VANCOUVER – A rift in Canada’s literary community has deepened after dozens of prominent authors called for an independent investigation into the University of British Columbia’s firing of Steven Galloway.
Joseph Boyden wrote and circulated an open letter, signed by Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel and others, which raised concerns the university’s process to investigate “serious allegations” against Galloway was secretive and unfair. Galloway, who was chairman of the school’s creative writing program, was fired in June.
The letter has sparked an online backlash, with former students who say they witnessed misconduct by Galloway and outside observers expressing concerns it would silence and intimidate complainants.
“I wept when I read those names because I truly believe those writers have no idea the silencing effect this letter has on victims, both of the past and of the future,” said Sierra Skye Gemma, a former student who filed a complaint against Galloway about behaviour she says she witnessed.
The university has never revealed the allegations against Galloway and he has not responded to requests for comment. The open letter says he has been barred from speaking publicly while his union grieves his dismissal.
The Canadian Press has spoken with five people who say they filed complaints based on behaviour they witnessed or experienced. They say the allegations included sexual harassment, bullying, threats and one incident where Galloway is alleged to have slapped a student at a bar.
Atwood faced a barrage of criticism from young female writers on Twitter, but she defended her decision and argued the letter was about the secretive university process. She could not be reached for an interview on Wednesday.
Martel, the award-winning “Life of Pi” author, said he would have worded the letter differently, but he signed it to express concern that the process didn’t appear to be fair to either Galloway or the complainants.
“I did NOT sign the letter to defend an empowered white male. I did NOT sign it to silence young women, or anyone else. With a clear grievance process, everyone and anyone should feel confident that their voice will be heard,” he wrote in an email.
Andrea Bennett, a former student who said she witnessed her friend being slapped by Galloway but did not file a complaint, said she was disappointed by the letter because it didn’t address the impact the flawed process had on complainants.
“Did these writers, who I respect so much, not think about the implications of their words?” she asked in an email. “Did they not understand the impact that they’d have on students, on emerging writers, on people who are thinking of coming forward to make a complaint?”
Novelist Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer said she asked to withdraw her name from the letter. She wrote on Facebook that she supports complainants equally to people who are accused.
“I signed it in spirit of an open and honest inquiry and regret not being more sensitive to how its wording could cause harm,” she wrote.
University spokesman Philip Steenkamp has said the school is bound by privacy legislation and cannot disclose more details without Galloway’s consent.
Kristen Pennington, an employment and labour lawyer, said the university’s hands were tied by the law.
“If they were to suddenly release more information without Galloway’s consent, I think it would be taken as a very disingenuous move,” she said.