, nor acknowledgement of the harms caused to her.
Male dental students at Dalhousie University caused outrage after misogynist messages about their female classmates in a closed Facebook group were discovered. All the men responsible for the comments continued their studies alongside the women they intimidated, degraded, and embarrassed.
In 2015, the University of Ottawa’s varsity hockey coach (who has since been fired) found out members of his team sexually assaulted a young woman. He thought it adequate punishment to administer a three-game suspension. The entire varsity men’s team knew about the event and did nothing. A third party report alerted the university administration three weeks later, and the hockey players will stand trial next year.
Our own university is not an outlier to this disturbing pattern. In April 2012, three McGill football players were charged with sexually assaulting a female student from Concordia University. All three men were permitted to continue both their studies and their athletics, despite widespread student outrage and protest. Since then, other students have come forward with experiences of sexist attacks involving members of the McGill community, intensifying discussion around what role academic institutions ought to play fighting rape and sexual assault.
Advancing women’s equality at McGill University
The discourse on sexual assault continues to evolve as we deepen our own understanding of violence against women as a symptom of women’s inequality. Thanks in part to the work of the Sexual Assault Policy (SAP) Working Group (an active student body) and the willingness of the McGill Administration to listen to students, a rich and dynamic discussion on the issue of sexual assault on campus has been ignited.
We are encouraged by the pro-survivor spirit adopted by McGill’s newly instated Policy Against Sexual Violence. The fact that women are not responsible for the sexist attacks committed against them is now widely acknowledged, whilst victim-blaming remains a familiar and openly rejected practice. We say this as a group of women in academia who have a stake in how our campus responds to sexual assault, and as women who are in a place and position to promote a fair and equal society.
Collaboration among McGill community members who share a vision for women’s equality and safety is crucial in allowing progressive solutions to emerge and develop. As women currently studying at McGill University, these are the principles we prioritize for this vision:
1) We are committed to the safety of our learning environment.
2) We are committed to equitable treatment and access to opportunities for women.
3) We are committed to the social and political advancement of all women.
4) We recognize the need to address the intersection of sex, gender, race, class, ability, and sexual orientation in all aspects of women’s equality.
The way forward toward a society free of sexual assault will evolve and become clearer as more and more people contribute to this important dialogue at McGill. In their letter accompanying the new Policy, Provost and Vice-Principal Academic Christopher Manfredi and Associate Provost of Policies, Procedures, and Equity Angela Campbell state that the University will “further commit to reviewing the policy on an ongoing basis,” taking note of the follow-up study and recurring reviews that have been built into the policy.
As a group of McGill University women looking to advance this iteration of the policy, we wish to add to that dialogue in the interest of all women on campus — including ourselves.
Considerations for advancing and implementing the policy against Sexual Violence
1) Recognize sexual assault as an issue of male violence against women, facilitated by women’s inequality. Those who commit sexual assault are overwhelmingly men, and those who are targeted for sexual assault are disproportionately women. In Canada, one in three women will experience some form of sexual violence over her lifetime. Canadian data published in 2011 revealed that 99 per cent of sexual assaults were perpetrated by men. This is a trend that has been recognized by educators elsewhere. In considering the objectives and implementation of this policy, it is important to resist the temptation to de-gender sexual assault. We must also acknowledge that sexual violence targets disproportionately those who are racialized, those who are poor and working class, those of marginalized sexual orientations, and those who are disabled.
2) Hold perpetrators of sexual assault accountable. No policy ever emerges fully formed or perfect. As the discussion of a “pro-survivor focused model” against sexual assault progressed, one troubling oversight became clear: the perpetrators of sexual violence and the responsibility they bear in committing sexist behavior are disappearing from the discussion. While the policy’s use of a “pro-survivor” framework is crucial in highlighting what the survivor can do following sexual assault, the policy must also consider the second half of the equation — what must be done to hold perpetrators of sexual assault, accomplices, and bystanders accountable for their actions.
McGill has a commitment to providing a learning environment that is safe for all students, including women. Though we recognize that the university has neither the responsibility nor the jurisdiction in criminalizing offenders, it does have considerable influence as to whether a survivor chooses to access the legal system.
The university also can affect the success of an impending investigation, through supporting and cooperating with this process. We must enhance the university’s procedures with regard to holding perpetrators accountable — no matter what institutional power, rank, or prestige they hold — to the extent they are able to as an academic institution. We are pleased to see that the university will take steps to limit the power and access of the perpetrator over those they have attacked (many of which are detailed in section 19). We want these considerations to be taken into account before, during, and potentially after the university’s investigation is mounted.
3) Continue to improve sexual assault complaint procedures. The process that the university, staff, and faculty use to respond to and support the person reporting sexual assault must be further refined and improved. We applaud the work of the university and the students towards developing guidelines and protocols for reporting sexual assault at McGill university. We also support the creation and allocation of resources to the Office for Sexual Violence: Response, Support, and Education in the Policy (section 7). Another crucial aspect of this improvement is the continued opportunity for survivors to disclose with or without filing a full report, detailed in section 9.
Historically, neither universities nor the criminal justice system have given women any confidence that systems in place will respond adequately to sexual assault. Only 0.3 per cent of the annual 460,000 sexual assaults in Canada result in conviction in law. In 2014, only five per cent of survivors reported their sexual assault to the police, and this has not changed significantly since 2004, when only eight per cent of survivors did so. We encourage the university to continue to investigate the barriers that women face in reporting sexual assault (which explain low rates of disclosure and reporting).
Other universities have drafted policies that make clear the university will not only facilitate a police report if the survivor chooses to do so, but will also not prevent a person from filing a report to McGill if they have already reported to law enforcement. Similarly, such a policy ensures McGill will not block a person from filing a police report if they have already previously reported the incident to the university. We suggest McGill follows suit.
Moreover, if a report is filed and an investigation is opened, we hold that both parties ought to be granted the right to know the outcome of the University’s decision, and the reasons for that decision.
Lastly, though Section 15 of the policy recognizes an “obligation to take reasonable measures to protect the safety of the university community,” the policy does not explicitly state that the perpetrators of sexual assault themselves are a danger to the campus and community. McGill has taken a positive step forward in stating its obligation to protect the university community. We should also encourage those involved to recognize perpetrators as a source of insecurity and a threat to that community.
4) Incorporate the necessary advocacy, administrative, and healthcare support systems for survivors. We applaud the policy’s efforts to begin to proactively address the needs of survivors, and recommend further development of these resources. Funding and promoting advocacy organizations and women’s groups on campus who are committed to guiding survivors of sexual assault through the university processes, law enforcement, legal system, and health care system is crucial. The university has committed to setting up the Office for Sexual Violence Response, Support and Education in addition to setting up a dedicated website. We agree with the policy’s strengthened promise to assist survivors in navigating through the appropriate university channels and authorities, in cooperation with an advocate of the survivor’s choosing, if they wish to have one. These changes will better equip the university to effectively respond to both the survivor, as well as the respondent. It would also increase the chances of the survivor receiving adequate and timely response and potential investigation from law enforcement.
In the past, survivors were unduly burdened with the responsibility of accessing medical care, counselling, and support services off campus. We are pleased to see that the policy promises to enhance on-campus access to health care and counselling services for survivors of sexual assault. Another improvement established by the policy is the commitment to improve accessibility to these services to survivors by providing additional advocacy and accompaniment if they so choose.
The policy promises the Office for Sexual Violence Response, Support and Education will “facilitate referrals to the appropriate university office in cases where reasonable accommodations or immediate measures may be warranted as a result of the incident of sexual violence” in Section 9g. However, we worry that these referrals could potentially lead the survivor in multiple directions, extending the painful process of reporting sexual violence. The section should be further strengthened to ensure that appropriate university offices will be prepared to respond to the survivor, that there will be a follow-up carried out by the Office, and that the survivor will have access to all available information during the referral process.
Lastly, given McGill is an institution that welcomes international students from around the world, we see the policy’s inclusion of service delivery to survivors “in the official language of their choosing” in section 9m as a positive development.
5) Recognize that rape culture is widespread and pervasive on campuses across Canada. In Section 8, the Policy specifies proactive measures which include informational campaigns, orientation, training, and information sessions, a dedicated website for resources on sexual assault on campus, and other education initiatives that include the intersection of race, region, gender, and sexual identity. Existing programs, such as Rez Project (which consists of peer-facilitated training for first-year students living in student housing) are a good start, but must be supported longitudinally and offered at various times during a student’s time at McGill.
Critically, educational programs must be reinforced with strong policy and policy implementation. It should recognize the role of women’s inequality in the commission of sexual assault. While mandatory training on survivor-focused methods for frontline staff involved in health, counseling, investigation, and disciplinary activities is crucial, we also ask the university to consider extending this measure to include a mandatory component for all members of the McGill community, which could take the form of a yearly orientation session, graduation requirement, or a for-credit course.
6) Promote women’s equality on campus at all levels of academia, and ensure women have power and leadership roles in all different academic, administrative, and research positions (as one women’s equality-seeking organization has proposed). Although women make up 48 per cent of the Canadian labour force, research has found that only 0.32 per cent occupied senior management positions in Canadian institutions. As institutions at the forefront of knowledge creation and progress, universities have the opportunity to change this trend. We must fund and support women’s groups and equality-seeking organizations on campus, and foster connections to these organizations off-campus.
We applaud the broad-based and transparent nature of the consultations for integration into the policy, which some of us had taken part in as individuals. We look forward to continued discussion as to how we will achieve a McGill campus that champions women’s equality and safety for all.
Sarah M Mah is a first-year PhD student in Geography, Alexandra Yiannoutsos is a U1 student in Political Science and Economics, and Kateryna Gordiychuk is a U3 student in Sociology with minors in Linguistics and Anthropology.
A version of this statement has been published and edited for the McGill International Review.