Interview with Connor Spencer

Connor Spencer is the 2017-2018 Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Vice-President External, and a major focus of Spencer’s work in the past year has been confronting gendered and sexualized violence on university campuses. Additionally, Spencer is the co-Vice Chair of the National Our Turn Action Plan and was involved in consultations for Quebec’s Bill 151.

Julia Metraux: Why has confronting gendered and sexualized violence on university campuses been an important issue  in your work as SSMU VP External?


Connor Spencer: I have been on this campus for five years, and during my first two weeks here I was basically introduced to the prevalence of sexual violence, just by being warned about it. Last year, there was sexual violence perpetrated specifically within the student union, and there was not anything in place to deal with it. What existed at the student union level and the university level was not helpful. Trying to go through it with people who were trying to hold their aggressors accountable really showed me how messed up the system was, and it made me want to run for the executive in order to implement change.


JM: SSMU’s Gender and Sexualized Violence Policy (GSVP) was a recommendation by the Community Disclosure Network, a group of survivors who had directly and indirectly been affected by former 2016-2017 SSMU vice-president external David Aird’s sexualized violence. Do you think the GSVP will be fruitful?


CS: Yes, I really, really do. This is the first time this has been done anywhere in Canada, although some student unions are starting to do this work as well. We were really lucky that we made the resources available to hire people to do this work through time, and having a clearly outlined internal policy is hopefully going to be able to stop what happened last year from happening again.


JM: Why has it been important to hold private consultations with marginalized groups on campus in the creation of the GSVP?


CS: When we have conversations about sexual violence, it is very important that we understand the reality that sexual violence disproportionately affects marginalized folks, and sexual violence manifests itself in different ways. Sexual violence is a symptom, not the problem, of the larger colonial-capitalist world that we live in. There are certain bodies that are automatically more targeted,  and that is why it is especially important when we are talking about policy that we make space specifically for talking about the experiences of marginalized people. How policies work in our society is that they are made to regulate [marginalized] people, so we need to actively challenge how we write policies in order to support those who are normally targeted by said policies.


JM: The National Our Turn Action Plan (Our Turn) is an action plan to create social and institutional change to confront sexualized and gendered violence on university campuses. Can you tell me how it got started?


CS: It started from a group of students at Carleton University, who were organizing around how their sexual violence policy was not effective and actively harmed survivors. As the group of students decided to start working on formalizing a toolkit to get the student union on how to deal with the administration on issues of sexual violence, they realized this would be something that would be useful to other university campuses. A network began of students who were doing this work on their campuses for skill-sharing and ultimately developing this National Action Plan.


JM: Can you explain how Our Turn grades universities?


CS: Around sixty sexual violence policies in Canada and the United States were reviewed to see what was encapsulated within them. From there, a scorecard was developed, and the scorecard was out of a hundred to facilitate a letter grade that is transferable that the university gives its students.


JM: What are some concrete changes that you have seen with Our Turn, or what changes do you hope will happen?


CS: At the university level, there are concrete things happening across the country. University of Prince Edward Island has begun doing work with the province in creating a provincial policy, much like the one in Quebec [Bill 151] or Ontario’s Bill 132, which mandates that all higher education institutions have to create a sexual violence policy.


JM: What was your involvement with Quebec’s Bill 151, an act which seeks to prevent sexual violence in higher education?


CS: I have been involved with Bill 151 since about March last year. I participated in one of the consultations that took place in Montreal and that was a huge shock, for me – it was the first time I had done something at the provincial level. I was one of the only students in the room, which was really strange when we’re talking about campus sexual violence. There was maybe, in a room of two hundred, only around five visibly racialized folks. It was extremely inaccessible to anglophone folks, when we were literally across from McGill University and Concordia University. No survivors’ voices were centralized.


JM: Can you elaborate on the amount of or lack of consultation with survivor groups on university campuses in the creation of Bill 151?


CS: There were five consultations on Bill 151. Student groups received very last minute invitations, if they received invitations at all. Often, it was sent to student unions rather than student groups. On every single campus, there are students mobilizing around sexual violence, because it’s one of the places where power dynamics are so, so clear.


JM: On April 4th, SSMU sent an open letter to McGill University’s administration demanding that they launch an investigation into the Faculty of Arts over sexualized violence committed by professors. What provoked you and other SSMU executives to send this letter?


CS: One, we’re seeing a movement societally of holding folks in positions of power accountable for their actions. Two, Concordia University had a situation that had to do with sexual violence that erupted in January. The university launched an investigation into the Department of English to look into what had gone on. This struck us because we had asked to launch an investigation, and McGill had told us this was not possible under Quebec law. Finally, before the open letter, we presented a dossier of evidence that a student was being targeted by a professor who thought they were behind a campaign naming them as an aggressor. Nothing was done to protect the student.


JM: What efforts have been done in the past at McGill University to hold predatory professors accountable?


CS: There’s a long history of trying to hold professors accountable. There has also been, at McGill specifically, documentation online of a certain professor’s behavior by another professor, who ultimately ended up leaving McGill. There have been guerilla campaigns led by students, led by students, that name abusive professors that are up for tenure positions. Within two weeks of coming to McGill, I was given a piece of paper with names of professors that I should not attend their office hours if I want to keep myself safe, so the informal network is key.


JM: Do you have hope that rape culture and abuses of power on university campuses will end one day?


CS: Yes, I do. That being said, I do not know if I would have had that answer two years ago. The last few years have [dramatically] pushed our societal conversations around consent, violence, particularly towards women and non-binary folks. I am really hopeful that we can begin to concretely address rape culture on campuses.