11/15/2017 21:32 EST | Updated 11/15/2017 21:32 EST

Que. Universities Reviewing Policies For Professor-Student Relationships

A newly introduced bill would require them to have guidelines in place.

Ariane Litalian, a sexual assault survivors advocate, says the Quebec government's proposed university sexual violence bill should include a ban on teacher-student relationships and a way for students to let the government know if their schools aren't meeting their obligations.

MONTREAL — Quebec universities are reviewing their sexual-violence policies following the introduction of a provincial bill that would require them to develop guidelines for intimate relationships between students and faculty.

The province is following in the footsteps of Ontario, British Columbia and Manitoba, which have already passed legislation requiring post-secondary schools to have policies in place to address sexual violence.

Not intended to ban relationships

Quebec Higher Education Minister Helene David said the bill isn't intended to ban sexual relationships between students and faculty members, but rather to ask schools to reflect on how to address such situations and ensure students aren't harmed.

"What's important, I think, is to protect the person who is in the position of being evaluated by the other person," she said recently.

"That's the heart of the problem, that you get evaluated."

The bill specifies policies must also include "a code of conduct specifying guidelines for such matters as intimate, amorous or sexual relationships that may develop between students and persons having an influence over their academic progress, whether personnel members or officers of the institution."

'Power imbalance'

But one advocate for the rights of victims says Canadian universities should follow the lead of some of their American counterparts in banning these relationships outright.

"I think that relationships between students and anyone who has authority or power over their academic career should be forbidden," said Ariane Litalien, a McGill University student who has spoken publicly several times about having survived sexual violence.

"There's a power imbalance between students and profs, for example, that in my opinion makes consent more or less impossible."

Some high-profile U.S. universities, including Yale and Stanford, have banned all relationships between teachers and undergraduate students, as well as relationships between teachers and students they supervise.

Universities are working to comply with bill

But up until now, many Quebec universities don't appear to have gone so far.

A spokesperson for McGill University said the school's sexual-violence policy defines an intimate relationship between teachers and their student as a conflict of interest which must be disclosed and addressed.

"Moreover, the definition of consent in the policy against sexual violence states that consent cannot occur 'where the sexual activity has been induced by conduct that constitutes an abuse of a relationship of trust, power or authority, such as the relationship between a professor and their student,'" associate provost Angela Campbell wrote in a statement.

We are currently working on how to implement those guidelines in order to meet the obligations of the new legislation.Mary-Jo Barr, Concordia University

A Concordia University spokeswoman said the school developed guidelines earlier this year for "faculty members who engage in intimate, consensual relationships with students."

"We are currently working on how to implement those guidelines in order to meet the obligations of the new legislation," Mary-Jo Barr wrote in an email, adding the school would release more information in the near future.

A spokesperson for Universite de Montreal said the school is currently working on getting guidelines on intimate relationships into its policy.

Universities say legislation is welcome

All three universities said they welcomed the Quebec government's proposed legislation, pointing out it goes along the lines of what they are already doing to prevent and address sexual assault.

Concordia and McGill have both already adopted policies against sexual violence, while Universite de Montreal has implemented training and awareness programs and is working to widen its existing sexual harassment policy.

Litalien also praised the bill, which not only requires schools to develop policies but also lays out in detail what they must contain, including mandatory staff training, prevention strategies, procedures for reporting and victims' services.

In addition to a ban on student-teacher relationships, she'd like to see the final version include a mechanism where students can flag their institution to the government if it fails to meet its obligations.]

There's this misconception that it's meant to replace the criminal justice system, which it really isn't ... It's meant as another option in the toolbox available to survivors.Ariane Litalian

But she says the bill is an important step toward letting students know their rights and options in the case of an assault.

"There's this misconception that it's meant to replace the criminal justice system, which it really isn't," she said. "It's meant as another option in the toolbox available to survivors."

The proposed legislation, if passed, would require schools to establish a policy to prevent and fight sexual violence by September 2019.

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