In the Blog
Solidarity with UBC students and survivors of sexual abuse and violence
Illustration: Beena Mistry
On November 14, a group of approximately 90 prominent Canadian writers released an open letter to the University of British Columbia entitled “An Open Letter To UBC: Steven Galloway’s Right To Due Process.” Galloway was the head of UBC’s creative writing program before being suspended in November of 2015, when a private investigation into allegations of misconduct was conducted by a former B.C. Supreme Court Justice. After the investigation, Galloway was subsequently fired in June, with the university citing “a record of misconduct that resulted in an irreparable breach of the trust placed in faculty members.” Galloway is currently grieving the dismissal through legal means.
The open letter, written by author Joseph Boyden, criticizes UBC’s handling of the case and calls for the nature of the allegations and the specific findings of the investigation to be publicly released. Boyden, and others who have signed the letter, claim that the letter does not seek to draw any conclusions about guilt or innocence, but to ask for a fair process for all involved. This simply isn’t true: the letter emphasizes damage to Galloway’s reputation, calls the allegations unsubstantiated, and completely erases the students who made the allegations.
As professor Zoe Todd writes in an excellent Storify piece, “Focusing so intently on Mr. Galloway’s experience without tending to the experiences of the students and complainants in this case has the powerful effect of, as one person tweeted, ‘intimidating survivors’.” The prominence in the literary community of the who’s-who names on the letter cannot be overstated: in addition to Boyden, the list includes Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Jane Urquhart, Madeleine Thien, Noah Richler, Vincent Lam, Yann Martel and Susan Swan. These are literary superstars.
The Canadian Literature community is a small and closely-knit one, and many writers make a living from teaching in addition to their writing work. There is a great deal of trust required in the relationship between teacher and student, especially in a discipline as personal as writing. Those teachers who have signed this letter have shown students that they may not be safe people to confide in. They have also shown themselves to be more concerned with closing ranks around one of their own and restoring his reputation. It’s clear that the intent of the letter is not just to criticize the lack of transparency around the case, but to defend Galloway and to portray him as a victim.
Galloway himself released a statement on November 23, acknowledging only that he had had an affair with a student, and apologizing for harm done. A day later, a student known as “main complainant” to protect her privacy came forward anonymously to say that her complaint was not related to a consensual affair, but was an accusation of sexual assault and sexual harassment. She has not been permitted to see the investigation report.
After the release of the open letter, there was a backlash in the literary community, and a small number of the signatories, including Sheila Heti, Miriam Toews and Wayne Johnston, have removed their names from the letter. Heti spoke on the Canadaland podcast on November 24 about her reasons for retracting her name from the letter. She explained that she signed the letter on the request of a friend and fellow signatory, and that she signed it because she agreed that it seemed UBC had mishandled the case. But then “once it was posted on the internet,” she said, “with, let’s say, about 90 signatures from prominent writers in this country, I think – very legitimately – people began to say that this letter … they used the word ‘silences;’ the word that I would put to it is ‘effaces’ … it effaces the existence of the women who complained.”
Once the letter was released and Heti learned of the backlash, she says “… it was like ‘oh, of course.’ If I was a young writer, if I was a complainant – or just somebody looking at this letter, and I saw all these writers putting their names down to say ‘Steven Galloway deserves fair treatment,’ and no mention is made of the women, that is hurtful, and that is not helpful. It looks like all these Canadian writers with all this power are ganging up in support of Steve Galloway.”
However, others, including Atwood, have doubled down on their position. There is now a collection of statements and apologies from some of the signatories on the “UBC Accountable” website; some seem genuine in their regret for having caused harm (although the writers have not removed their names from the letter), while others are of the “I’m sorry you were offended” variety, including Atwood’s stilted, bizarre opening sentence in her short statement: “We’re sorry we hurt any survivor people out there by seeming lacking in empathy for your experiences.”
As a member of the literary community, I’ve found it profoundly disappointing to see people I have admired showing so little regard for survivors. As writers, surely they are even more able than others to understand the power of words. A token “sorry we hurt you,” not followed by any action or effort to really understand the harm, means nothing.
A counter-letter has been written and signed by many more, though less well-known, members of the Canadian literary community. This letter is hosted at Change.org and anyone is welcome to sign it to add their support. This letter states: “Those who signed the letter could have called for transparency from the University of British Columbia, for the good of its Creative Writing Program, its instructors, and its students. But they didn’t … It centres Steven Galloway as the only relevant figure in this case. The women who have come forward are silenced and rendered invisible by what the letter assumes about them.” It affirms: “As those who write, teach and love Canadian literature, we want those women to know that we are with them.”