McGill, Concordia students set up social media accounts to share stories of systemic oppression
McGill University campus is seen Tuesday, June 21, 2016 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
MONTREAL -- Two new spaces dedicated for people to anonymously share their experiences have popped up on Instagram, this time for people at McGill and Concordia Universities.
But unlike other accounts created over the past few weeks – where survivors of sexual assault and harassment have been able to anonymously call out their alleged abusers – the new accounts aim specifically to shed light on what they say is systemic oppression at both of Montreal’s English universities, in the goal of demanding accountability for those in positions of power.
Some posts are of students sharing their stories involving other students, professors, groups or course content, while others are authored by university staff who have experienced issues with other staff members. There are testimonies about sexual assault, harassment, racism, sexism, homophobia - the list goes on.
Since its first post on July 5, the UntoldMcGill account has published more than 100 stories – some as short as 50 words, others that span several pages.
“This will be an open place for us to all learn or unlearn ideas that may be hurting others,” the account’s introductory post says. “I also hope people can see some stories and realize they are not being ‘too dramatic.’ Your experience is valid.”
The account is run entirely by Black and Indigenous people, as well as other people of colour. One of its founding members told CTV News the group has been in contact with students from different faculties, who they have been assisting in making lists of demands to submit to their respective faculties.
“We’re very interested in working with student initiatives that will hold faculties and organizations accountable,” the member said.
While McGill does have systems in place for students to make official complaints, they are difficult to navigate, according to both the UntoldMcGill group and the Students Society of McGill (SSMU).
“Many of these complaints have a longstanding precedent of being ignored or dismissed among the university administration and student body,” said Maheen Akter, the vice-president of student life with the SSMU. “There is no accessible mechanism at McGill that can address these complaints meaningfully – there’s also a deep absence of student involvement in these discussions.”
Part of the problem with making formal complaints – aside from the daunting nature of the process – is what behaviour is considered worthy of professional consequences, the group said.
They added that mechanisms like judicial boards and equity boards don't serve students from minority groups in the same way they do white people given the fact that they were created in what they call a white supremacist society.
"That never has worked for BIPOC, has never worked for gender minorities, has never worked for religious minorities,” they said. “We want there to be these systems where complaints are taken seriously and there is adequate responses for every level of complaint that can be held – that a professor doesn’t have to sexually assault someone for them to get kicked out or to be put on probation.”
At McGill, a plan is in place to help the university take “concrete measures aimed at increasing the representation of, and support for, students, faculty, and staff from underrepresented groups,” according to media relations officer Shirley Cardenas.
Accountability measures are incorporated in the plan, Cardenas added.
“These measures will be informed by the findings and recommendations set out in various reports that demonstrate how our students and staff – both academic and administrative – experience discrimination on our campuses,” Cardenas said.
The group behind the Instagram account says it hopes the initiative will open the floor to dialogue with the university.
“They haven’t ever reached out to us, no official McGill body has reached out to us,” the member said.
The UntoldConcordia account – a few days younger than the McGill account and home to about half the stories – operates similarly.
“I took an American Literature course in 2018 where my prof – a white woman – read the n-word aloud several times, never censoring herself, never even pausing to discuss racial slurs,” reads a post from July 9. “I felt extremely uncomfortable, but I didn’t say anything, and as a white person, I am so sorry that I didn’t. I failed the Black students in my class that day.”
Concordia University spokesperson Vannina Maestracci said in an emailed statement to CTV News that while the school is aware of the anonymous denunciations sweeping across the province lately, “we’d also like to remind all members of our community that they can take advantage of our internal accountability mechanisms, if they wish, so that these issues can be properly addressed.”
But according to the Concordia Student Union (CSU), the school’s internal channels – much like those at McGill – are intimidating to students, which could be why they’re turning to UntoldConcordia.
“With these platforms, people are able to speak about their issues because the one we have in place now (at the school) is not sufficient,” said Sarah Mazhero, the CSU’s academic and advocacy coordinator. “The adversarial approach that they take is really grueling and it’s a very long process.”
Mazhero says it can sometimes take between six months and a year for the university to process official complaints, and obstacles like a lack of sufficient evidence and professors who are tenured make it near impossible for students to find justice.
“It always seems like the burden of proof is on us to be able to prove these things,” she said. “The university (administration) just needs to start taking accountability for their own staff and faculty members for what they’re doing instead of just sweeping it under the rug, which happens a lot.”
Maestracci said the school’s Office of Rights and Responsibilities is responsible for behavioural complaints.
“For complaints in general, there are a variety of ways that they can be addressed and different approaches to take depending on what a student wants,” she said. “Some cases find resolution quickly, others can take more time.”
One way Concordia can do better in situations where students have issues with the course content, as an example, is by making sure the professors are an appropriate match to the class, Mazhero said.
“It’s highly effective and more beneficial to have, say, an African teacher… provide a more personal impact and who knows how to teach (a class about African politics),” Mazhero said. “You always commonly hear these stories about (professors) who aren’t censoring, who aren’t filtering, who aren’t explaining these things well.”
“Time and time again, even I can say in my (political science) classes, I’ve had a prof who’s said the n-word, and it’s just really shocking,” Mazhero added.
The CSU hopes the university will implement a mandatory online training regarding race, discrimination and oppression, similar to the one it created for sexual harassment last year.
INSPIRATION BEHIND THE ACCOUNTS
The people behind both accounts say they were inspired by an account called BlackAtHarvardLaw (and others), which also publishes testimonies from people who have faced or noticed oppression at the hands of others at the school. The account for Harvard Law was created around the time when the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum in the United States, following the death of a Black man named George Floyd who was killed by police in Minneapolis.
“The exposure of our stories is important not only for us – indeed the amplification of our voices and struggles is crucial – but also for the administration,” BlackAtHarvardLaw’s first post reads.
Much like students at McGill and Concordia, those in Harvard’s law program hope their school is paying attention. A week after the account’s creation, a photo was posted showing that the official Harvard Law account started following it.
“Harvard has entered the chat,” the caption read.