The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) announced on Oct. 29 that it had formally signed a petition calling on the Quebec government to amend Bill 64, an Act to modernize legislative provisions as regards the protection of personal information. According to the petition, which was launched in early October by students at UQAM, the bill must be amended to allow universities and CEGEPs to inform survivors of any sanctions imposed on their perpetrators. The current legislation prevents survivors from receiving this information, which creates an inherent flaw in Quebec’s approach to addressing sexual violence reports on university campuses.
In 2017, Quebec passed Bill 151, a law that defined the legal parameters for post-secondary institutions’ sexual violence policies. In many cases, however, existing privacy laws prioritize the safety of the accused over that of the survivor by prohibiting CEGEPs and universities from informing the survivor(s) about any disciplinary action taken against their aggressor, even after an investigation has taken place. Quebec must make amendments to establish a survivor-centric approach to addressing sexual violence, and McGill has a responsibility to take a stand against harmful impediments that undermine survivors’ safety.
Reporting incidents of sexual violence is incredibly difficult for survivors, both emotionally and procedurally: It can be both intrusive and traumatizing for a survivor to have to repeatedly recount their experience to strangers. Many feel ashamed or are afraid of being victim-blamed should they come forward. Additionally, survivors often have to jump through many hoops to even be able to file a report in the first place.
Quebec’s rules exacerbate these difficulties. Knowing what punitive action will be taken against one’s aggressor can, in some cases, provide a sense of security or closure to the survivor. When survivors are denied this, it can make them even less likely to come forward for fear that their aggressor will face no repercussions and that the emotional burden of filing a report will not be worth it. The current approach removes accountability from the institution, as universities are under no obligation to disclose their responses.
McGill’s sexual violence policy also fails to adequately address the needs of survivors. The university’s Policy Against Sexual Violence, revised in 2019, did see some important improvements, including the establishment of an external Special Investigator. However, the policy still poses barriers to survivors with its highly legalistic jargon, which can further dissuade survivors from coming forward.
Where McGill continues to fail, SSMU and other student-led groups have tried to intervene. Ratified in 2019, SSMU’s inter-faculty Involvement Restriction Policy aims to protect survivors by implementing restrictive measures against aggressors. Survivors are given the autonomy to outline which measures they want to see taken, which can even include banning the aggressor from attending campus-wide events. Though not perfect, this approach prioritizes the survivor, and implementing a similar policy at the university-wide level would allow the administration to better support survivors. Above all, current university and provincial policies require more revision in order to effectively protect survivors and not aggressors.
Quebec must make amendments to its privacy laws that establish exceptions for cases of sexual violence in universities. If McGill is serious about taking action against sexual violence, as it often claims, then it must stand up to this harmful legislation and demonstrate leadership on this issue. Given the university’s shameful track record on sexual violence issues and concern for its reputation above all else, students are key in keeping the university accountable. As such, they must also sign and share the petition in solidarity with survivors.
Sexual violence is traumatic and often life-altering. Survivors should not have to feel isolated from their communities and institutions, nor should they have to fear returning to their educational spaces without knowing whether necessary action has been taken against their aggressors. It is up to the government to amend its laws, but McGill must take the lead in enshrining survivor-centric justice in its policies and response processes.