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On sexual violence policy reform, it’s McGill’s turn

Editorial/Opinion by

In the 2018 Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings, McGill was the second best school in Canada. Maclean’s just named the university the number one medical and doctoral school in Canada, for the 13th year in a row.

In contrast, last week the inter-university student group Our Turn gave McGill’s Policy Against Sexual Violence—passed in November 2016—a C-.

The group’s report, distributed by the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) on Oct. 11, provides a comparative, quantitative analysis of the sexual violence policies at 14 universities across Canada, out of which McGill placed eighth.

The report provides a set of concrete recommendations for improvement, developed through consultations with sexual assault survivors, existing comprehensive policies, and experts in best practices in preventing and responding to sexual violence. It provides a standardized, central resource on what an ideal campus sexual assault policy should—and should not—look like. It is survivor-focused, emphasizing the need for multiple avenues of support for survivors of sexual violence, while also attempting to take on the prior causes of sexual assault on campus, such as a lack of education and the pervasiveness of rape culture. It’s an entirely student-driven initiative, and miles ahead of lagging and bare-bones provincial legislation on this issue.

More crucially, however, the report is a vital reminder of the real and unacceptable prevalence of sexual assault on university campuses. A comprehensive policy framework to combat campus sexual assault, which includes preventative, educational, and survivor support measures, is essential, and must be treated as such. That means, chiefly, that just having a policy in place isn’t enough. Students, SSMU, and the McGill administration also need to work to ensure that McGill’s policy actually works, by bringing it closer to the ambitious national threshold that Our Turn sets. By extension, it must be able to evolve to better meet the needs of the students affected by sexual violence and sexual assault on campus.

 

 

As the necessity and existence of Our Turn shows, progress on preventing campus sexual violence falls primarily on affected campus communities themselves.

Our Turn originated with the experience of Carleton University students. The group of students that would go on to form Our Turn advocated for reform of the school’s sexual violence policy, through a widely supported open letter. The policy’s final draft failed to reflect these student concerns. This led to an ongoing campaign from students to a deaf administration, geared at reopening the policy for revamp. 

The experience of Carleton students matches the story at many universities. When McGill’s sexual violence policy was drafted and subsequently approved by Senate, it was widely criticized. Many flagged concerns about its clarity on concrete reforms, as well as transparency in the student consultation and amendment process. Those concerns were well-placed, as later confirmed by Our Turn’s abysmal review.

Our Turn is an invaluable resource. In the absence of any national legislation or inquiry on campus sexual assault, by taking the issue beyond the scope of McGill—or any one campus, for that matter—the inter-school group has made it a national concern. Moreover, it solidifies and amplifies the message coming from students to their university administrations and governments: Sexual violence on campus is a pervasive threat to student safety and wellbeing, and needs to be addressed.

The nature of sexual violence presents unique challenges from an administrative standpoint, but it can also present dire harm to survivors and affected students. As a survivor-centered, independent, and dedicated body, Our Turn sets the bar above and beyond that of any one single university attending to other institutional concerns. While exact criteria may be up for debate, the value of having any substantive, national standard of support for sexual assault survivors cannot be overstated.

McGill must respond to the recommendations of the report, and set a timeline on how it will update its policy accordingly. The existing Policy Against Sexual Violence is subject to triennial review. Given that it is sitting at a C-, that time frame is insufficient.

SSMU, meanwhile, needs to follow through on its pledge to the organization, by implementing its campus advocacy task force and setting in motion the suggested reforms at the McGill Senate level.

For their part, students ought to take the time to read the report, conduct further research on best practices across campuses, and critically consider where McGill's Policy Against Sexual Violence is at right now, and where it needs to be. As the necessity and existence of Our Turn shows, progress on preventing campus sexual violence falls primarily on affected campus communities themselves. Provincial and federal government actors need to address the gaps in existing provincial campus sexual assault legislation. But, until they do, university administrations, student unions, and students themselves need to continue to lead the push for education and awareness on campus, and due resources and support for sexual violence survivors. To borrow a phrase, it’s our turn.

A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Our Turn originated at Ryerson—it in fact originated at Carleton. The McGill Tribune regrets this error. 

 

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