University sexual harassment victim kept in dark over whether professor was punished

Véronique Pronovost still lacks closure three years after filing a complaint with her university against a professor who sexually harassed her. The school is keeping her in the dark about how — or even if — the professor was disciplined.

School policies across Canada fall short on transparency, victims and advocates say

Véronique Pronovost was sexually harassed by a professor at Université du Québec à Montréal. Six years later, she still doesn't know if he was disciplined for his actions. (Myriam Fimbry/Radio-Canada)

Véronique Pronovost still lacks closure three years after filing a complaint with her university against a professor who sexually harassed her, because the school is keeping her in the dark about how — or even if  — the professor was disciplined.

​"Why would victims go forward and make a complaint if they don't get anything back in terms of closure or anything like that at the end of the process?" Pronovost said to CBC News.

Pronovost was a master's student at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) in 2011 when the alleged incidents took place.

Her story points to the challenge facing universities in Quebec and across the country. As post-secondary institutions grapple with how to address sexual violence, victims and advocates say some policies lack transparency.

It began, Pronovost said, with comments about her sex life by a professor at a social event off-campus.

Then, at an off-campus party one night, Pronovost says things got worse.

"He became very much insistent and he was trying to kiss me, and kiss me, and kiss me," she said. "At the end of the evening, he just took my hand and put it into his pants, just like that."

Pronovost said she didn't initially file a complaint because she feared it would have repercussions on her academic career. Although the professor was not her direct teacher, she said he held a lot of influence at the school.

"I was feeling very alone and I didn't really know how to react," she said. "I felt like, 'Who am I as a little student to bother the life of a well-known and established professor?'"

Compelled to come forward

Three years later, in 2014, Pronovost decided to break her silence.

She was moved to act by an anonymous campaign at UQAM to call out professors facing allegations of sexual harassment, by posting stickers on their office doors. 

The campaign also criticized the university's policy on sexual violence.

University sexual harassment victim speaks out on sanctions

5 years ago
Duration 0:21
Véronique Pronovost says she was left in the dark about sanctions after she was harassed by a university professor.

When Pronovost filed her complaint, she said, the university took it seriously. UQAM launched an independent investigation, but Pronovost said she had to sign a confidentiality agreement before it began.

The investigation, completed in 2015, ruled in Pronovost's favour. It found the professor had acted inappropriately, and that his behaviour amounted to sexual harassment.

I am one of the very few who won. But I don't have the feeling that I won anything.— Véronique Pronovost

Still, to this day, the university refuses to tell Pronovost what, if any, sanctions the professor faced.

"I am one of the very few who won," Pronovost said. "But I don't have the feeling that I won anything."

Maude Rousseau, director of the UQAM office that deals with sexual violence complaints, said any information about sanctions against an employee is confidential. Rousseau said the university is bound by provincial privacy laws around employment records to keep those details secret, even from victims.

"Universities are not against divulging sanctions," she said. "But right now, the law does not authorize us to do that." 

UQAM says it is bound by provincial privacy laws to keep sanctions against employees confidential. (Radio-Canada)

Advocates see shortcomings

The Quebec government recently introduced legislation to counter sexual violence on campuses.

Bill 151 would force all universities and colleges to adopt policies to prevent sexual violence, including a complaint procedure and a code of conduct for intimate relationships between students and those with influence over their studies.

The schools would also have to provide yearly reports to the province on the number of complaints received and how they were handled.

Quebec's Higher Education Minister Hélène David tabled legislation last month that would force all universities and colleges to adopt policies to counter sexual violence. (CBC)

Ontario, British Columbia and Manitoba have passed similar legislation. Still, even as more universities and colleges adopt such policies, some victims and the advocates who support them say many of the policies have shortcomings.   

"There is a lot of work to be done," said Caitlin Salvino, a spokesperson for the student advocacy group Our Turn, which aims to end campus sexual violence. The group has examined policies from schools across the country, and Salvino said several universities cite privacy laws to keep sanctions secret.

"It undermines the whole process and I wouldn't recommend anyone come forward if there is no point in even hearing the sanctions, because it's a very difficult process," she said.

For her part, Pronovost doesn't regret coming forward, and she hopes the final version of the Quebec legislation will include changes that make it more stringent.

"We've opened the box of transparency with that bill," she said. "Let's go bigger, let's dream bigger for transparency and let's make the victims aware and knowledgeable about the sanctions."