From today, universities will no longer be able to hide behind the law to keep victims of sexual violence in the dark about the sanctions imposed on their aggressor.
“It’s reassuring to see that when we come together as a team, we can get things done,” says Véronique Pronovost, PhD student in sociology at UQAM.
He is one of a handful of students who successfully convinced lawmakers to approve the legislative change that goes into effect today.
Until now, students who filed a complaint of misconduct, harassment or sexual assault by a professor or another student had no right to know whether the institution decided to take action or not.
Ms. Pronovost knows this well: she herself filed a complaint against a professor at her university in the past. She never knew how the story of her own complaint ended.
The Act on the Protection of Privacy and Personal Data prohibits any employer from publishing information from the employee file, even in the case of sexual assault.
“I thought it was absurd,” says Martin Ouellet, PQ MP for René-Lévesque in the North Coast, who presented the proposed amendment in the National Assembly in February 2021.
After the work of the “collegiality” of the elected officials, the law on private life was amended so that the law on sexual violence in universities can also be amended.
At the request of the complainant, the institution can now publish whether or not the person concerned has been punished and how.
“This is a huge step to help victims come out of the shadows and restore confidence in the complaints process,” Mr Ouellet said.
not far enough
But for the students behind the reform, the change doesn’t go far enough in the required transparency.
For example, a lecturer may continue to harass his female students at one university, get fired, and then start again at another university.
Alexandra Dupuy was herself a student representative in the committee responsible for evaluating sexual violence prevention policies at UQAM.
She and her colleagues had no right to know what sanctions were given to teachers. It won’t change even after the reform, he laments.
No one except the administration has an overview” of the imposed sanctions, their consistency or relevance.
“For me, the most abnormal thing is the lack of leadership from the universities. They didn’t do anything to try to change the law,” notes Véronique Pronovost, despite all the testimonies of victims disappointed and hurt by the complaints process.
The students managed to change it. “But that shouldn’t be our job. Our task is to study and do research,” he concludes.
Two classes of victims
“It’s clearly a good thing that we’re taking care of [ce sujet-là]. But the devil is in the details,” says Finn Makela, professor of labor law at the University of Sherbrooke.
In particular, he notes that the reform creates “two classes of victims”. A person who becomes a victim of psychological harassment at university will have no more right than before to know the sanctions imposed on his harasser, because there is no sexual dimension to it, he explains.
In addition, it is not excluded that the reform will be challenged in court under the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms, believes Mr. Makela.
Be informed but be quiet
Universities and CEGEP could require complainants to remain silent before revealing the sanctions imposed on the professor, a scenario many students fear.
A prosecutor who chooses to disclose the sanctions imposed on his aggressor could be “exposed”. […] to court proceedings”, we can read in the document of the Ministry of Higher Education about the reform, which came into effect today.
In order to avoid damage to their reputation or prosecution, it is very likely that CEGEP and the universities will decide to make complainants sign confidentiality agreements who want to use their new right to be informed.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they were [les institutions] do it all,” admits Finn Makela, professor of labor law at the University of Sherbrooke.
Word or complaint?
“We are still beginning to reproduce the system of silence around the complainant,” summarizes Véronique Pronovost.
In fact, some universities already require a non-disclosure agreement to be signed…before filing a complaint.
This was reported by a user Press in an article about the case of Samuel Archibald, an ex-professor accused by UQAM of “serious acts” of a sexual nature.
“It’s unacceptable,” outraged Alexandra Dupuy, who has heard of several examples of such agreements.
“These are very broad confidentiality agreements. In my opinion, it’s too broad,” said Michaël Lessard, a member of the Barreau du Québec and a doctoral student at the University of Toronto.
He gives the example of a student who, after signing, might believe he has no right to talk about his experience to a psychologist or the police in order to file a criminal complaint.
At the time of publication last night, UQAM had not responded to our questions.