Examining McGill’s response to student protests against sexual violence

By Ariella Garmaise - October 18th 2018

"Months later, however, it is unclear if this outrage has in fact blown over. In turn, it remains to be seen whether or not these administrative shifts have actually addressed student concerns."

“We will not be silenced! This will not blow over!”

So chanted the frustrated masses gathered outside the James Administration building on Apr. 11, 2018, protesting a university culture of abuse and open secrets. The walkout—which brought together students from McGill and Concordia—represented a fever pitch for student outrage. This event did not occur in isolation. On Apr. 4, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) sent an open letter to McGill, demanding that the university launch an external investigation into the Office of the Dean of Arts’ responses to reports of sexual violence. Thousands of students signed the letter. In conjunction with the exposure of a similar culture of abuse at Concordia earlier in the year, the walkout felt like a watershed moment for institutional accountability.

The open letter and subsequent walkout put the spotlight on the McGill administration. Reports from CBC, Global News, and the Montreal Gazette drew the public eye to a university at odds with its student community.

On May 10, the university announced that it would hire an independent Special Investigator to oversee sexual violence complaints and that it would launch an Ad Hoc Senate Committee on Teaching Staff-Student Intimate Relationships. McGill seemed to be making substantial changes to the way it handles reports of sexual misconduct.

Months later, however, it is unclear if this outrage has in fact blown over. In turn, it remains to be seen whether or not these administrative shifts have actually addressed student concerns.


McGill announced the hiring of Special Investigator Maître Caroline Lemay in a campus-wide email on Sept. 11. Lemay is tasked with investigating all on-campus reports of sexual violence. In many ways, having an external party to investigate such matters is a victory for students; without the burden of an additional, entirely separate portfolio, Lemay has no conflicts of interest, and will be able to focus all of her attention on the issue of sexual violence on campus.

Still, this victory is not without caveat. The special investigator was hired to investigate all reports of sexual violence, whereas SSMU’s Open Letter asked for the University to look into procedures within the Office of the Dean of Arts. Lemay’s broad role does not address specific departments with abusive professors.

Bee Khaleeli, U3 Honours History, is SSMU’s former gendered and sexual violence policy advisor and the undergraduate representative on the Ad Hoc Senate Committee on Teaching Staff-Student Intimate Relationships. Khaleeli believes that the special investigator’s expansive mandate fails to respond to the students body’s request.

“Caroline Lemay’s publicly-stated job description is to investigate all complaints of sexual violence. That is a diversion tactic.”

“Caroline Lemay’s publicly-stated job description is to investigate all complaints of sexual violence. That is a diversion tactic,” Khaleeli said. “That is McGill trying to shift attention away from the actual issue at hand, [from] the issue specifically of internal mechanisms for addressing the problem of predatory professors, of professors who are flat-out abusive, and professors against whom multiple complaints exist. McGill did not follow through on what students asked them to do.”

Moreover, the special investigator only has the jurisdiction to look into past complaints both if the complaint was never previously investigated, and if the defendant is still a member of the McGill community. This precisely ignores what students asked for: Getting administration to investigate the alleged mishandling of existing complaints.

“I am of the opinion that McGill hired someone because they were pressured to hire someone,” Khaleeli said. “But, they made the very conscious decision of broadening her job description so that they could pull attention away from the question of professors, which is how they got here to begin with.”

The walkout was meant to call attention to specific abusive professors and the departments that abet them: While taking preventative measures with a special investigator is a good start, McGill also needs to address existing concerns.


Student frustration extends to the university’s existing Policy against Sexual Violence. In a feature I wrote for the Tribune in the fall of 2017, I explored the policy’s flaws. Namely, how difficult it is to navigate: The policy is not standalone and refers to multiple documents. It also fails to clearly outline what constitutes a teaching staff-student relationship and what the repercussions are for such abuses of power.

In these respects, McGill’s policy is not yet in adherence with Bill 151: An Act to prevent and fight sexual violence in higher education institutions. The 2017 Quebec bill, itself a product of consultation with student groups, requires that all higher education institutions in the province have a standardized sexual violence policy by Sept. 1, 2019. Fixing the policy was a rallying cry for students in the walkout last spring.

Though the policy still stands for now, the university has partially responded to students’ calls for change. In addition to Lemay’s appointment, McGill launched the aforementioned Ad Hoc Senate Committee.

However, getting the university to agree to simply review the policy was a gruelling task. Connor Spencer, SSMU’s 2017-18 Vice-President (VP) External, was a driving force in student protests, having co-authored the Open Letter and coordinated the walkout. In an interview with the Tribune, she described negotiating with the administration as a harrowing process.

“A term that was used throughout that process, that I think was actually really fair, was [...] ‘institutional gas-lighting’.”

“A term that was used throughout that process, that I think was actually really fair, was [...] ‘institutional gas-lighting’,” Spencer said. “It was a lot of McGill telling us that we were wrong, not acknowledging that there was a problem, and instead saying [...] ‘Oh, well, if these students just went through the existing policies, [they’d see] we’re already doing this’.”

The Ad Hoc committee will generate and compile observations and recommendations in a report to the McGill Senate toward the end of the Fall 2018 semester. In addition to the findings of the pre-existing Committee for the Implementation of the Policy against Sexual Violence and Ad Hoc Panel to Conduct a Campus Study of Sexual Violence, the report will inform a new policy.

“The Policy will be developed to reflect the requirements of Bill 151 and the needs and commitments of the McGill community,” Angela Campbell, associate provost (Equity and Academic Policies), wrote in an email to the Tribune. “The Policy review will result in important changes to the Policy, including the development of a procedure for investigating reports of sexual violence, and a clear framework governing intimate relationships between teaching staff and students.”

Campbell’s claims are hopeful, but structural problems within these committees persist. Despite having been the driving force in the protests that forced McGill to review its policy, undergraduate students hold little representation on these committees. Khaleeli, the only undergraduate representative on the Ad Hoc Senate Committee on Teaching Staff-Student Intimate Relationships, explained that more student representation in such processes is crucial for substantive change in McGill’s policy.

“It’s telling that, for example, I’m the only undergraduate on this Senate committee [...], when a lot of the mobilization was led by undergraduate [students],” Khaleeli said. “I think more meaningful consultation with students, a better understanding of what barriers to consultation exist, and a very concrete attempt to work against those barriers [are important next steps for McGill].”


While the administration often limits undergraduate representation on Senate committees, students have more opportunity to participate in reforming their own government. As McGill reviews its Policy against Sexual Violence, SSMU is simultaneously working to build a Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy (GSVP) of its own. Caitlin Salvino, the 2017-18 national chair of Our Turn, a national, student-led action plan to end campus sexual violence, along with advisors Khaleeli and Priya Dube, BA ‘18, wrote the GSVP in response to several instances of sexual violence amongst the SSMU executive in the 2016-17 school year. After a year of consultations, town halls, and troubleshooting, SSMU’s Legislative Council will be voting on the product of their work this Thursday, Oct. 11.

In building the policy, the GSVP’s creators used their frustrations with McGill’s policy to inform their own work.

“I think McGill[‘s Policy against Sexual Violence] was kind of like a What Not to Wear: Policy Edition for us,” Khaleeli said.

Specifically, the drive to create a comprehensive and accessible policy—one that could actually be implemented and help survivors in a meaningful way—fuelled the coordinators’ efforts.

“I think McGill[‘s Policy against Sexual Violence] was kind of like a What Not to Wear: Policy Edition for us.”

“I really hope that [the administration] can learn from our survivor-centric and intersectional approach,” Dube said. “So, if somebody has experienced violence, but all they want from a resolution is to not see that person in their classes, they should be able to have that as a resolution, and that should be something that is enforced, without them having to go through the entire scary process, be it a criminal case, be it a dean disciplinary hearing.”

Should the GSVP pass at Legislative Council on Oct. 11, an accompanying fee levy to fund two part-time positions to oversee the policy’s implementation will go up for student vote in the upcoming fall referendum period. While referenda have notoriously low voter turnout, it is crucial that students make their voices heard to ensure that their student society establishes proper procedures and personnel to protect against sexual violence.


Since Apr. 11, McGill’s administrative playing field has shifted. The special investigator, the committee dedicated to staff-student relationships, and SSMU’s proposed GSVP each offer the potential to help reform campus culture. However, as the student activists who spoke to the Tribune stressed, now is not the time for complacency.

“I think important ground was gained last semester,” Spencer said. “But also important ground was gained in 2015, and 2016 when the policy was first passed, and then quickly after we saw a decline in activism that led to further steps not being implemented right away. That’s something that I think we hopefully can learn from this, [that] we need to keep pushing, and not let McGill use the special investigator as their answer to our call last semester.”

"We need to keep pushing, and not let McGill use the special investigator as their answer to our call last semester.”

Students need to continue engaging themselves in these processes—whether that means talking to their departmental representation, showing up to ad hoc committees’ town halls and consultations, or even simply voting in the upcoming online referendum.

“Students will have a vital role in how McGill fosters safer spaces,” Bianca Tetrault, the Sexual Violence Education Advisor of McGill’s Office for Sexual Violence, Response, Support and Education, wrote in an email to the Tribune. “I encourage students to take part in events related to equity and discrimination, to attend town halls, submit letters to committees seeking feedback, and continue discussing these very real topics with anyone you can.”

Spencer believes that real change will happen by reforming independent departmental procedures, and groups like the Political Science Students Association have already begun to develop their own internal guidelines.

“I think students really need to get involved with their departmental associations,” Spencer said. “That’s where [...] I think the important activism on the student end is going to be housed within the next couple years, of holding their own faculty accountable and their own department accountable.”

Last April’s walkout will continue to signify a pivotal moment in student activism, but students cannot let their involvement stop there. Dube says she was surprised to find that, despite the walkout’s considerable turnout, students were much less enthusiastic about involving themselves in the SSMU GSVP drafting process.

“We held two open consultations, [and] a couple [of] closed consultations, and even people who championed this issue on their platform didn’t bother showing up to a consultation,” said Dube. “Yet, everybody showed up for the walkout, because that’s an easy action to take, and while the support is appreciated, it was really bewildering to me that people cared about it when they could take a quick Snapchat and show that they participated in it, but didn't come out and provide concrete feedback and be part of the solution when those opportunities were presented.”

The walkout should be a reminder that student activism works. McGill would not have hired a special investigator, nor would it have launched the Ad Hoc committee, had students not thrust the university under public scrutiny. To continue spurring change, and to make sure that McGill meets its promises, students need to keep putting pressure on these institutions.

“The development of a policy and hiring of an investigator is meaningless if these processes are not [implemented] properly or conducted in a way that is survivor-centric,” Salvino wrote in a message to the Tribune. “It is important [that] we continue to hold SSMU and McGill accountable to ensure they are properly implementing these policies and providing survivors with the support they deserve.”

This past year has seen tremendous progress, but students need to stretch their involvement beyond Snapchat and CBC photo opps. Having prompted substantial change last spring, students now need to show administration that their anger still won’t blow over.