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Editorial: On sexual assault, unacceptable gaps remain in McGill’s redress procedures

a/Editorial/Opinion by

As McGill works on drafting a new sexual assault policy, one survivor’s experience demonstrated that our administration and faculty associations are failing in their responsibility to provide adequate redress to students who have been sexually assaulted. After an incident at an undergraduate departmental event where the survivor was allegedly sexually assaulted, the survivor did benefit from McGill’s support measures—which will be formalized in the new policy—but was unable to have her accusations investigated by McGill due to the fact that the incident happened outside of a “McGill context.” The incident is also demonstrative of a wider failing on McGill’s campus: Namely, the failure of the McGill administration and of faculty associations to address a policy that does not adequately protect survivors. 

Under McGill’s current system, faculty associations are technically separate corporate entities from McGill, only connected through a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA). MoAs permit faculty associations to use McGill’s name, among other technicalities, but do not make McGill liable for any misconduct that falls within the perview of those associations but outside of the McGill context. A “McGill context” refers to an activity that is on campus or hosted by the university. Therefore, it does not apply to events hosted off-campus by faculty associations or clubs. For example, if a student is sexually assaulted at a Frosh event that is held off-campus, McGill can only provide support measures and not redress procedures. The university would be unable to launch an investigation against the accused due to the parameters of the McGill context. This is a fact that most students at McGill are not aware of, and that Dean of Students Andre Costopoulos acknowledged as a “perception issue” in an interview with the Tribune. 

Any attempts to fill these gaps in the policy in recent years have not led to concrete changes. Two years since the coverage of the former players on the McGill Redmen football team who were arrested on charges of sexual assault, McGill’s sexual assault policy has not accounted for the shortcomings created by the McGill context. It still lacks procedures for redress when a case falls outside the stipulated McGill context, which has prevented survivors from receiving the recourse they have asked for. The policy draft as it currently exists will not change this.  

Short of a major reform of the way that McGill defines the univeristy context, which would be a lengthy and not necessarily fruitful process, more must be done to inform all students about how to navigate the procedures for handling sexual assault at McGill. Students must be made aware of the current limitations of the sexual assault policy. There also needs to be an improvement in the support measures and procedures for handling sexual assault allegations within faculty associations to ameliorate the university’s current limitations in supporting and providing recourse to survivors. 

The survivor who spoke to the Tribune showed great bravery to approach the administration and faculty association for assistance. The survivor met with the Dean of Students and spoke with the student representatives within their faculty; ultimately, the system failed them. Although the alleged perpetrator was banned from study spaces on campus so that the survivor could study in peace, that is not enough by itself. These steps at the administrative level must be replicated at the faculty level, which should also develop pro-survivor, synthesized, and codified procedures so that survivors do not have to jump through hoops to receive basic rights. 

McGill’s sexual assault policy has not accounted for the shortcomings created by the McGill context. It still lacks procedures for redress

 The McGill administration provides support measures to any student who is a survivor of sexual assault, but more still needs to be done to expand preventative measures. Students who live in residence are expected to grapple with issues of sexuality, equity, and consent during the mandatory Rez Project program. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent for approximately half of McGill students who never live in residence. Holding mandatory workshops throughout the year for all incoming McGill students who don’t go through Rez Project, or creating a mandatory online exam about sexual assault for new students will raise awareness and strengthen preventative measures by ensuring a more educated campus population.

For survivors, the current process is opaque. McGill already has a commendable support system in place, but its method of recourse is neither clearly advertised nor explained. The parameters within which McGill can legally enact sanctions and provide recourse measures for survivors who are assaulted beyond the scope of the McGill context is unclear. In order to address the gaps in sexual assault policy on campus in both the short and long term, entrenchment of pro-survivor procedures must be accompanied by higher standards of accountability within all organizations that bear McGill’s name. 

  • Andre Costopoulos

    Dear Tribune Editorial Board,

    You are correct to point out that student associations such
    as SSMU, Faculty Associations and clubs are separate entities from the
    University. This means that events hosted by those associations off campus are
    not considered a McGill context and therefore do not fall under the
    jurisdiction of several articles of the McGill Code of Student Conduct. I am
    happy to see that you acknowledge that we make very significant efforts to
    support those who disclose a sexual assault, regardless of context. However, it
    is inaccurate to state that “McGill can only provide support measures and not
    redress procedures” when assaults and other unacceptable behaviours take place
    at student run events, such as Frosh and Carnival.

    As your editorial states, several measures can be taken on
    campus based on concerns raised by behaviour off-campus. When an individual’s
    alleged behaviour off-campus creates a reasonable concern for our community, we
    can and do take reasonable measures to address it. For example, we can and do
    use Article 21 of the Code of Student Conduct to restrict access to campus or
    part of campus and to order individuals about whom we have a reasonable concern
    to cease contact with others. We can and do suspend privileges such as
    participation in varsity sports or off-hours access to University Facilities.
    The question of “McGill context” does restrict our ability to impose sanctions
    under the Code for violations of the Articles related to assault. That means
    students cannot be reprimanded, suspended, or expelled for events that took
    place outside the McGill context. But breaches of the orders and other measures
    imposed on students about whom we have reasonable concerns can and sometimes do
    constitute breaches of the Code, and those breaches, if they occur, can and do
    lead to sanctions under the Code.

    In many US institutions, student governments and
    associations operate under the authority and the mandate of the University
    administration. While this does mean that student-run activities fall under the
    jurisdiction of University codes of conduct, it comes with compromises in terms
    of autonomy. Our more autonomous associations also bear greater responsibility
    for their own affairs, including events.

    It is not reasonable to expect that incoming students,
    especially those from outside Quebec will immediately understand the subtleties
    of our system. I agree that more needs to be done to clarify the status of
    student associations at McGill and I will ensure that there is clear
    pre-arrival messaging to incoming students starting with next year’s cohort.

    Andre Costopoulos
    Dean of Students/Doyen à la vie étudiante
    McGill University
    Montreal, Canada

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