Revised sexual violence policy needs more revision

After missing the Quebec government’s Jan. 1 deadline to update their existing sexual violence policy, McGill’s Senate has entered the final stages of approving its newly-revised Policy Against Sexual Violence (SVP), presenting the document at their Feb. 20 meeting. Last amended in 2016, Senate is updating the policy so that it complies with Quebec’s Bill 151, a 2017 law that established legal criteria for post-secondary institutions’ sexual violence policies. While McGill has made some positive improvements to the policy, including the addition of an external Special Investigator, it does not properly address student concerns as raised in the walkout last April. Moreover, the policy is confusing and lacks comprehensive clarification. In order to take a truly pro-survivor stance, the policy must clearly outline disclosure and disciplinary procedures.

The policy is still lacking in many regards. For example, while it protects complainants from university disciplinary proceedings should they admit to using alcohol or cannabis, it does not promise that same protection for other drug use. According to Associate Provost (Equity and Academic Policies) Angela Campbell, doing so might condone an illegal activity. However, other universities have instituted similar policies without issue: York University does not isolate alcohol or cannabis as the only drugs that are exempt from disciplinary action in the case of disclosure.  A narrowly-defined exception clause risks discouraging survivors from disclosing out of fear of retribution for drug use. Moreover, the rationale behind McGill’s more specific clause requires a much better explanation.

Besides the unclear clause regarding drug use, other aspects of the policy also cause reasonable confusion. The question of a total ban on teacher-student relationships has caused considerable controversy: The first draft of the new SVP, released on Dec. 5, did not include a blanket ban on teacher-student relationships.  While the Ad Hoc Senate Committee concluded that an outright ban is unnecessary, the committee’s three student representatives contend that it is. In response, Campbell has said that a ban would violate Quebec law, citing the findings of Concordia’s Sexual Assault Policy Review Working Group.

However, shortly before Bill 151 passed, Quebec’s then-minister responsible for higher education Hélène David stated that, while the government could not ban student-teacher relationships, universities and CEGEPs had the authority to do so. For students and the administration to engage in a healthy dialogue, the ambiguity around a ban’s legality must be resolved. In the interim, McGill’s complex and lengthy intimate relationship-disclosure process will only discourage students and staff from coming forward with their disclosures.

McGill’s revised policy does not adequately protect people in predatory relationships. Simplistic definitions of ‘conflict of interest’ leave out complex examples: For instance, undergraduate teaching assistants, non-tenured academic staff, and other atypical examples are not adequately protected under this policy. The specific situation of graduate students layers this already complicated issue because they are simultaneously in a position of power when they work as teaching assistants or course lecturers, and extremely vulnerable due to spending extended periods of time with staff supervisors. Predatory relationships and power imbalances in academia go beyond the large undergraduate student cohort.

The policy cannot be enforced if it is not understood. While university policies are inherently complex and fraught with legal jargon, the challenge they pose is surmountable. In the case of sexual violence, accessibility is essential to encourage ease in disclosing. When the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) passed its Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy in 2018, it released a streamlined implementation guide to educate its members. Similarly, SSMU has a Know Your Rights campaign for students to make McGill policies more accessible, and they should expand this guide to include the new policy. Creating similarly-accessible documents for the SVP is a necessary part of creating a more transparent disclosure process.

In compliance with Bill 151, the new policy also introduces mandatory, online training modules for all students and staff, effective Fall 2019. However, survivors cannot access these resources unless they know about them. Raising awareness about sexual violence on campus, including prevention and resources is an essential goal to protect survivors. University campuses are no exception to rape culture—and it’s time McGill adequately addresses this fact by drafting a policy that is actually pro-survivor.

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