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Hazing-free promise not being upheld, McGill admits as report released

A student walks past the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal, March 16, 2016.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

McGill University acknowledges that rookie athletes were subjected to coercion, excessive drinking and "sexually provocative games" during a hazing ritual in 2015, in the conclusion of an internal investigation that was initiated only a year after the incident took place.

McGill is facing a backlash over the basketball-team ritual because the school brought in a zero-tolerance policy after it was rocked by a hazing scandal in 2005. The top-rated Montreal school's own website promises students they can count on a "hazing-free environment."

Despite the policy, a 19-year-old student has stepped forward to say he was forced to drink multiple shots of liquor with a pillowcase over his head, ordered to strip down to his underwear, and had vodka forced down his throat with his head held back, in an initiation ritual that left him violently ill. He eventually left the team.

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Read more: McGill hazing incident reveals university ban's shortcomings

Ollivier Dyens, deputy provost for student life and learning at McGill, admits that the university has not been able to maintain its hazing-free promise.

"We're not upholding that promise because we can't control everything that happens on the campus," he said in an interview on Tuesday just before the release of the internal investigation. "We can't monitor things that we're not aware of."

Mr. Dyens says an initial inquiry last year into the incident was carried out by the athletics department.

It concluded that what happened at the party was "very minimal."

The family of the student, who requested not to be named, says it kept pressing the university for action, and the basketball coach was alerted about the incident within weeks of the party. McGill says it was approached by the family several months after the party.

Either way, McGill's full investigation only began in the fall, a full year after the party, once McGill realized that events "had been more serious than what we had been originally told," Mr. Dyens says.

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In its report, which McGill released on Tuesday, a committee headed by the dean of students found that some students at the initiation felt pressure, were humiliated and became sick during the hazing. The initiation included members of the women's basketball team, who were also undressed, according to the student behind the complaint.

"We remain concerned about the excessive alcohol consumption, the potential safety risks associated with the rookie party, and the lack of tangible objections to the party by more senior student-athletes," the McGill report says.

Students faced "strong encouragement to drink large quantities of alcohol," it added, "and first-year student-athletes reported becoming very intoxicated."

The school placed both the men's and women's basketball teams on probation, but members did not face sanctions for their behaviour. After the 2005 hazing incident involving a rookie member of the football team, McGill cancelled the remainder of the football season.

McGill decided against sanctioning the basketball teams because by the time the university had investigated, the team roster included new players, while other players had left.

"It's a matter of equity," Mr. Dyens said.

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D'Arcy McKeown, the victim of McGill's 2005 hazing incident, says McGill is "copping out" by failing to punish the athletes involved.

"They're letting themselves off the hook. It means they don't have to answer to donors and alumni," Mr. McKeown said from Toronto. Mr. McKeown went public after being sexually assaulted with a broom handle in an initiation ritual perpetrated by a group of veteran football players, and has become an outspoken critic of hazing.

McGill says the basketball team captain was suspended for one game. However, Mr. McKeown says he has learned that it was a preseason game in the United States, so it had no impact on the regular season.

Mr. McKeown says it was wrong to allow the athletic department to initially investigate the hazing incident because it places the department in a conflict of interest. The department's main concern is keeping players on the team, in competition.

The current women's basketball team at McGill has just secured the Canadian university women's basketball championship title, while the men's team made it to the semi-finals.

Sheilagh McGee, who is Mr. McKeown's mother and has supported the latest hazing victim's family, accuses McGill of deliberately dragging out the process to investigate the family's complaint.

"They condoned it by their inaction, leaving this player twisting in the wind and the family hanging on for 15 months," she said. "It shouldn't be up to the family to push and push and push. That is victimizing the victim."

McGill says the men's and women's basketball teams will have to participate in education sessions to discuss the incident, and will address hazing issues with a sports psychologist. The university also says it plans to initiate a new anti-hazing program before the start of the next academic year and has set up a working group to recommend ways to prevent hazing.

Hazing remains a widespread problem across Canadian university campuses, with an estimated 80 per cent of students taking part in some kind of initiation, according to Ryan Hamilton, a sports psychologist and expert on hazing at the University of New Brunswick. While the practice is touted for its bonding benefits, it can end up causing a raft of problems, from post-traumatic stress syndrome to depression; university hazing of all sorts is linked to at least one death a year, he said.

While McGill decided not to sanction players involved in the 2015 incident, it's important for universities to hold individuals accountable, said Dr. Hamilton, an assistant professor. Participants tend to step back from taking individual responsibility during hazing rituals; distinguishing the players for their behaviour could be beneficial.

"Individual responsibility for the people who were involved is really important," he said. "It should be part of any sanctioning action."

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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