A petition. A counter-petition. Apologies. Accusations. Canada’s most beloved authors have found themselves embroiled in an ugly controversy
In Canada, where a man can spend 1,500 days in solitary confinement waiting for a trial, it is perhaps only to be expected that the affair of Steven Galloway would take a year of frustrating silence.
In November 2015, the University of British Columbia announced the suspension, with pay, of Galloway, a prominent novelist and then the chairman of its prestigious creative writing program. The reason given was unspecified “serious allegations,” universally (and correctly, as it turned out) assumed to be sexual in nature. Thus began the slow burn: five months of investigation by a former B.C. Supreme Court justice, Mary Ellen Boyd; two months of academic mulling while the university considered Boyd’s report—and subsequent allegations she never investigated—before verdict and sentence (firing for “breach of trust”) in June; three months of summer simmering as details leaked out, along with the news Boyd judged all allegations save one to be unsubstantiated; two months of intermittent media attention and early rumblings of discontent; and then the deluge.
The deluge of reaction, that is: the full story of what actually happened is still not public. Galloway, who is pursuing a grievance against UBC, has maintained public silence—although he is clearly sharing information with friends and supporters—as has the original complainant. (Update: On Nov. 23, Galloway made a statement.) For those not directly involved but passionately committed—the inhabitants of CanLit nation—it’s arguable whether the details really matter anymore. The Galloway affair is now, at its core, a class war.
The Walrus magazine was first out with a story in mid-September; the Globe and Mail followed in October. The two accounts agreed on the broad narrative—it was a sexual-assault claim by a student and former lover that prompted the suspension a year ago, but non-criminal allegations arose in its wake, which brought on the eventual dismissal—while being out of alignment on many details. But the media, like virtually everyone else who waded into the murky story, agreed on the villain: UBC’s ham-fisted handling of the case.
That was certainly the view of the literary establishment. On Nov. 14, four days before the first anniversary of UBC’s original statement, came an open letter posted on the site UBCAccountable. Penned by Joseph Boyden, a star novelist and Maclean’s contributor, it was signed by a glittering array of prominent writers, among them five Giller prize winners, including Margaret Atwood and Madeleine Thien. (The latter, effectively Canada’s author of the year—nominated for three major literary prizes and winning two—is a creative writing grad and a personal friend of Galloway, who had already written her own critical letter to UBC.)
Titled “Seeking clarity and fairness in UBC’s handling of the Steven Galloway Case,” the open letter damned the university’s bland assertion that the demands of privacy legislation required it to keep the flow of information to a trickle, which only increased paranoia and innuendo. It asserted UBC’s handling of the case “cast a cloud of suspicion” over Galloway, “damaging [his] reputation and affecting his health”—a reference to a June suicide attempt openly stated in Thien’s letter—even though no serious allegation against him had been substantiated.
The signatories demanded a public investigation to ensure “due process and fair treatment for all, which the university appears to have denied professor Galloway.” The initial media reaction was positive, presenting a clear sense that, in the eyes of cultural heroes, Galloway had been wronged—at least in the process of determining if he had done wrong.
If the media was impressed, perhaps even star-struck, much of CanLit was not. Pushback came immediately, focusing on the way some of the nation’s best writers seemed not to have noticed—to put it at its kindest—that they had virtually written the complainants right out of the story: justice for “all,” yes, but Galloway was the only one mentioned as not having had it already. Writer Nancy Lee, a member of the creative writing program faculty and a former friend of Galloway, posted tweets and a scathing Facebook message directed at the open-letter supporters: “Make no mistake, CanLit establishment, your words and actions are destructive. How can young, unpublished writers survive this climate? How do writing students imagine a career now? Your signatures represent future award juries, selection committees, grant adjudicators and publishers.”
Some of the signatories lashed back. Atwood, responding in The Walrus, compared the entire situation to the Salem witch trials, where “the accused would almost certainly be found guilty because of the way the rules of evidence were set up, and if you objected to the proceedings you would be accused yourself.” But many quickly began removing themselves from the open letter, often expressing, like writer Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, “regret [at] not being more sensitive to how its wording could cause harm.”
Within a week, a “counter” open letter appeared online, bearing hundreds of signatures from people whose names were far less known to the general public. Describing themselves as “Canadian literature and littérature québécoise scholars, writers, cultural workers and allies,” the signatories assailed the way the original open letter ignored the female complainants: “We are furious that there is only support for Galloway himself because he is a fellow writer, and because he is friends with many who signed the letter. To us, it is outrageous that women in Canada come forward and seek justice for being sexually harassed, raped and bullied at school, work or on the street, and then they are treated as if they were the perpetrators. We do not believe there is anything brave about publicly doubting women’s voices.”
The sight of the Canadian literary world at open odds, its division along class lines obvious, is extraordinary—small wonder there is an almost instinctive urge to mend fences by jointly blaming UBC. The national book trade, in all its branches, is a meerkat-ish bunch: heads pop out of warrens, swirl a full 360 degrees taking everything in, and then drop back into silent safety. More than one journalist has encountered those who insist on anonymity even when heaping praise on someone; at press time, Penguin Random House had not answered a request to merely confirm it had not issued any official statements about Galloway in the past year. It’s not cynical to deduce many signatories of the original letter would have passed if they had any inkling of the storm to come.
Some have pointed to a generational factor in the stumble into civil war. Writers less at home on social media, says one anonymous UBC student, might not have seen the approaching buzz saw. Camilla Gibb suggested a different kind of generational divide in her remarkable retraction of her signature on the open letter. “I am guilty of showing my age and being a product of my generation where, in the late ’80s when I was an undergrad, the sexual impropriety of professors was so commonplace we thought it was normal. I am so sorry, heartbroken for the pain this has caused. I am also guilty of being insecure and susceptible to flattery and the desire for inclusion when a man in a position of power asks. Despite being almost 50. Despite being established. Because I am still a woman.”
Almost everything in Gibb’s post goes to the heart of the issue. She is right about changing times and changing mores, but it’s the note of insecurity that rings most true. It’s just neither side can grasp how insecure the other feels—established writers worry about careers destroyed, striving writers about careers never realized. One half thinks there is no cost to making anonymous allegations, the other speaks of the pain and courage of coming forward at all—let alone speaking out about people with powerful friends.
Thien would not have used Atwood’s Salem metaphor—the Cultural Revolution would have provided her comparison point—but she has the same concerns as does the author of A Handmaiden’s Tale. The power of institutions and state agents to utterly ruin individuals is what Thien’s fiction is about—she actually references her “work in China, Cambodia and Zimbabwe” and what it’s taught her about the horrors of “slander and whisper campaigns” in her letter to UBC.
But what is that to the actual socio-economic facts on the ground? As Zoe Whittall, one of the few widely recognized names on the counter-letter—thanks to her 2016 Giller nomination—put it to the Globe, “I’m sure [Galloway’s] next book will be a bestseller and I’m sure the accuser will never write again.” Whittall’s presence on that letter marked its own small irony: in a prior interview with Maclean’s about her shortlisted book, The Best Kind of People, which explores rape culture, she said it was set in the U.S. because, “I wanted it in a very wealthy place that was already polarized, and that’s America more than Canada.” Not so much anymore.