UQAM researchers, victims join forces to improve how universities respond to sexual violence complaints

Since 2017 Quebec has had a new law on the books geared towards preventing sexual violence in CEGEPs and universities — but is it making a difference?

A research group at the Université du Quebec à Montreal (UQAM) has launched a study to try to get some answers.

Bill 151 provides a framework for receiving and addressing complaints, as well as for preventing sexual violence.

The research coordinator at UQAM says their team has decided, at least initially, to zero in on an early stage of the process.

“We want to know how things are going [since then] for people who come forward and disclose situations of sexual violence … we need to better understand,” Ludivine Tomasso said

The work is being led by UQAM’s Research Chair on Gender and Sexual Violence in Higher Education, Professor Manon Bergeron.

The team is recruiting approximately 80 people to interview, from French universities in Quebec, Ontario, and New Brunswick.

Wanted are participants who, since 2019, sought out someone within their university setting to tell them about an experience with sexual violence and/or harassment.

The incidents could be recent or could have taken place years ago, on campus or at a party, for example, where the guests are from a university community.

“It's feminist and intersectional research. We want to speak with people from marginalized communities because they are more at risk to live sexual violence,” Tomasso said.

That includes women and members of the LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit communities. Also people with disabilities, people of colour, and Indigenous peoples, “to better understand how their realities,” are being addressed, said the coordinator.

The researchers’ definition of sexual violence is broad. “It can be words, attitudes, behaviours of a sexual nature, jokes. It could be explicit material shared on social media. It could be attempted sexual assault or sexual coercion,” Tomasso explained.

While the goal is to study how the process is working within a university setting it doesn’t focus on any one type of individual.

“Violence can be committed by teachers, professors, fellow students,” or any staff member, said Tomasso, adding, “we want to understand all those power relationships.”

KEPT IN THE DARK

When Toronto writer Ibi Kaslik found out in 2019 the Concordia professor she’d accused of sexually harassing her had been exonerated, she was shocked to be hearing the news from a journalist, instead of from the university.

She said the university didn’t even tell her the investigation had wrapped up six months earlier.

“There needs to be transparency. It's like Kafka. They held an investigation and they didn't tell us when it was, or what the outcome was,” Kaslik said in an interview with CTV News.

The story didn’t end there. Last year, Kaslik decided to hire a lawyer, seeking some explanations from the university about why the process unfolded as it did.

The lack of communication had only amplified her feelings of having been misled and unaccompanied, Kaslik said, especially since she hadn’t ever intended to file a complaint.

She said Concordia invited her to talk to them, to share the allegations that she was “consistently sexually harassed,” for more than a year as a student.

“Don't write a letter telling me you’re going to look into it, you're going to get back to me, you're on my side, because you know what? We were completely revictimized,” Kaslik said.

Kaslik said “it gives her hope,” that experts are taking a closer look at the system that she said failed her.

SEXUAL VIOLENCE: ONE IN THREE

According to Tomasso, the latest data indicates that one in three people are confronted with sexual violence in some form at an institution of higher learning.

But “silence remains,” she said. If a person went to talk to a friend or a professor about their experience but then chose not to file a formal complaint, “we want to know why you didn't go forward to the university,” she said.

“You didn't have the information [you needed], or is the process too complicated for you?”

One possible reason why someone might second-guess what happened, she said, is there are a lot of aspects of sexual violence that are normalized. For instance jokes with sexual content.”

A person might say “you know, it’s not that bad, so I’m not going to make a complaint,” even if the supposed humour crosses a line, said Belanger.

PROBLEMATIC PRIVACY LAWS

A major deterrent to filing a complaint are the province’s strict privacy and labour laws, according to a PhD student at UQAM who has been actively fighting to change them for the last five years.

“I've been through a case with a professor myself,” said Véronique Pronovost, who said she was “jumping through all the hoops” that you have to go through with an institution after filing a complaint.

When she said being told the institution “recognizes what you’ve been going through with that sexual harassment case, but we won't tell you what's going to happen,” it just didn’t sit well with her.

It also echoes what Kaslik said she went through, and why she, too, hit a brick wall.

In a statement to CTV News at the time, Concordia did indeed cite privacy concerns when asked why Kaslik wasn’t kept informed along the way.

“We cannot divulge any information surrounding potential or actual investigations, including the results of any investigations,” a spokesperson wrote.

Kaslik said she also only learned later that the university had appointed a liaison to help complainants navigate the system, but said no one ever reached out to her.

The lawyer she hired asked Concordia to tell her whether her complaints were “deemed to be founded,” asked why she wasn’t informed when the investigation was over, and requested an apology “for the lack of support.”

The requests were not met. “You realize there's a difference between justice and the law. And that's what I learned,” Kaslik said.

SOME HOPE ON THE HORIZON

Pronovost also refused to take no for an answer.

“I felt really let down by my university and decided that something had to be done” she said. Before it was adopted, she campaigned for changes to sections of Bill 151 that dealt with privacy issues.

It was an uphill battle. “At the time, the Liberal government was not open-minded” to adapting its proposed law, which went ahead without the changes, Pronovost said.

But, a few years later while working with a group of like-minded students and activists, they saw another angle to exploit when they learned the government planned to revamp the law on the protection of personal information. 

It took a whole winter of work within the university and with Quebec’s political parties, she said, but many expect the proposed law, a modernized Bill 64 will be adopted.

Nathalie St-Pierre, the spokesperson for Eric Caire, the Minister responsible for the protection of personal information, told CTV News a National Assembly committee will meet to study the proposed legislation sometime in mid-August.

If the law is passed, “the universities [and CEGEPs] will have no choice but to reveal to the victim the sanctions that will be applied to the perpetrators,” said Pronovost.

But, as much as Pronovost welcomes the change, the fight for full disclosure is not over.

“The only person that will know the sanction is the victim. So, it's a lot of weight on the shoulders of the victim.” The alleged victim will have to keep that information confidential.

Pronovost is concerned that, should anyone else on campus breach confidentiality, the alleged victim will be blamed.

INITIATIVES APPLAUDED

Those who work on these sensitive issues for universities and campuses have been busy the last few years implementing changes and programs related to the 2017 law designed to fight sexual violence.

The director of Concordia University’s Sexual Assault Centre says there’s still a lot they can learn about how the system is working and calls the new UQAM study a “great initiative.”

Jennifer Drummond said she’s seen many positive changes over the last few years. She said the university has worked “to make our complaints options more survivor-centred, more trauma-informed.”

The law also required that everyone on campus receive mandatory sexual violence prevention and response training, which Drummond said has “helped increase awareness that we have a sexual assault resource centre and a sexual violence policy.”

“We also implemented a liaison person. That person is there when there's an investigation to guide the survivor through that process and keep them informed on how things are going,” Drummond said.

Drummond didn’t provide any additional information about what may have gone wrong in Kaslik’s case when later asked why Kaslik never heard from a liaison, telling CTV News there are “three staff [members] that can act as liaison as needed.”

As for the privacy constraints, “I definitely see how it could be frustrating,” said Drummond. However, the information they can provide is limited now by the privacy laws that currently exist, she said.

If there are safety concerns, “the complainant will be made aware of measures put in place for their safety,” said Drummond, “even if they don’t have all the information about the outcome.”

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