Last August, Concordia University’s administration released the Report of the Sexual Assault Policy Review Working Group, which outlines plans to address sexual violence within the Concordia community. The Working Group was set up in Fall 2014 by university president Alan Shepard to review the university’s overall actions against sexual assault.
While the report represents a laudable step forward on the part of the university to confront a persistent problem, it falls short in some key areas.
Like other university reports on the issue, the 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 … to be treated with dignity and respect,” said the report.
It refers to Ontario’s definition of sexual violence in its “Changing Attitudes, Changing Lives: Ontario Sexual Violence Plan,” as, “any violence, physical or psychological, carried out through sexual means or by targeting sexuality.”
Concordia’s report features key policy and procedural changes applying to all members of the university and amendments to the Code of Rights and Responsibilities to include community events held off campus. The report includes streamlining processes and increasing education.
To gage the scope and relevance of this report we should consider the well-publicized “Mei Ling” case. A biracial student executive was told by Concordia administration they could not help her after she faced ongoing racial and sexual harassment at the Arts and Science Federation Association. How does this report address a case like hers?
First, although the 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 the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are absent.
The report fails to address sexual violence from the perspective of human rights law, which guarantees the right to be protected against discrimination and harassment based on gender, race and sexual orientation, among others; the right to life and security and the right to dignity and integrity of the person. In this regard, sexual violence is a violation of the Criminal Code, and human rights legislation.
Secondly, the report lacks intersectionality. While it acknowledges “the various needs and realities of our diverse community,” it fails to adequately address the connection of sexual violence to other forms of oppression and discrimination based on race, ethnicity, aboriginal status, sexual orientation or disability. The diversity at Concordia is not represented within the working group or recommendations, which risks making sexual violence an issue of 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 increased transparency from administration by releasing public reports about sexual violence and a shifting to survivor-centered and trauma-centered approaches in supporting survivors.
If sexual violence is tackled from these three angles, “Mei Ling”—and all women—will be better protected.
-executive director Fo Niemi and community organizer Brandy deGaia
Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations