Far from being strongholds of progressive thought and leaders in creating safe environments for all their students, many of Canada’s universities deserve a failing grade for how they handle toxic, discriminatory behaviours.
Take Dalhousie University, for example. When a group of male dentistry students were caught commenting on which of their female classmates they would “hate fuck” and discussing using chloroform to rape women there were no meaningful consequences, and in fact the university has gone out of their way to protect their identities and future dental practices. They even went so far as to delay exams for all dentistry students to ensure the men involved could graduate at the same time as their peers.
Nor was there any justice for the women who spent years trying to learn in this incredibly toxic environment.
Unfortunately, it’s not just Dalhousie that doesn’t take the safety and comfort of female students seriously.
The most recent case illustrating this troubling trend happened at Concordia University.
It started when Mei-Ling* won a position on the executive of the Arts and Sciences Federation of Associations (ASFA) at Concordia. After a few weeks in the position she became increasingly uncomfortable with members making “blatant sexist and racially discriminatory remarks.”
As it was, two male members in particular who were driving the toxic environment, Mei-Ling turned to the executive for support in dealing with their behaviours.
As is frustratingly typical, instead of acting immediately to deal with this racism and sexism the executive advised Mei-Ling to ignore it.
She did her best to do so until one day, on a shared computer, she noticed one of the two men who had been harassing her had not only left his facebook page logged in, but had been chatting about her.
When she opened up the conversation she was floored by their comments, which, among other things, called her a whore, and a chink slave.
In her own words, “I was not a human being to them. They dehumanized me and that made me understand how they viewed me.”
Mei-Ling took screenshots of the comments and brought them forward to the dean of students at Concordia. The response was to dismiss her complaint because the conversations were “private.”
Now that Mei-Ling has taken her case to the Quebec Human Rights Commission, the president of Concordia has come forward to say that he is “deeply troubled” about her story. He also condemned all racist and sexist behaviour.
For her part, Mei-Ling wants to see action before she takes the president’s words to heart. And no wonder, given the fact that the president of Dalhousie made similar comments in the wake of the dentistry scandal.
Following those comments, one of the Dalhousie female dentistry students who was subjected to the sexually violent Facebook comments said:
“I hope that they will do something, they will take this seriously, finally. I fear they won’t. I fear they will continue their path of inaction.”
Unfortunately, Dalhousie confirmed her fears by failing to take strong disciplinary action against students who were discussing sexually assaulting women in their classes. Mei-Ling has no reason to believe Concordia won’t act similarly.
When universities aren’t willing to take action on behaviours that happen in public because of a lack of hard evidence, and then dismiss hard evidence on the basis that it is private – it is hard not to draw the conclusion that the real barrier to action is the universities themselves.
What happened at Dalhousie, and what is happening at Concordia are not isolated incidents. They are part of a larger pattern at Canadian Universities that includes frosh week rape chants, and a culture of silence around sexual assault.
It’s not too late for Concordia to do the right thing and take a different path than that taken by Dalhousie.
The university can start by learning from Mei-Ling, by taking a “zero-tolerance policy” towards racism, sexism and other toxic behaviours.
To that end, we, like Mei-Ling, will wait to see “what measures regarding these two individuals” the university will be taking before accepting any platitudes from the president of Concordia.
*The student’s name has been changed to protect her identity