CRARR and individual considering filing a civil rights complaint against Concordia
It’s Monday April 18, 2016. Concordia student Maria* checks her phone and sees a text message: “Hey Maria, my names [sic] Eric*, I saw you on [Plenty of Fish], how’s it going? (:”
She asks the man where he got her number. He answers with a screenshot of what Maria realizes is a fake account with her name on the dating app. “This is fake. Someone has been stealing my info,” she quickly replies.
A day earlier, according to documents obtained by The Concordian, a post appeared on the Concordia University subreddit—a forum dedicated to the university on Reddit—claiming Maria had been seen performing sexual acts in a university office.
Soon after the post was published, she was contacted by a student she had met a few months earlier. He informed her about the post and attempted to start a conversation. Maria told him she wasn’t interested in talking.
Less than 24 hours later, a second post was made on the Concordia University subreddit, describing Maria as a “whore.”
These interactions are included in a report written on April 22, 2016 by Concordia security investigator and preventionist Lyne Denis. The report documents weeks of alleged cyberbullying, online sexual harassment, intimidation and threats Maria faced from a fellow student.
The Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR) offered Maria legal support following the recommendation of the Concordia Student Union Legal Information Clinic. On Sept. 2, the centre’s executive director, Fo Niemi, told The Concordian they would be filing a complaint against the alleged harasser to the Quebec Human Rights Commission.
In a press release sent out 19 days later, CRARR wrote that Maria was also “considering” filing a civil rights complaint against Concordia “for discrimination and failure to protect and support.”
Maria, a 21-year-old international student, first met her alleged harasser after posting a message on a Facebook page for new Concordia students. “I made a post [to introduce myself] trying to make friends in the group,” she said. She was 19 at the time. “We met up in person, and we became friends. We were on and off in that friendship.”
The harassment began when Maria ran for an elected position in a student association in 2016. A few months into her campaign, she said abrasive messages were being posted about her on Yik Yak, a now-defunct social media app that allowed users to anonymously post messages viewable by users within a certain radius, such as on or around campus.
Maria said she would receive messages from the alleged harasser shortly after the posts were made on Yik Yak. This behaviour became a recurring pattern.
“He messages me with, ‘Oh, look what’s being said about you.’ ‘Oh, I’m so sorry that this is happening to you,’” Maria said, referring to any time a message about her was posted on Yik Yak.
A Reddit account with her full name and the words “TheWhore” was also created around that same time. “He would always be the first one to message me with links to that,” Maria said. “It was posted five minutes ago, and he already knew. He already saw it, and he already had the time to text me about it.”
In April 2016, Maria said she confronted the student when another Reddit thread about her was created. “I know it’s you,” she recalled telling him. “Just stop. I’m going to go the police. If there’s a paper trail, I want it to lead to you.”
Maria explained that, “within five minutes of that conversation online, [the thread] was deleted.” During the same month, she allegedly got calls from men on several occasions because her Facebook pictures and phone number had been associated with fake online accounts under her name.
“I was walking to class, I would receive calls from strange men like, ‘Hey baby, I know you’re in the H building, just wait for me,” Maria explained. She said she also received rape threats “not from [the alleged harasser] but through the accounts he created,” yet she claimed little was done by the university to protect her.
A visit to Concordia’s security on April 22, 2016 was not the first step Maria took to address this ongoing issue. Two days prior, she went to the university’s Office of Rights and Responsibilities (ORR) to file a complaint for harassment, sexual harassment and threatening or violent conduct, according to CRARR’s Niemi.
The ORR’s annual reports indicate the office saw a steady increase in the number of reported infractions of the university’s Code of Rights and Responsibilities—which include cases and consultations handled by the office—between the 2012-13 and the 2015-16 academic years.
In 2012-13, according to the office’s annual report, 59 harassment infractions and 16 sexual harassment infractions were reported to the office. Two years later, in 2014-15, 63 harassment infractions and 29 sexual harassment infractions were addressed by the ORR.
The academic year Maria filed her complaint with the ORR, 99 harassment infractions were reported, according to the annual report, as well as 33 sexual assault infractions.
Concordia’s Code of Rights and Responsibilities reads: “Formal complaints by students against other students shall be adjudicated by a hearing panel consisting only of students.” When a formal complaint is made, the secretary of the Hearing and Appeals Panel selects three graduate or undergraduate students from the Student Tribunal Pool, as well as one non-voting chair.
The Student Tribunal Pool is nominated by the Concordia Student Union (CSU) each year in June. A maximum of 15 undergraduate students are chosen by the student union, in addition to a maximum of 10 students selected by the Graduate Student Association (GSA), according to Concordia’s Policy on the Establishment of Tribunal Hearing Pools.
Every student hearing panel (SHP) also has a chair, whose role is “to preside over the proceedings, keep order and ensure fairness,” according to the Code of Rights and Responsibilities.
In November 2016, Niemi compiled an unofficial list of lawyers who have acted as student tribunal chairs, including Roanne C. Bratz, Emmanuelle Demers, Sandra Mastrogiuseppe and Angela Onesi. The Concordian confirmed the four to be acting chairs.
The chair for Maria’s case was Vincent Lesage, whose appointment had been proposed by the then-university counsel, Bram Freedman, in 2002.
“They tend to be from big law firms,” Niemi said. “And in dealing with sexual violence and harassment, we start to raise questions about whether these people are trained enough to deal with this issue.”
University spokesperson Mary-Jo Barr explained that tribunal chairs were chosen “due to relevant experience” and because they agree to chair the tribunals on a volunteer basis. “They are trained by our tribunal office on all our processes and policies,” she added.
Maria’s SHP did not take place until October 2016, four months after her visit to the ORR. In April, the same month she visited the ORR and Concordia Security, Maria filed a report with the Montreal police’s 20th precinct, near Concordia’s downtown campus.
An employee from Concordia Security accompanied her to the precinct on April 25 at 10:30 a.m., according to the incident report filed by Concordia Security’s Denis’s incident report.
When asked if Concordia had a copy of that report, Barr said the university would “not comment on a specific case.” “We can confirm that when a student brings to our attention a concern for their safety, with or without a police report, we look carefully at how we can support that student,” Barr explained.
According to Maria, the university offered her very little support.
“Pending the trial, at the beginning of April last year, [Concordia Security] offered to walk me to the metro [at] night, but that was it,” Maria said, adding that her alleged harasser could still approach her on campus.
Maria said she also received no follow-ups from the police regarding her report. “The Sexual Assault Resource Centre [SARC] offered to get me support, offered to be there for me, offered to email my professors asking for extensions, but that’s it. There were no continuous follow-ups.”
On April 20, Maria’s alleged harasser received an email from the ORR informing him that the office wanted to schedule a meeting with him and Concordia Security “to discuss […] concerns regarding his alleged behaviour involving another member of the university.”
A meeting was set up between the alleged harasser, ORR and Concordia Security on May 5, 2016. In her report, Denis wrote that the individual said “he would be available at any time after his last final.”
“The university accommodates him and his final schedule, but no accommodation was given to me,” Maria said.
On Oct. 25, 2016 at 1 p.m., Maria entered a room in Concordia’s GM building for the hearing.
Niemi and Maria later criticized the trial’s procedure. Maria told The Concordian there was a power imbalance. “I was represented by two CSU student advocates. He was represented by two university advocates paid by the university,” she said.
In addition, Maria had to sit at the same table as her alleged harasser. “If I wanted to go to the restroom, I would have to almost touch him because the room was very narrow, [and] he had his friends sitting outside, his witnesses, laughing. I could hear myself being called a whore,” she recalled.
According to Barr, “any party or person who feels uncomfortable in the physical setting can bring this up and solutions can be sought.” She added that survivors can be provided with information and support from the SARC coordinator throughout the process. According to the SHP decision, Maria’s advocate said SARC coordinator Jennifer Drummond would act as a witness. However, Drummond did not testify at the trial because “she had a prior commitment,” the SHP decision reads.
During the hearing, the respondent claimed he gave Maria’s phone number—which eventually ended up on fake online accounts—to an individual who used the alias William.
The respondent said he met the individual through the online gaming platform Steam but had never met him in person throughout their five years of acquaintance.
Maria’s advocates asked the SHP to expel the respondent, arguing that “if the respondent is not adequately sanctioned, the complainant will not be able to continue her studies at the university.”
In response, the respondent’s advocates argued that “the complainant’s advocates failed to establish a direct link between the respondent and the charges contained herein.” For that reason, they added, a sanction of expulsion “would be very severe.”
After a deliberation, the SHP unanimously upheld charges of harassment and sexual harassment, and a majority of the panel upheld the “threatening or violent conduct charge.”
In light of the decision, the SHP imposed a written reprimand and compensation for the cost associated with Maria’s need to change her cellphone. However, Maria said this was not an issue, since phone companies have policies to replace phones for free in cases of harassment.
Maria said it was very stressful for her to inform her family about the harassment. “I come from a very conservative family [and] the culture is not very feminist,” she explained. “Just the fact that I had to call my dad [and] having to explain to him, ‘I’m being called a whore. I can’t walk to campus without someone wanting to rape me.’” According to Niemi, Maria’s alleged harasser has also threatened to sue her.
In its Sept. 21 press release, CRARR wrote that “common patterns of the university’s failure to protect and support [students include] being kept in the dark about the aftermath once a decision is rendered, especially where personal safety is concerned.”
In its conclusion, the tribunal decision read that the “majority of the SHP recommended that the present file be forwarded to the appropriate department(s) for its assessment and management.”
Niemi said he doesn’t know where the file was forwarded. In an email, Barr wrote that the file “could be forwarded to Security, the Office of Rights and Responsibility and/or the Dean of Students—all depending on the circumstances.”
According to Niemi, Maria has been suspended from her program. Maria said she is not attending classes at the moment because her grades suffered too much throughout the ordeal. “In the middle of my finals, I was walking with security to the police department, spending five hours with them to write reports. How was I expected to do anything? Concordia was aware because I was going with [them] to do all these procedures,” Maria said, adding that the university did not unenroll her from the classes she expected to be excused from. “Classes that were supposed to be dropped were not dropped,” Maria said, and her GPA suffered as a result.
According to Maria, she only knew about the support available to her on campus because she was involved in student politics. “Had I just come to my class and then went home, I would not have even been aware of these bodies, and would have had effectively no support,” she said.
Niemi said the Quebec Human Rights Commission “will investigate the harasser [and] gather all the evidence to eventually rule whether she has been a victim of harassment and discrimination.” Despite the SHP’s decision to uphold the charges of harassment and sexual harassment, Niemi said he and Maria are not satisfied. As the SHP decision acknowledges, the tribunal “does not have the authority to impose conditions restricting the respondent’s movements on campus.”
If the Human Rights Commission recommends damages, Niemi said CRARR “is looking at five figures.”
Maria said she “wanted to make sure [her] experience had some good come out of it.”
“I want to make sure that this person will not go out in the world and perpetuate those same actions to someone else.”
*Names have been changed to ensure the individuals’ privacy and protection.
Feature image by Alex Hutchins.