McMaster’s idea of equity protects the university rather than the students

CW: sexual violence, anti-Black racism

It’s time that we talk about equity and inclusion at McMaster University.

Throughout the summer, McMaster has been implicated in several issues. Since February 2020, multiple sexual violence allegations have arisen against faculty and one graduate student in the psychology, neuroscience and behaviour program. In addition, there have been many calls from students for Mac to remove Glenn De Caire as the director of parking and security services due to the controversy surrounding his actions during his time as the police chief of the Hamilton Police Services. In 2010, De Caire established the Addressing Crime Trends In Our Neighbourhood team which performed “street checks” on individuals. The McMaster Students Union has also passed a motion to call for the firing of Glenn De Caire and the removal of the special constable program.

Amidst all of these issues, the Equity and Inclusion office has been integral in addressing anti-Black racism, providing sexual violence reporting options and offering support to students. However, when you use a critical lens, the EIO has been unable to be fully equitable, unbiased and supportive of the student body if it is an office run by McMaster — the same university that has inflicted harm on its students.

However, when you use a critical lens, the EIO has been unable to be fully equitable, unbiased and supportive of the student body if it is an office run by McMaster — the same university that has inflicted harm on its students.

I have had personal experiences dealing with the EIO. On Mar. 7, 2019, the Director of Human Rights and Dispute Resolution, Pilar Michaud, contacted me to inform me that McMaster initiated a third-party investigation due to my public allegations against my perpetrator. This was something I did not agree to and had indicated that I did not want to proceed with a formal investigation to the sexual violence response coordinator a couple of months prior. Because the investigation also involved my residence representative position, my application was put on pause, and the EIO assured me that I would be able to interview after the investigation had concluded. Despite this, I was implicated in a 10-month long investigation (which meant that I was unable to even be considered for a residence rep position before Welcome Week had passed) where I had to discuss the detailed events of my sexual assault to a third-party investigator, who was also a white man.

During the investigation, I felt incredibly alone. I was told not to discuss any details related to my assault or the investigation to anyone who may be a potential witness to facts or details of what occurred. This severely restricted my support system, as I had discussed what happened to me with many of my friends and because of that, they could have been considered a witness for this investigation.

In a time that the EIO was supposed to support me, I felt scrutinized for speaking about my traumatizing experience and worried that somehow they would conclude that I inflicted harm on my perpetrator instead of the other way around. Although McMaster had concluded that my perpetrator had violated the sexual violence policy, the university refused to provide any details regarding what consequences he would face, other than that he cannot contact me — despite the fact that I did not ask for this sanction to be put in place. Why does the EIO think that being survivor-centric is creating sanctions that the survivor did not ask for? 

Throughout my entire interview process, the most support I received were from my peers, not the EIO. All the EIO did was involve me in a traumatic investigation process and occasionally emailed me with a list of resources that I could access. 

Throughout my entire interview process, the most support I received were from my peers, not the EIO. All the EIO did was involve me in a traumatic investigation process and occasionally emailed me with a list of resources that I could access. 

It is also notable that the person who signed off the letter regarding the decision made for the investigation was Sean Van Koughnett, the dean of students and associate vice-president of students and learning. Van Koughnett is a white man whom I’ve never met — so why did he have a say in whether my allegations were true or not?

The fact that the EIO involved Van Koughnett, someone who has not held a formal role in sexual violence prevention, made it clear that they were not here to make a decision that was supposed to support my wellbeing. Had they truly wanted to help me, they would have had someone knowledgeable of sexual violence sign off on the decision instead.

Don’t get me wrong — the Equity and Inclusion Office has held meaningful events such as the “Let’s Talk About Race” workshop series and Black student virtual check-ins. However, a lot of their advocacy work falls short if they continuously fail to tangibly support students who want to report the harm that they have experienced at McMaster. Although I’d like to say that my experience with the office was an outlier, I know of many other students who have been failed by the EIO. 

At the end of the day, EIO acts more like a corporate entity — it’s not here to protect students, it’s here to protect McMaster’s reputation. 

Photo by Kyle West

The McMaster Students Union and McMaster University are preparing to re-examine their policies and protocols on sexual violence in light of the recent Student Voices on Sexual Violence report released by the provincial government earlier this month.

The Student Voices on Sexual Violence survey was sent out last year and involved 160,000 students from over 40 Ontario post-secondary institutions outlining their experiences of sexual violence and harassment.  

According to the survey, three in five McMaster students disclosed at least one experience of sexual harassment.

Sixty-one per cent of McMaster students said they do not have knowledge of McMaster’s sexual violence supports and services.

A McMaster Daily News article responding to the report states that McMaster has provided sexual violence prevention and response training to more than 8,600 students, staff and faculty over the past year.

Arig al Shaibah, McMaster’s associate vice president (Equity and Inclusion), said the university’s sexual violence education team will begin planning a bystander intervention training program in April.

In response to the report, the university will also shortly be reviewing the McMaster’s sexual violence policy, which was created in 2017.

“We are just in the beginning processes of looking at the policy,” al Shaibah said. “We know the numbers that come through our offices are not necessarily indicative of the full picture, so periodically going out there and being able to anonymously get a good gauge of people’s experiences and perceptions is really important.”

Every year, the EIO releases a report highlighting statistics on disclosures of sexual violence and harassment.

However, al Shaibah said the EIO needs to make sure that definitions used to classify disclosures are standardized.

“We have just improved the way we are collecting and centralizing data,” al Shaibah said. “Moving forward, one of the things we are doing is trying to make sure that everyone in the intake office is using the same definition so that we can start to capture trend data over time.”

MSU vice president (Administration) Kristina Epifano will be revising the current “Workplace Anti-Violence, Harassment, and Sexual Assault Prevention Policy” in response to the survey.

“With these revisions, we will host some feedback sessions, inviting student-staff and volunteers to share some of the challenges they've experienced with policies in the past and recommendations they would like to see moving forward,” Epifano said in an email. “I believe it is important to adapt the policy to highlight different options and courses of action that a survivor can take during the process.”

The provincial report comes against the backdrop of multiple allegations of sexual assault within the MSU Maroons.

On March 29, Farah released a statement addressing the subject, promising a formal investigation.

Nevertheless, Farah states that she hasn’t “found actual reports, anonymous or otherwise, of sexual violence within the Maroons team this year.”

The statement also said Epifano will be standardizing an anonymous online reporting tool used for Marrons for all MSU volunteers.

Jocelyn Heaton, the coordinator of the MSU Women and Gender Equity Network, said the MSU’s steps in addressing sexual violence are helpful, but there remains a lot of work to be done.

“The fact that less than three quarters of students know that there are supports and services available is pretty harmful for people who experience sexual violence,” said Heaton. “Also, knowing that a lot of that group is going to receive a disclosure during their time at university and they're not going to know where to refer people to is harmful as well,” she said.

Heaton also mentioned that there has been no consultation thus far with services like WGEN when it comes to the Maroons incident and revising the MSU’s workplace sexual assault prevention policy.

“As the coordinator of a service, the only service specifically meant to address sexual violence, I was never once consulted or brought in to talk about that situation,” Heaton said. “Students have not been consulted on what the policy should look like.”

 

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Photos by Kyle West

Over the last few months, there has been a push by organizations, countries, cities and companies globally to crack down on plastic straws, products that studies show are contributing to the nearly nine million tons of plastic that infect the oceans annually.

With anti-straw advocacy afoot, Canadian restaurants including Harvey’s and Swiss Chalet have announced plans to axe or restrict single-use plastic straws. Ontario universities such as the University of Guelph and Western University are eagerly ridding their campuses of the utensils.

While corporations and organizations have largely been in favour of abandoning plastic straws, disability advocates have pushed back against these efforts, citing the importance of plastic straws for people with physical limitations.

There are also groups challenging the movement on environmental grounds, arguing that paper straws, which are being embraced as plastic straws vanish, are accelerating deforestation, the second leading cause of climate change.

When asked about McMaster’s stance on the plastic straw debate, Chris Roberts, director of McMaster Hospitality Services, said the university is also considering a plastic straw ban. However, MHS will not commit until it engages in nuanced discussions about the effects of a plastic straw ban on stakeholders including students who need them for accessibility reasons.

“It is important for us to take a strategic approach through the understanding of impacts to all stakeholders as opposed to making a reactive decision,” said Roberts.

In a statement on the MHS website, Roberts outlines limitations to a plastic straw ban and stresses the importance of consultations with the McMaster Students Union and Equity and Inclusion Office.

We need to take into consideration all of the stakeholders in the customer base, including those who rely on straws as a result of physical limitations. We need to fully understand the broader systemic sustainability issue and how a more holistic approach may have a greater impact for our customers, community and environment,” reads part of the statement.

Stephanie Bertolo, MSU vice president (Education), says the union appreciates Robert’s commitment to considering the needs of marginalized students on campus.

"The MSU supports the university's efforts to become more environmentally sustainable but asks them to do the proper consultation to ensure their initiatives do not interfere with the accessibility of our campus,” she said.

The EIO’s stance on the issue is notably similar to the MSU’s.

“We are pleased to see that Hospitality Services is expressing mindfulness and consideration of the implications on multiple stakeholders and that there is explicit mention of plans to consult with particular marginalized communities,” said Arig al Shaibah, associate vice president at the EIO.

Unlike at Guelph and Western, where there have been vocal pro-straw-ban voices, the movement has not gained the same traction at McMaster. This is evidenced by the fact that there has not been a #StrawsSuck campaign here, at least not a visible one online.

According to Abbie Little, the coordinator of academic sustainability at the McMaster academic sustainability programs office, however, in the SUSTAIN 2S03 and 3S03 courses, discussions about plastic straws were polarized.

Mohammad Abdul Aziz, a Teaching Assistant for the 3S03 course, says there were quite a few ardent pro-ban students in his classroom.

“From my understanding, students were more than welcome to the idea of banning straws,” said Aziz. “Students believed that eco-friendly practices are not adopted in one fell swoop but need minor introductions to the consumers of multi-national corporations.”

While it looks like a straw ban will not be implemented at McMaster, Roberts did not say the university is committed to the status quo indefinitely. Only time, research and MSU and EIO consultations will tell what lies in store for the future of plastic straw users on campus.  

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Photo from Silhouette Photo Archives

By Daniella Mikanovsky

A string of prowling incidents and break-ins stretching from Aug. 2018 to Sept. 11 continues to rock Westdale. In the wake of these events, students and organizations on campus have been stepping up their advocacy for landlord accountability in the community.  

The first incident occurred on Aug. 3, when an intruder broke into the second story window of McMaster Integrated Science student Connor MacLean’s home. After the incident, MacLean and his roommates called their landlords.

“We felt unsafe in that house, so the landlords agreed to put in motion lights. A month later, there was still nothing. We ended up buying our own motion lights, our own security camera, and we installed it ourselves,” MacLean explained. “Safety should not be the student’s responsibility alone. The landlords need to be the first people looking out for that.”

Shemar Hackett, associate vice president of municipal affairs on for the McMaster Students Union, is planning to tackle the issue of unaccountable landlords. The committee he leads is focused on improving off-campus life for students, including housing safety.

One initiative the committee hopes to implement is the Landlord Licencing System, a city-run program that would fund annual housing inspections and certify that any tenant complaints are taken seriously. This system would encourage landlord responsibility, with the goal being for students to have safety features in their homes, including functioning locks on all windows and doors. 

An additional initiative that the committee has been undertaking is a Landlord Rating System, which will exist as an online forum for students to rate and report their housing units. Similar to the website Rate My Professor, this website could incentivize landlords to take responsibility when maintaining their houses.  

“Once the website gains traction and students begin to report their experiences, irresponsible landlords will begin to see a decline in students seeking their properties. In return, students should see safer living conditions as landlords are now motivated to upkeep their rental units, which increases the quality of living for students and ensures their safety,” said Hackett.

With a host website confirmed, Hackett expects to have the program available for student use in the new year.

There are also programs on campus available for students who feel a lack of security. For instance, a skill students may want to acquire is self-defense. McMaster Athletics and Recreation is offering two 10-week classes for “Krav Maga Self-Defense” this fall.

It is worth noting that “Women’s Self-Defense” has not been scheduled this term. The Athletics and Recreation department is facing difficulty with locating a space for this class due to the renovations occuring in the David Braley Athletic Centre. Although classes may return in the winter term, in light of the Westdale break-ins, the lack of classes may be a significant issue.

For female students who are looking for a women’s-only class, the Equity and Inclusion Office may offer it. Pilar Michaud, director of human rights and dispute resolution at the EIO, explains that in the past, the EIO ran a women’s self-defense workshop.

Michaud also points to several other services available to students, including Meagan Ross, McMaster’s sexual violence response coordinator, the MSU’s Women and Gender Equity Network and Good2Talk, a free and confidential 24/7 helpline that offers professional support for university students in Ontario.

Just a friendly reminder that Good2Talk is a 24/7 Confidential Helpline for post-secondary students. Call 1-866-925-5454 or visit https://t.co/TERu6Z9JUe #MentalHealthMatters

— OUSA (@OUSAhome) February 1, 2018

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