McGill, News

Student advocates call for reform of McGill’s harassment and discrimination policy

Content Warning: Mention of sexual violence and racism

McGill’s Policy on Harassment and Discrimination allows members of the university community to take action when they feel they have been harassed or discriminated against. The policy and its accompanying procedures outline how to file complaints and prompt investigations into both individuals at McGill and the university’s systemic practices. While it is intended to provide support to students navigating the official complaint process, many—including Black and 2SLGBTQIA+ students, and members of student advocacy groups—are dissatisfied with the policy’s framework and implementation. In interviews with The McGill Tribune, student advocates familiar with the policy explained that they have found several issues with it, such as inefficient procedural practices and a lack of legitimate third-party intervention. 

Complaints about harassment or discrimination are brought to McGill’s Office for Mediation and Reporting (OMR), which was created after the policy’s revision in 2021. McGill media relations officer Frédérique Mazerolle explained it as “an office dedicated to the independent and impartial oversight of the resolution of reports of harassment, discrimination, and sexual violence” in an email to the Tribune.

Once a complaint is filed with the OMR, assessors—typically members of the university’s staff—begin the investigation process. According to section 6.2 of the policy, reports may be handed to an external third-party assessor if one of the investigators has a conflict of interest, if one of the parties is a member of the OMR, or if one of the parties is a member of McGill’s senior administration. Regardless of whether the assessor is an independent party or not, the Provost is responsible for making a final decision that concludes the investigative process. 

“If the assessor’s report determines that the evidence is sufficient to find that harassment and/or discrimination has occurred, then the Provost will inform the parties in writing of the decision to refer the matter to the appropriate University disciplinary authority to determine disciplinary and/or administrative measures,” Mazerolle wrote. 

A case’s appropriate disciplinary authority depends on the role of the accused, according to section 6.16. The appropriate authority in the case of a student is outlined in the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures. In the case of a staff member, it will be the dean of their faculty or the dean’s delegate, whereas in the case of a Vice-Principal, it would go to the Principal. The Chair of the Board of Governors presides over cases involving the Principal. 

Queer McGill administrative coordinator Brooklyn Frizzle is concerned about what they believe is the Provost’s outsized role in managing harassment and discrimination complaints. Frizzle stressed that a Provost’s individual biases can have an impact on how cases are handled. They pointed to previous comments that the former Provost and current Interim Principal Christopher Manfredi made in Senate meetings. 

For example, Frizzle took issue with Manfredi’s indication—during a Nov. 18, 2020 Senate Meeting—that there is no inherent concern with McGill professors signing a petition to support a professor using racial slurs in their teaching.

In an interview with the Tribune, Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) vice-president (VP) University Affairs Kerry Yang explained that the OMR might not be completely detached from the university given it fits within the Equity department under the Office of the Provost and remains under the administration’s jurisdiction. 

“Although they say it’s all to remain impartial, based on how the structure is, it doesn’t seem that way,” Yang said. “There’s no recourse if [McGill does] conduct something in bad faith because it’s all centralized. How can we ensure that what [McGill] is saying is impartial is truly impartial?”  

Frizzle also takes issue with how the Policy serves 2SLGBTQIA+ students. They explained that many queer students who tried to file a complaint under the policy were advised by the OMR that their complaint would not be successful in an “investigative setting,” which ultimately discouraged them from seeking justice. 

“Most of those cases are not investigated. They’re not formally documented and there’s no assessment made, typically, because they’re kind of pre-screened,” Frizzle said. “They advise a student that now this doesn’t meet the definition, so it probably wouldn’t go anywhere.” 

The most recent annual report on the Policy on Harassment and Discrimination noted that only eight per cent of inquiries with the OMR led to formal reports in 2020-2021. However, 47 per cent of all inquiries met the definitional requirements to launch a report. 

Alex*, a student advocate, believes there are purposeful factual errors and omittances in McGill’s records. 

“Many other Black students had filed harassment and discrimination complaints under McGill’s policy, and […] it wasn’t conducted properly in the sense that [McGill] literally lied,” Alex explained in an interview with the Tribune.  “There were factual mistakes in the [reports]. They failed to include key elements, so it was intentionally not done properly.” 

Alex compared the Policy on Harassment and Discrimination to the university’s Policy against Sexual Violence (PSV), which they believe is much more robust due to continued momentum from the #MeToo movement

“Oftentimes when there’s a movement and there’s this kind of shift, like social pressure on a particular issue, sometimes it’s […] tied to a specific momentum and then it fades,” Alex said. “In [the case of sexual violence policies], we see this continuous legislative improvement and oversight. But when it comes to harassment and discrimination, it’s not the same.”

Frizzle explained that another reason McGill may prioritize updates to the PSV could be its provincial legal obligations. Bill 151 mandates universities to establish strong policies addressing sexual violence, whereas there are no specific laws mandating universities to institute policies against harassment and discrimination. 

“McGill is a very big fan of the bare minimum, legally,” Frizzle said. “So, of course, they are going to take it more seriously because if it’s found that they’re not investigating sexual violence, then that has a much bigger […]  legal implication than […] failing to address harassment and defending professors that use racial slurs in our classroom and uplifting the voices of people who perpetuate injustice.”

The additional staff members who are employed to assist in anti-discrimination policy-making often occupy roles with limited abilities. Alex explained that the Black Students Liaison Officer, who is responsible for supporting Black students, is not allowed to engage in any advocacy or directly aid students who have filed complaints. They also noted that McGill has recently eliminated the position of Assistant Dean (Inclusion – Black and Indigenous Flourishing), who was tasked specifically with supporting and recruiting Black and Indigenous law students. This position has been replaced with the Assistant Dean (Students), who carries out several student affairs duties in addition to being the dean’s lead on Black and Indigenous flourishing.

Both Yang and Alex believe that McGill’s Policy on Harassment and Discrimination must be revised to make it a more effective support mechanism. The most efficient way to conduct investigations, they say, would be entirely through an independent third party. Alex also suggested increased levels of academic accommodations for students during the complaint process and a provision to encourage advocacy throughout McGill’s governance channels.

“Every time I go to [governance] meetings, white administrators always say that ‘we don’t do any advocacy,’” Alex said. “But if we’re talking about equity issues and we’re trying to improve a structure, the whole point is to demand that these structures be more equitable, and that requires advocacy.”

*Alex’s name has been changed to preserve their anonymity.

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