Three Former Students Expose the Flaws in Concordia’s Sexual Violence Policies
It ’s been three years since Cathy was assaulted by her ex-boyfriend.
The assault, which caused Cathy to lose partial hearing in her left ear, took place at her Montreal apartment, and resulted in a criminal proceeding against her attacker. At the time, both Cathy and her ex-boyfriend were Concordia students.
Her attacker was found criminally guilty of the September 2014 attack, and had conditions placed onto him that included a restraining order. Six months later, in February 2015, he violated those conditions, assaulting Cathy once more. This time, on campus.
After a student hearing process—that’s how Code of Rights and Responsibility complaints are handled at Concordia—which was drawn out for more than a year, he received 30 hours of community service, to be completed by the end of the Winter 2017 semester.
In the years since, her attacker has worked to complete his degree, while Cathy has since stopped going to school.
“She’s terrified,” said James, a friend of Cathy’s, on her behalf. Because of the trauma she endured, she finds herself unable to talk about the experience without experiencing intense anxiety. That anxiety also makes it impossible for her to go into Concordia, he said.
Maria was friends with her harasser before the trouble started—they had met on a Facebook group for new Concordia students in 2014. Eighty per cent of survivors know their harasser before the incident. Admittedly, the two had a rocky relationship, she said.
In April 2016, she began seeing posts about herself on social media—a Concordia subreddit and YikYak, an anonymous, location-based platform—but because she was running for a position within her student association, she thought the sexist slurs were related to her campaign, she said. But once the campaign was finished, the posts continued. Then, her phone number was leaked on a fake dating profile.
She said she started receiving phone calls from individuals saying they knew where she was on campus. Concordia’s security brought her to the Sexual Assault Resource Centre.
Due to her familiarity with the university, she said she knew where to go and who to speak with to file her complaints, both with the Montreal police and with the Office of Rights and Responsibilities. Maria said she also alerted the Dean of Students office.
At her hearing, her harasser was found guilty of violent and threatening conduct. He received a letter of reprimand. The tribunal process, including putting together a 300 page evidence package, distracted her from her studies, resulting in poor grades. She is taking a year off school.
“And now I’m left with the academic scars of that [experience],” she said.
Felicia was a part-time employee of Concordia’s bookstore for two and a half years. In 2015, she began experiencing harassment—it was both physical and psychological, based on her sex and gender—at the hands of a co-worker. In November of that year, she decided to alert her manager, who cut Felicia’s hours but still had her scheduled to work with her harasser.
When she approached her manager about the situation again, she was fired. She was given two reasons for her firing, one of which included personality differences.
She filed a complaint with the Office of Rights and Responsibilities, but it was transferred to Concordia Human Resources without her consent.
The stress of the experience caused her grades to drop, she said, which means she must now apply to Concordia for readmission. The low GPA, Felicia said, also prohibits her from applying to another university.
The three women are in various stages of filing complaints against the university or their harassers with the Quebec Human Rights Commission.
At the moment, Cathy and Felicia are seeking a combined $120,000 in damages. That includes the $20,000 Felicia is seeking through her complaint with the Quebec Administration Tribunal. Maria is in the process of finalizing her complaint.
The Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations is assisting the women in bringing their cases forward. Since CRARR’s inception in 1983, the nonprofit has evolved past its original mandate to “promote racial equality and combat racism in Canada,” to now advocate for all human rights.
Fo Niemi, the executive director of CRARR, said these three cases are examples of Concordia’s systematic flaws in dealing with sexual violence, which per the university’s definition, includes both harassment and assault.
“They are a testimony to how the system is not working,” Niemi said. “It might work for the university, it might work for the bureaucracy, but it doesn’t work for these women, at the frontline or at the end of the process.”
Part of the reason why the women are seeking so much money, Niemi explained, is to make a point.
“It’s no longer about harassment but about […] the university’s duty, legal as well as social and ethical,” he said in regards to Cathy’s case.
Since 2014, Concordia has seen a total of 85 sexual harassment complaints. The 2016-2017 academic year saw the lowest, with 23 reported cases to the university.
In the same time frame, the Quebec Human Rights Commission saw 26 sexual harassment cases, almost three quarters of which were against women. During that time, they’ve had four cases of sexual harassment on university campuses filed—two in 2016 and two in 2017, between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30.
Cindy Viau, assistant to the executive director for the Groupe d’aide et d’information sur le harcèlement sexuel au travail du Quebec, said one of the deterrents from advancing harassment complaints to a higher governmental level is the risk of revictimization.
“It’s a long process, it’s a hard process,” Viau said. “They have to evaluate if they want to do all of that.”
She continued to explain that it’s hard to anticipate the outcome of a legal case, and due to how drawn out they can be, survivors sometimes decide to not bring their cases forward “because it’s so difficult.”
Additionally, she said, that unlike other legal proceedings, proof is hard to obtain, rendering the process even more challenging.
“Sexual harassment is generally done behind closed doors where there’s nobody around,” said Viau. “So what? Because it’s happening behind closed doors, [these people] don’t have access to the justice system? So there’s something that needs to be adapted to that reality.”
Despite the difficult process, Maria believes that coming forward with her story can pave the way for other survivors.
“I’m seeking for this to be heard,” she said. Maria explained that while working in a government office this summer, she “heard lots of stories like mine, students at HEC, students at [Universite de Montreal].”
One woman, Maria remembered, was hesitant to come forward because she had heard negative stories from others who had, and she was fearful of the consequences. But Maria said that in repeating her story over the summer, she became detached from it and felt like coming forward was the right thing to do.
“It happens quite a lot, and if we want any change to come out of this, we need to speak up,” she said.
Maria wants to see changes made within Concordia itself. Specifically, she said there are flaws in the complaint and tribunal processes.
“I think in that first initial few months, between [filing the complaint in] April and [the tribunal in] October, I had no support, I had no security on campus,” she said. “There were no terms between him and I.”
She continued that she still felt as though her harasser could approach her on campus and continue to publish her whereabouts online. “I had no insurance,” Maria said.
Similarly, she said that tribunal process was not set up to handle sexaul violence cases—she said she had to sit next to her harasser during the hearing, which lasted six hours.
James, Cathy’s friend, said she holds some of the same complaints. Though she was first offered the opportunity to testify via video, he said terms changed so that her presence was required, although she was able to leave after providing her testimony.
“One of the flaws […] is in how the meeting was set up,” reiterated Niemi. “Just the thought of being inside that room with your aggressor without a security guard is a serious deficiency.”
Melodie Sullivan, Concordia’s senior legal counsel, restated however that accommodations can be made, even up until the day of the hearing.
When presented with the alleged flaws that Maria, Cathy, and Felicia perceived during the process, Sullivan remained firm that had the women approached the university with their concerns, accommodations could have been made, including those pertaining to their studies.
“The feedback I’ve heard from people I’ve worked with, survivors that have come for support, is that it’s been really efficient, and even within a few days to a week, changes are made in their courses, exams have been moved, accommodations have been made quite quickly,” agreed Jennifer Drummond, coordinator of the SARC. The centre, she said, should be a survivor’s first stop.
But many of Cathy and Maria’s concerns stem from the last part of the process: the sanctions imposed on their harassers, community service and a letter of reprimand, respectively.
Both women say that once the decisions were rendered, that was the last they heard of their cases from the university.
“It’s been a year and a half and there’s been no follow up,” said Maria.
The decision rendered read that “the majority of the [Student Hearing Panel] recommended that the present file be forwarded to the appropriate department(s) for its assessment and management.”
Maria said that after she received the decision, she went to check with campus security and the Dean of Students office, two departments that she assumed would be considered “appropriate” in this situation. She alleged that neither had been informed of her case.
When Cathy’s decision was reached, “there was no provision to keep her safe if she wanted to come back to campus,” said James of his friend. “And what’s to stop [her harasser] from doing it again?”
Niemi echoed the statement. “When the decision came down, it was complete silence. No follow-up. No outreach,” he said. “She was left entirely on her own.”
Sullivan explained that what these women experienced after their hearings was par for the course. When asked whether there was a procedure in place regarding notifying those who’ve filed complaints, of sanctions imposed, she said, “Not directly, no.”
“Anyone who’s fearful and still thinks that there’s any threat whatsoever should come on down [to the university] and go back to either [Drummond] or the Office of Rights and Responsibilities,” Sullivan continued. “If she has any reason to feel that either the sanctions are not being followed or if she has any concern for her safety, anything like that, she should absolutely speak to whoever she wishes.”
Niemi, however, calls the university’s passive follow-up a “serious systematic flaw.” In Cathy’s situation, he said, “Threatening and violent conduct […] should have been a red flag for the university right away.”