Former Concordia student says university didn't take her sexual harassment complaint seriously

A former Concordia student has filed a civil rights complaint, charging that the university did not take her allegations seriously.

At least six Concordia students have filed complaints with Quebec's human rights commission since 2012

CBC reporter Kate McKenna speaks with Ayla, a former Concordia University student who has filed a human rights complaint against the university. (CBC)

A former Concordia student has filed a civil rights complaint, charging that she was sexually harassed by a tenured professor and the university did not take her allegations seriously. 

"Alya" was a Concordia undergraduate student in 2009 when she began receiving emails from her professor, asking her to party with him at bars.

In the emails, obtained by CBC News, she told him she doesn't drink. In one email, she remindedhim of that fact.

"I could always slip some vodka into your pop when you weren't looking!!!!!!!" he responded.

She deflected his advances in her responses, but he persisted.

He began one email by writing "Hi [Alya], hug and kiss."

I just didn't want to go to class anymore. I didn't want to be around the department.- Former  Concordia  undergraduate student on reporting alleged misconduct

In May 2009, another student filed a formal complaint about the same professor and Alya agreed to testify on that student's behalf, reporting her experience dealing with him.

The stress of testifying, in addition to an end-of-semester illness, made it difficult to finish three of her final assignments.

"I just didn't want to go to class anymore," she said. "I didn't want to be around the department." 

She wrote an email to the chair of her department, philosophy, asking for an extension to finish her assignments.

The chair responded, calling her reason — the anxiety and stress associated with reporting the professor's behaviour — "insufficient." He also asked she not tell other members of the department about the ongoing harassment case. 

"It really made me realize what I was dealing with, in terms of who the chair and the department was out to serve, and it wasn't me," she said.

Alya is not the woman's real name. CBC News is protecting her identity as well as the professor's because she fears professional repercussions.

She went on to fail two of the courses, causing a permanent blemish on her academic record. She left Concordia and transferred to York University at significant personal expense.

'Ball in a pinball machine'

Five years after the alleged harassment, Alya approached Concordia again, hoping to file a complaint about how she was treated.

She said when she approached the university, she was shuffled from department to department, "like a ball in a pinball machine."

First, she contacted the new chair of the philosophy department, who forwarded her emails to the school's Office of Rights and Responsibilities. 

She was told it was too late for her to file a complaint and was told to call the ombudsman or the dean.

She contacted the ombudsman and received no response. Disheartened, she gave up.

But then, in 2017, she met another student who was enrolled at Concordia's philosophy department. That woman told Alya she had recently been harassed by the same professor.

Alya said she was appalled the professor was still working at the university, and decided to file a human rights complaint, naming the school.

"It really indicated to me there is still a culture of inappropriate behaviour being tolerated in the department from the same person, almost 10 years later, and it disgusted me," she said.

She said she met with officials from the school's administration, who agreed to remove the failed classes from her academic record and instead mark them as incomplete.

But by then, Alya had already been rejected for graduate programs, a fact she blames on those failed classes.

Four complaints, two settlements

At least six complaints have been filed by former Concordia students to Quebec's Human Rights Commission, each claiming the university has a systemic problem in handling complaints.

Montreal's Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (known by its acronym, CRARR) has taken on these cases.

Alya is seeking $60,000 in damages and is asking Concordia to address the "systemic failings of its sexual violence and sexual harassment policies."

The complaint also requests that the accused professor face sanctions for his alleged behaviour and that the university act within six months of the resolution of the complaint.

New measures since 2009

In a statement, Concordia said it has introduced new measures to deal with student complaints since 2009.

"Concordia has done much work in recent years to ensure survivors have a safe environment and feel well supported to bring forward and disclose cases of sexual violence," reads the statement from Concordia spokeswoman Mary-Jo Barr.

It points to the creation of the Sexual Assault Resource Centre in 2013 and a 2014 review of Concordia's policies and protocols regarding sexual violence.

The statement also said the university adopted a stand-alone policy on sexual violence in 2016.

About the Author

Kate McKenna

Kate McKenna is a journalist with CBC Montreal. Email her at kate.mckenna@cbc.ca