SEXUAL VIOLENCE AT CONCORDIA: FOR A NEW CIVIL RIGHTS APPROACH
Montreal, November 24, 2015
Last August, the Concordia University Administration released the Report of the Sexual Assault Policy Review Working Group, which outlines plans to address sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence within the Concordia community.
While the Report represents a laudable step forward on the part of the University to confront a persistent problem that has also plagued other universities, it falls short in some key areas. The Working Group was set up in Fall 2014 by University President Alan Shepard to review the University’s overall actions against sexual assault.
Key Recommendations of the Report
Like other government and universities’ reports, the Concordia Report affirms a clear vision: “Behaviours commonly associated with rape culture, such as victim blaming, normalizing sexual objectification and violence, are absolutely unacceptable in the Concordia community. As such, sexual violence violates our institutional values, in particular the rights of individuals in our university community to be treated with dignity and respect.”
It refers to the Government of Ontario’s definition of sexual violence in its “Changing Attitudes, Changing Lives: Ontario Sexual Violence Plan” (2011), as follows:
“Sexual violence is ... any violence, physical or psychological, carried out through sexual means or by targeting sexuality. This violence takes different forms including sexual abuse, assault, rape, incest, childhood sexual abuse and rape during armed conflict. It also includes sexual harassment, stalking, indecent or sexualized exposure, degrading sexual imagery, voyeurism, cyber harassment, trafficking and sexual exploitation.”
The Working Group Report features a series of recommendations, including:
• Creating a “stand- alone policy on sexual violence” applying to all members of the University and amendments to the Code of Rights and Responsibilities to include community events held off campus;
• Offers support to independent student groups and associations to develop procedures to address behaviour and ethical issues that may arise in the course of their activities; and
• Education and communication aimed at improving understanding of consent, sexual violence which is suitable for the needs and realities of the “diverse” Concordia community as well as highlighting the message of zero tolerance for sexual violence.
To gage the scope and relevance of this Report, we should consider recent occurrences of sexual violence at Concordia, such as the well-known case of “Mei Ling.” “Mei Ling”, a biracial student executive, was told by University Administration it could not help her after she faced ongoing racial and sexual harassment, including racist, sexist and violent Facebook chats, at the Arts and Science Federation Association.
After her case went public, Concordia issued a statement to the effect that it would start an internal review of the university’s handling of the incident in question. One year later, on the eve of a ground-breaking settlement between ASFA and “Mei Ling”, the results of such an internal review still remain unaccounted for.
Flaws of the Report
First, although the Concordia Report refers to “the rights of individuals in our university community to be treated with dignity and respect”, key concepts such as human rights and Charters of Rights and Freedoms are absent.
The recommendations fail to address sexual violence from the perspective of human rights law such as the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees not only the right to be protected against discrimination and harassment based on gender, race and sexual orientation, among others, but also the right to life and the security of the person, the right to dignity, honor and the integrity of the person, and the right to privacy. In this regard, a civil-rights based approach treats sexual violence as a violation of the Criminal Code and human rights law, which allows for both criminal prosecution as well as civil lawsuits.
Secondly, the Report lacks intersectionality. While it acknowledges “the various needs and realities of our diverse community”, it fails to address the connection of sexual violence to other forms of oppression and discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, class, Aboriginality, sexual orientation or disability. The multicultural and multiracial community of Concordia is not presented within the Working group or recommendations, a fact that risks making sexual violence an issue of, by and for middle-class, able-bodied white women.
Thirdly, reports from other universities, and authorities such as The First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault, advocates for shifts dealing with sexual violence, including increased transparency from administration by releasing public reports about sexual violence and a shifting to survivor-centered and trauma-centered approaches in supporting survivors. These reports also advocate for increased transparency and leadership from University administrations in dealing with sexual violence.
The Concordia Report, by contrast, speaks of “a system be created to coordinate the collection of statistics on reported incidences of sexual violence”, but not about making public such data.
A bolder vision and multi-layered action plan is needed, and stakeholders inside and outside the University are no doubt waiting for Concordia’s President to make that clarion call.
This article is co-written by Fo Niemi and Brandy deGaia. An edited version appears in the Concordian, on November 23, 2015