A case against the university will escalate to the Human Rights Tribunal
Concordia University has chosen not to comply with the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission’s recommendation to change how it handles sexual assault complaints. The case will escalate to the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal, sources told The Concordian.
In June, the Human Rights Commission issued a decision that said Concordia’s procedure for dealing with sexual assault and violence complaints was overly rigid and formal, leading to a contradictory and adversarial method of processing complaints that was “likely to have harmful effects.”
The case was brought forward by a former disabled Concordia student named Cathy.* The commission ruled that she was a victim of discrimination based on her gender and disability and that her right to equality was violated through Concordia’s handling of her sexual assault complaint.
“The way that Concordia has responded doesn’t surprise me and feels very in line with the sort of obstructions that I faced going through the entire process,” said Cathy.
After the first assault happened outside of the university campus, Cathy said she called the police, reported the assault, and obtained a restraining order against her aggressor, a Concordia student, who was arrested following the incident. She also said she approached Concordia’s campus security about the incident to warn them about her aggressor.
When Cathy was assaulted by the aggressor a second time, this time on campus, she said that she no longer feels safe at the university because the aggressor did not respect the restraining order. Following the incident, she called the police once more, and he was arrested again.
Once again Cathy went to campus security, who told her she would have to file a formal complaint to the Office of Student Tribunals for the university to enact any sort of punishment for the aggressor.
Cathy described feeling as though the university tried to delay the process of her complaint against her aggressor. After Cathy filed the complaint in March of 2015, it took more than a year for the student tribunal to hear her case, in May of 2016.
Cathy expressed that she did not want to be in the same room as her aggressor during the tribunal hearing. She had faced him once before in court, where he pleaded guilty to the assault charges.
Cathy was told that her restraining order against her aggressor would be enforced in the tribunal, and that she could submit her testimony by video. However, none of these accommodations were provided.
Instead, in order to have her case heard at the tribunal, Cathy said she was told to “make an exception” in her restraining order against her aggressor, so they could simultaneously testify in-person. She would have to sit in the same room as him and testify in his presence.
“It was very shocking and upsetting,” said Cathy. “I had … to be two people away from my attacker.”
Cathy was also told she could not have an immediate family member there at the tribunal for support or to speak as a character witness on her behalf. Her aggressor, however, was able to invite his parents as his character witness.
“It felt so demeaning,” said Cathy.
According to Concordia’s policy regarding sexual violence, which was updated in June of 2020, “accommodations that may be considered include: providing seperate rooms prior to meetings; alternatives to face-to face meetings through other means of participation such as telephone, video, Skype; use of an intermediary; pre-recorded answers and statements; prepared written responses; as well as the opportunity to have support and representation at any hearing or confidential meeting with the investigator.”
The outcome of the tribunal came in June 2016, and the aggressor was penalized for “threatening and violent conduct.” His punishment was 30 hours of community service to be completed at the end of the Winter 2017 term.
The tribunal also dismissed Cathy’s allegation that the incident constituted sexual harassment, but did not give her any explanation as to why it came to that decision, according to Cathy.
In April 2017, Cathy asked the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR) to file a complaint on her behalf with the Human Rights Commission against Concordia University based on how her sexual assault allegation was handled. The Human Rights Commission took three years to make a decision on her case, arriving at said decision in June of 2020.
The commission outlined its recommendations to Concordia University in three parts. The first was that Concordia should award Cathy $15,000 in damages ($10,000 in moral damages and $5,000 in punitive damages for violation of her civil rights).
Secondly, the commission called on the university to remove all adversarial elements in how the university handles sexual assault and violence complaints.
Thirdly, the commission asked that members of Concordia’s Office of Student Tribunals receive effective training to further curb all adversarial approaches in dealing with complaints of sexual assault.
Fo Niemi, Executive Director of the CRARR, helped Cathy bring her case to the Human Rights Commission. Niemi told The Concordian that Concordia University has decided not to comply with the Human Rights Commission’s recommendations.
When questioned about this decision, Spokesperson Vannina Maestracci told The Concordian that the university “does not comment on matters that are pending before the courts or administrative tribunals.”
According to Niemi, Concordia University had months to comply with the decision. Niemi said the university’s reasons for non-compliance will only be known when the case goes to the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal.
Niemi said that Cathy’s case escalating to the Human Rights Tribunal would be “precedent setting.”
“Not only for Concordia but for all universities here in Quebec, in dealing with campus sexual violence, especially universities that have a code of conduct that supposedly bans discrimination, harassment, and violence,” said Niemi.
Cathy said she is going forward with the case so that, “no one has to go through this again. The system has to change.”
Niemi said the Student Tribunal has problems that are “structural and systemic,” highlighting how Cathy was forced to testify in person, close to her aggressor, without a security guard in the room.
Concordia’s Office of Student Tribunals is composed of student volunteers and a group of lawyers who serve as chairs during the hearings. Members are trained to rule on complaints brought forward by students, with the most aggressive punishment being expulsion.
Niemi noted the unequal class representation and inadequate experience among the Student Tribunal lawyers who chair the hearings.
“They are all corporate lawyers with backgrounds in business and tax law — that is basically a reflection of a certain class bias,” said Niemi. The lack of experience in diverse legal backgrounds “should raise concerns about the fairness of the entire Student Tribunal process.”
“Why can’t we get lawyers with labour, human rights, or independent criminal defense experiences?” Niemi continued.
Niemi pointed out that the tribunal consists of a majority white panel. “The gross lack of diversity among the appointees, that in itself is a betrayal in [the university’s] commitment to diversity.”
Walter Chi-yan Tom, manager at the Concordia Student Union (CSU) Legal Information Clinic, said that the university’s decision not to comply with the commission’s recommendations are “not surprising and [are] systemic.”
“The university’s usual behaviour pattern when a human rights complaint is filed against Concordia is that the educational institution just tries to drag on the case as long as possible, hoping that the student will eventually tire-out, graduate, or disappear, and therefore the problem will resolve itself,” said Tom, “but unfortunately not for the victim of sexual assault or violence.”
Tom also brought up the insufficient human rights training and lack of diversity among the tribunal chairs.
“Where is their background in human rights? Where is their professional experience and training in dealing with survivors of trauma, especially victims of sexual violence? How can the university’s selection of only white corporate lawyers as chairs possibly be representative of Concordia’s diversity?” asked Tom.
Jennifer Drummond, manager of Concordia’s Sexual Assault Resource Centre (SARC), informed the The Concordian that the total amount of training on sexual assault cases provided to both the chairs and volunteer students of the tribunal is one hour of a PowerPoint presentation.
“How is this system survivor-centric? Trauma-informed?” said Tom.
Cathy said she hopes her experience sheds light on how universities treat victims of sexual violence and how “flawed this whole procedure and the student tribunal was.”
Concordia spokesperson Maestracci told The Concordian that the university has continuously updated their “original sexual violence policy in 2018 and 2020 (June) with inputs from members of the entire university, including students.”
*to protect the subject’s identity, we are using her preferred pseudonym.
Graphic by Taylor Reddam.