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Quebec students want say on how sexual violence addressed on campus

Students say they should be included on an advisory committee that's helping the Quebec government craft guidelines for universities and CEGEPs to deal with sexual violence.

Students call on Quebec government to let them join committee helping schools deal with sexual violence

Caitlin Salvino, co-founder of Our Turn, a student group which aims to end campus sexual violence, sent an open letter Thursday demanding students be included on Bill 151's advisory committee. (Leah Hendry/CBC)

A student group has expressed its disappointment over the Quebec government's decision to leave students off a committee tasked with helping universities and CEGEPs deal with sexual violence on campus.

The student advocacy group Our Turn is sending a letter Thursday to Higher Education Minister Hélène David, asking that students be allowed to sit on the advisory body.

"I think she's completely missing the voices of those most impacted by campus sexual violence policies and those that most need to be listened to," said Caitlin Salvino, the group's spokesperson and co-founder.

Quebec's Liberal government passed legislation to address the issue of sexual violence at post-secondary schools in the province last winter.

Bill 151 requires CEGEPs and universities to adopt formal complaint procedures, victim support services and a code of conduct for student-professor relationships by September 2019.

Based on a list obtained by CBC News, the advisory committee is mostly made up of government staff and post-secondary school administrators.

Quebec's Higher Education Minister Hélène David passed legislation last year that requires all universities and CEGEPs to adopt policies to counter sexual violence. (CBC)

The Higher Education Ministry intends to use the committee's recommendations to come up with the guidelines for schools to follow. 

Salvino said previous requests to have students included, even by members of the committee itself, were rejected.

They were told the work was already underway and students would be consulted once the guide is drafted, she said.

"That's too late," said Salvino. "We should have been included from the get-go."

Rape crisis centres back students

The Quebec coalition of rape crisis centres, RQCALACS, says it is the only current member of the committee that represents the concerns of sexual violence survivors.

The coalition has come out in support of the students' demand to be included, said spokesperson Marlihan Lopez, because it doesn't feel comfortable speaking on their behalf.

"After all the work they did of pushing to mobilize the government to do something, they are just going to be left out? I don't think that's acceptable," Lopez said.

Marlihan Lopez, a spokesperson for RQCALACS, the Quebec coalition of rape crisis centres, says it backs the students' demand to be included. (Submitted by Marlihan Lopez)

Although the committee has only met a few times to date, Lopez says her group's representative at the meetings said there appears to be a lack of awareness about sexual violence around the table.

She's skeptical that the committee can come up with policies that adequately address the needs of student survivors if they aren't included in the decision-making process.

Already, research shows that very few victims of sexual violence file formal complaints with their school or police.

The committee's work is supposed to wrap up Thursday, but Lopez thinks the discussions need to continue indefinitely. 

She also said more resources need to be allocated to prevention.

"Fighting against sexual violence is a long-term fight. It's not something you can do in six months," she said. 

Her coalition is already fielding calls from schools that are trying to figure out what the new legislation means for them.

She said a one-size-fits-all policy won't work because each school is dealing with different issues, budgets and resources.

"They need a space to bring up the issues and worries they have," said Lopez. 

Student pressure getting results

Over the last few months, students at both Concordia and McGill universities have criticized their respective administrations over how they have handled sexual misconduct among faculty members.

Earlier this week, 148 professors at McGill came out in support of its student union's call for an external investigation into complaints.

In an open letter, the professors said the issue was affecting the entire campus and the school's reputation.

McGill's principal, Suzanne Fortier, is meeting students, faculty and other administrators this week to discuss the university's handling of sexual assault complaints. (McGill University)

In response, McGill's principal, Suzanne Fortier, is meeting with students, faculty members and other administrators over the course of the week to discuss what the school can do to improve its policies and procedures.

Salvino said it's clear more work needs to be done, however.

Although Bill 151 requires schools to submit annual reports tracking complaints and how they are handled, Salvino said she isn't convinced they will be candid about mistakes or problems. 

"I really can't envision them self-reporting that," said Salvino, who was recently hired by McGill's student union to draft a stand-alone, sexual violence policy. 

"That's why it's important for people who are more critical to be at the table."

About the Author

Leah Hendry is a TV, radio and online journalist with CBC Montreal Investigates. Contact her via our confidential tipline: 514-597-5155 or on email at montrealinvestigates@cbc.ca.