Last week, more than 80 Canadian creatives, including authors Joseph Boyden, Margaret Atwood, Vincent Lam and Michael Ondaatje, published an open letter that seemingly privileged the rights of one of their own—fellow novelist Steven Galloway—over alleged victims of sexual harassment, sexual assault and bullying.
“An Open Letter To UBC: Steven Galloway’s Right to Due Process” was published on November 15, and took UBC to task for the way it handled allegations against Galloway, specifically for its lack of transparency about the substance of the charges themselves.
It was published on UBC Accountable, a website whose tagline is “seeking clarity & fairness in UBC’s handling of the Steven Galloway case.” Since then, hundreds of #ubcaccountable hashtagged tweets, editorials, articles and blog posts have unfurled.
The backstory: UBC fired Galloway, chair of the school’s creative writing department and author of The Cellist of Sarajevo, last June after a months-long independent investigation revealed a “record of misconduct that resulted in an irreparable breach of the trust placed in faculty members by the university, its students and the general public,” said Philip Steenkamp, UBC’s vice-president of external relations, at the time.
The initial claims made against Galloway by a former student have never been made public, but numerous outlets, including The Walrus and The Globe and Mail, have reported that they included bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault.
An article in the November issue of The Walrus, which takes a critical view of UBC’s handling of the case, suggests the author was cleared of all of the “most serious” allegations but one. (A statement released November 23 through Galloway’s lawyer stated that a review of the case cleared the author of sexual assault, but found that he did have an affair with a student. Galloway also offered an apology for his conduct via the release.)
When contacted by FLARE, Susan Canard, UBC’s managing director of public affairs, said UBC hasn’t released the report or information about the allegations out of concern for privacy issues for all parties. But she did confirm UBC’s policy on romantic relationships between students and faculty.
“Faculty members must avoid or declare all conflicts of interest, including those that involve relationships with their students,” says Danard. Failure to do so may result in disciplinary action.
Almost immediately after the open letter was published, the letter and its signatories were criticized for their lack of concern for the complainants involved in the case.
Margaret Atwood, the biggest name on the list, bore the brunt of the furor. The 77-year-old has repeatedly defended herself against charges that she’d lent her name to a letter that upheld the rights of the accused over those of the complainants.
Julie Lalonde, an Ottawa-based feminist activist and FLARE writer, was thunderstruck by what she calls the “obvious bias” of the open letter. Lalonde, a devout Atwood fan who has a Handmaid’s Tale-inspired tattoo, wrote her own open letter to the author, which she then tweeted to Atwood.
Atwood’s response to Lalonde echoed an earlier statement she released to The Walrus which focused on what she believes was UBC’s flawed process: “Julie, do you think the #ubcaccountable process was good? Do you care?”
Atwood’s insistence that the letter is really concerned with a fair “process” is what irks Lalonde most.
“It’s not about process, it’s about Steven Galloway. The women and men involved [in the investigation] are also unhappy with the process [so] they could have written an open letter about process that was inclusive.”
While Atwood stands behind the letter—although she apologized for hurting any survivors with a perceived lack of empathy in a November 23 follow-up post published on UBC Accountable—names have been disappearing off the list of signatories since it was published. Authors Miriam Toews and Andrew Westoll’s names are gone, as is that of Camilla Gibb—who wrote a lengthy Facebook apology for signing on in the first place. (Emails to Gibb were unanswered by press time.)
From the outside, the insistence on a fair process seems strange given the fact that unlike most people who are fired, Galloway is in the fortunate position of being able to request that the university’s decision be reviewed independently. He did so, now has legal counsel, and is currently involved in the grievance process, says Danard.
That so many boldface names chose this particular case—in which, at the very least, the head of a department abused his position of power—to exert their influence is dismaying and smacks of a kind of what-happens-in-CanLit-stays-in-CanLit elitism, says Lalonde. “To act like UBC is the first and only institution to have mishandled sexual assault claims is deeply untrue, and there have been plenty of calls for change in that area and none of those people felt compelled to stand up and join in the chorus.”
That chorus, however, isn’t easily silenced or distracted by CanLit celebrity—as one tweet made by B.C.-based writer Leah Horlick made abundantly clear:
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