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Shedding light on harassment

by Milos Kovacevic April 7, 2015 0 comment
Graphic by Marie-Pier LaRose

Misogyny, sexism, attempted rape: what happens at ConU’s student associations

Graphic by Marie-Pier LaRose

Graphic by Marie-Pier LaRose

A confession by a former Arts and Science Federation of Associations (ASFA) executive last year detailing sexism and racism by colleagues has prompted other women to step forward and share stories of similar behaviour, sexual harassment, and, in one case, attempted rape.

The original story had to do with Mei-Ling (not her real name) and allegations that she suffered within a climate of sexual degradation and misogyny while a executive of ASFA. These matters came to a head after she logged into an office computer and discovered a Facebook conversation between two executives wherein she was sexually and ethnically degraded and referred to, in part, as a “chink slave” and a ‘whore’ who should be “impeached” unless she performed oral sex acts.

The Concordian has seen chat logs showing such comments about her began before the start of her executive mandate and continued over many months. Mei-Ling alleges they were only the most egregious example in a long line of misogynistic and racist actions she experienced in the workplace.

“They would refer to other women as whores and sluts without a care to who was listening,” she said of the casual office behaviour that was displayed before her and her female colleagues. “So I just ignored it.”

Mei-Ling eventually began avoiding the office altogether and started coming in at odd hours to avoid interaction.

As reported by the Montreal Gazette, Mei-Ling took her complaints to Concordia’s Dean of Students Andrew Woodall, who also consulted with the director of the Office of Rights and Responsibilities. In that meeting, she was told the university could take no actions against the students, since the Facebook conversation was private.

“They didn’t seem to care,” she said.

So she went to the Concordia’s Centre for Gender Advocacy and the Concordia Student Union (CSU) Legal Information Clinic, who put her in touch with the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), a non-profit civil rights organization serving clients who say they’ve suffered from discrimination. CRARR has since opened up the case on her behalf with the Quebec Human Rights Commission (the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse). They are looking for moral and punitive damages and an independent task force to monitor allegations of sexism and racism.

Another, and perhaps more harrowing story, comes from Jane (also a pseudonym), who alleges a colleague tried to force himself on her in an alley during a school function. Though she managed to escape, she suffered bruises and bite marks on her body. At that time she was a member of one of the school’s student organizations.

“When I confronted him later he turned white as a sheet and said he couldn’t remember. Then he laughed it off,” she said, adding that she considered it an act of attempted rape. She did not report the incident because she felt she had a duty to continue her responsibilities and because she was unsure on how to proceed.

Additional stories of sexual harassment have come out, including the alleged intrusive distribution of nude photographs between volunteers and organization executives who’ve snooped through email accounts.

In many cases, the school initially took the position that it was outside their mandate or would infringe on student group autonomy.

In addition, Mei-Ling and Jane’s stories show a pattern of casual disinterest from their colleagues.

“[My colleagues] were advising me to stay silent,” Mei-Ling said. “‘Try to laugh it off,’ they said.” It was something expected and normal.

“It had a real impact on how I view myself and my self-esteem,” she said, adding that the victim shaming has stuck with her throughout the experience.

The slowv handling of events by the administration has brought out widespread criticism over what some say is a system that does not care or reacts too slowly. Despite a rapid response via open letter by President Alan Shepard to Mei-Ling’s story, many are still unsatisfied with the lack of concrete plans.

CRARR Executive Director Fo Niemi says the initial failure from the administration to act fast enough in addressing Mei-Ling’s complaints can count as discrimination itself. “The negligence perpetuates the effects of discrimination that the person comes to seek help for,” he explained.

“The response of the [university] was insufficient and that’s something that’s happened over and over again: people coming forward and seeking some kind of redress … and quite often being told quite often the complaint will not be retained,” said Anaïs Van Vliet, administrative coordinator for the Centre for Gender Advocacy (CGA). “The aggregation of these cases is what really speaks to the systemic nature of this issue.”

Van Vliet says the school has made moves to address the issue, but still has a long way to go in becoming inclusive by listening to and harnessing the expertise of individuals and groups wishing to help.

“We were consulted in the sense we were invited to give a one-hour presentation,” Van Vliet says of last year’s update to the school’s sexual harassment policy. “There are many frontline workers on campus that do an amazing job of tackling the issues [and they] were not invited to sit on the committee. It’s difficult to know how presentations from individuals who see this happening all the time … will translate or will be applied or not.”

Van Vliet encourages students to seek training supplied by the CGA and others dealing with consent and sexual harassment. Another way is to start the conversation on campus instead of keeping it on the sidelines. “They have the power to set the tone,” they said of student leaders organizing community events.

Van Vliet says the CGA is all for making such training mandatory.

Since Mei-Ling’s coming forward, Concordia’s student community has taken their own initiatives. A Facebook group, Not Safe at Concordia, has sprung up to offer a conduit for anonymous or not-so-anonymous experiences.

Though she says she’s no longer interested in working with ASFA, Mei-Ling hopes her story and the story of those who’ve come forward leads to real and positive changes in campus culture and ensures future instances of this nature are dealt with in a better and more supportive manner.

“Why am I doing it? Because the next person probably wouldn’t,” she said.

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If you have experienced sexual harassment, misogyny, or racism, get in touch with Not Safe at Concordia or the Centre for Gender Advocacy.

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