Arts & Culture

Hour of Twilight

Remembering John Bentley Mays, one of Canada’s most prominent and feared art critics

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• 1,331 words

Photograph by Lorne Wolk
Lorne Wolk John Bentley Mays (1941–2016).

Having a conversation with John Bentley Mays, who died suddenly while on a walk with friends in High Park in Toronto last Friday, could be a disorienting experience. First of all, his bald head was unusually large and bulbous, as though made to be chiseled from marble, and his eyes, gazing out from behind glasses with thick black rims, had a fixed, unblinking attentiveness that rarely betrayed where his singular mind was roaming.

But despite his seemingly imperious—if not impenetrable—presence, his voice was disarmingly gentle and had a distinctive drawl. Though by the end he had spent more than half his life in Toronto, a city he loved and explored deeply, Bentley Mays never lost the quality of being a southern gentlemen, an enduring trace of a complicated childhood on a crumbling cotton plantation in America’s deep south. “When I first read Faulkner,” he once told me, “I really thought I was reading about my childhood.”

While still a graduate student in literature at the University of Rochester, Bentley Mays moved from upstate New York to Toronto in 1969 in order to teach humanities at York University. By 1973, he had decided, as part of a New Year’s resolution, to become a writer rather than a scholar. In retrospect, that should have come as no surprise: Bentley Mays’s temperament was far too poetic, restless, and mercurial to fit comfortably within the confines of academic life. He spent the ensuing years writing poetry and fiction, publishing the novel The Private Stair in 1978 and even performing as the cross-dressing Private Dyke at the Video Cabaret in the early days of the influential artist-run centre A Space Gallery. Then, in 1980, and to his amazement, he was offered a job as the art critic for the Globe and Mail.

The 1980s were an auspicious time to become the art critic for a daily publication with the ambition to cover the national and international scene. By 1980 Canadian art—a loosely defined swath of creative activities from painting and sculpture to video, performance, installation, and everything in between—was taking on increasing national and international importance, and Toronto was its center of gravity. Bentley Mays held the position for eighteen years, until he was lured away by Conrad Black and the new National Post. The job, which came with an even more expansive mandate and a better expense account, kept him on the road between France and Germany and Vancouver, Winnipeg, Halifax, and the Arctic. The National Post let Bentley Mays go in 2001, when the financial reality of paying for a first-rate culture writer—and the financial reality of running a daily in the twenty-first century—hit home.

For twenty years, Bentley Mays was the most prominent, courted, and feared writer about art and culture in Canada. But he was never anything like an ordinary critic, and his work remained irreducibly, and to many infuriatingly, personal and idiosyncratic. Bentley Mays came from a generation, in the shadow of prominent New York art critics like Clement Greenberg and later Rosalind Kraus and Michael Fried, where writers about art were expected to be allied with prescriptive aesthetic movements. That kind of ideological relation to art, or to life for that matter, was alien to him.

Bentley Mays encountered the best in art, whether that was the performances and installations of General Idea, the photographs of Jeff Wall, the lush and ruminative paintings of John Brown, or the elaborate collections of images and objects assembled by his friend, the collector, curator, and artist Ydessa Hendeles. He regarded art with a sense of wonder, as singularities and opportunities for experience, encounters in which the world is illuminated and made meaningful—certainly not as occasions to confirm a philosophical point much less a political thesis.

Bentley Mays wrote about art as part of human experience and the quest for meaningful lives, which may be one of the reasons why, later in his career, it was so natural for him to write about architecture and urban planning, from tall buildings to intimate private homes. The built environment, after all, is one of the principal ways in which our experience of everyday life is shaped. I don’t think Bentley Mays made a sharp distinction between art and architecture, between an ambitious painting and an elegant, but humble shed he might encounter on a stroll through a city: they are both part of the way we seek out meaningful experiences of the world.

It may seem odd that, in all likelihood, Bentley Mays will mostly be remembered, not for his articles on art and architecture, but for two personal memoirs, In the Jaws of the Black Dogs: A Memoir of Depression (1995) and Power in the Blood: Land, Memory, and a Southern Family (1997). A profoundly religious man who had converted to Catholicism in the late 1990s after a vision at the Marion Shrine at Lourdes, France, Bentley Mays was always frank about the ways in which depression afflicted his life, and he understood depression less as a medical phenomenon then as an existential one: its main ingredient was desolation, a draining of meaning from experience. “I am a product of psychiatry and pharmacology, without them I could never have gone on,” he once told me, “but as time goes on, the medications stop working and a different one has to be found, and eventually nothing will work.”

Bentley mays knew that in the end the psychiatrists did not offer a cure but simply, and mercifully, held the black dogs at bay for a while, just as he understood that both religion and art and architecture allowed for an immediate and sometimes transcendent experience of meaning that was in the end a fragile reprieve and a gift. “[M]uch great art and architecture, contemporary or otherwise,” Bentley Mays wrote in In the Jaws of the Black Dogs, “has the power to slash through the cottony baffle quilted around my mind, and let in pleasures so acute as to be almost painful.” Part of Bentley Mays’s achievement, and the core of his remarkable courage and humility, was to remain open to those moments, and to enable others to see them as well.

The last time I ran into John Bentley Mays was a few months ago at an Orthodox Church in east Toronto, where he was speaking about religion and depression. He told me he was working on a novel about the early life of the iconic German artist Joseph Beuys; he apparently completed a draft of the novel days before his death. That Bentley Mays should be studying the early life of an artist like Joseph Beuys made a great deal of sense to me—just as it made sense to me that he was obsessively drawn to the music of Richard Wagner, especially the epic Ring Cycle, which he had seen performed many times and of which he owned countless recordings. Beuys returned from the Second World War shattered in mind, body, and spirit, having been shot down over the Crimea and mysteriously rescued and nursed back to health by Tatar tribesmen. Back home, Beuys contemplated becoming a religious man and ultimately turned to art in a way that was positively monastic; his early drawings and sculptures are inspired by both the early German church and the Italian Renaissance. In different ways, and on different scales, both Wagner and Beuys sought out overarching mythologies that would hold together the fragmentation of human life and offer immersive experiences of meaning.

In the end, Bentley Mays was too modest and pragmatic to think art offered a cure. I do think he believed it offered an eruption of the timeless into the affliction of ordinary life, or as he wrote, “an hour of twilight, touched both with the uncertainty of seeing and with the beauty of diffuse radiance that comes at day’s end.”

Daniel Baird co-founded The Brooklyn Rail, a monthly arts and politics journal. He writes often for The Walrus.


Arts & Culture

We Deserve Polaris

Why the industry’s coolest music prize is earnestly—and sometimes painfully—Canadian

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• 1,568 words

When the winner of the 2016 Polaris Music Prize is announced at Toronto’s Carlu tonight, there will be no losers. Under the twinkling chandeliers of the historic Art Moderne concert hall, at a white linen-covered table long stripped of its complimentary consumables, only one artist will hear their name called up to accept an oversized cheque for $50,000. But no one in the room will feel bad for the nine other artists, gathered around nine similarly partied-out tables, who made this year’s shortlist but ultimately failed to capture the honour of Best Canadian Album of the Year. Not because these “runners up” will also receive a prize of $3,000—but because at Polaris, the one unspoken rule is that it’s always a happy ending.

The Polaris gala differs from other Canadian music award ceremonies in its earnestness to be the most “artist friendly.” Nominees swap seats at their assigned tables, not competitors so much as friends, and are glowingly introduced by presenters of their choosing. Short live sets by the shortlisted artists make fast fans of jaded industry types. Meanwhile, sequestered in a back room, eleven “grand jury” members toil over who should win, using a series of ranked ballots that will ultimately narrow the field from ten to five to three to one. The public will never know who almost won or who was knocked out early, a move designed to protect non-winners from any hurt feelings. Polaris cares a lot about feelings.

Since its launch in 2006, Polaris has become part of the success story that is the rise of Canadian independent music, at home and worldwide. While Canadian content regulations established by the CRTC in the 1970s—in which all licensed radio stations are required to play a percentage of music by Canadian artists—helped grow an industry of Top 40 acts like Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, and Nickelback, they had not done much for critically acclaimed yet less radio-friendly music. Then Polaris came along, and in its first year gave a prize not to well-established indie darlings Broken Social Scene, The New Pornographers, or Metric, but to a relatively unknown violin player who made a string quartet album influenced by Dungeons and Dragons entitled He Poos Clouds. Inaugural winner Final Fantasy (the recording name at the time for Toronto composer Owen Pallett) declared his discomfort with receiving prize money provided by Rogers, a “manipulative corporate sponsor,” and announced he was using the $20,000 to pay off his boyfriend’s student loans and would give the rest to Blocks Recording Club, the tiny arts collective that had released his record. Thus the Polaris Music Prize was established as a champion of underdogs and oddballs, and its gala ceremony a place where artists could stand up and speak freely, critically, about whatever was on their mind—including the prize itself.

Increasingly, it’s that last part—the Polaris as a platform for free speech—that is making the gala most interesting. In 2013, the event’s glitziest year, the grand jury chose Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! by the notoriously anti-corporate, anti-capitalist collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The band refused to appear at the awards show and released a statement afterwards asserting that “holding a gala during a time of austerity and normalized decline is a weird thing to do,” called the car-company sponsor—which was displaying one of its vehicles onsite—“FUCKING INSANE,” and then declared they would give the money away to provide musical instruments for prisoners in Quebec.

No matter what Polaris says it’s about or wants to be about, it’s not actually enough to make the best album of the year if you want to win the prize.

In 2009, winners Fucked Up announced at the post-show press conference they would use the prize money to make a benefit record for missing Indigenous women. Years before major media started to cover this story, singer Damian Abraham reminded reporters, “It’s a marginalized group, it’s a racialized crime, it’s ignored.” In 2014, Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq pushed a similar message out in the most visceral way: she dedicated her gala performance to the 1,182 Indigenous women either missing or murdered since 1980, and displayed their names on screen in a seemingly never-ending alphabetical scroll that silenced the room. Tagaq won that night, and declared from the stage in a “a quick side note”—which would eventually start a Twitter war with animal rights groups—that “people should wear and eat and seal as much as possible . . . it’s delicious and there’s lots of them and fuck PETA.” It’s difficult to imagine similar scenes playing out at the Junos or Much Music Video Awards.

What happens on stage tonight remains anyone’s guess. Even though Polaris has a reputation as an “indie music prize,” that’s at odds with its mandate as an award for Canadian music of all genres, without regards to sales. If we’re referring to “indie” as the genre of indie rock, it’s also not accurate—this year’s shortlist includes everything from chart-topping pop star Carly Rae Jespen, to heavy psych rockers Black Mountain, to the vintage disco-soul-hip-hop wizardry of Haitian Canadian producer Kaytranada. In theory, though, Drake could win one year. So could Justin Bieber. Both were longlisted this year for commercially successful, critically acclaimed records, which reignited a longstanding public debate about whether or not artists who already have wealth and popularity should win a prize that can and does so much to assist newer talent. (The fact that neither made it to the shortlist suggests that even some of the officially unbiased jury members would answer that they should not.) Because no matter what Polaris says it’s about or wants to be about, it appears that it’s not actually enough to make the best album of the year if you want to win the prize. People also have to think you deserve it.

The Polaris jury is not a hive mind. I know because I am a member of that jury, and for the first six years of the award I was on its board of directors as a non-voting representative who moderated the sequestered discussion on gala night and counted the ballots that would eventually determine the winner. (They’re not chosen by consensus; despite being named the “grand jury,” the eleven voters pick by secret ranked ballot.) I know first-hand that those jury members will debate for hours, and may even cry over the weight of their task. Yet each year, after the winner is announced, speculation runs rampant about the jury’s political motivations. The music-loving public wants to believe there is a system of justice behind the scenes, that the prize will go to the artist that most needs the money and accolades, or to a genre or region that hasn’t won yet. And they love to bicker when that doesn’t happen to their satisfaction. But that’s not how arts awards should work, and it’s not how Polaris works.

The thing to understand about the Polaris Music Prize is that it’s not actually about the prize itself. For over a decade, Polaris has insisted—at least unofficially—that its mission is to bring attention not to just one album on one night of the year, but to as many Canadian albums “of distinction” as possible. It’s why in its second year it introduced the “Long List,” promoting forty albums instead of just the top ten. Last year, its tenth anniversary, Polaris added the Slaight Family Polaris Heritage Prize to honour critically acclaimed albums released before its existence. And this year, Polaris even made public a “longer list”—all 232 titles that received at least one vote. (Some have suggested that this now includes every record of note released in Canada this year, which is neither true nor entirely inaccurate.) The thinking seems to be that the only thing keeping great albums from the masses is exposure, and with just a little Polaris stamp of approval, everyone will not only be heard, but be loved.

It’s a noble goal, and perfectly Canadian: To break down barriers to entry; to include everyone equally regardless of history or status; to aim for regional diversity and parity; to support the right of participants to stand up against us while still defending their creations. But neither the Polaris nor any prize will ever resolve this country’s cultural divides. You can allow all languages to win and invite all the francophone music critics to vote, but you won’t bridge the French-English language gap. You can recruit more hip-hop experts, but it doesn’t balance out the fact that majority of music media remains old, white, and rockist. (Ask Scaachi Koul what happens when you try to change that.)

It will never be a perfect utopia. The morning after the winner is announced, some will inevitably whine that they’ve never heard of this obscure artist, while others will claim they’re too mainstream. But by then Polaris will have already proved its point—that Canada is producing too many albums each year worth of accolades. And the jury, still hung over from the gala after-party and the high of 2016’s vote, will have already begun considering new music for next year’s prize.

Liisa Ladouceur is a music and arts journalist and the author of Encyclopedia Gothica, a guide to the language and culture of Goth.


Justice

Stop Calling Me Sweetie

Responding to sexist language in the practice of law

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• 2,141 words

The Walrus/Wesley VanDinterThe Walrus/Wesley VanDinter

As a lawyer, the particulars of my professional world are privileged. So if I want to tell a story from work, I redact it. For example: in the early stages of a lawsuit, a young female lawyer is sent to represent her client in settlement negotiations. The other side, a corporation, hasn’t yet hired a lawyer and sends one of its directors to negotiate instead. He’s a man in his sixties. The lawyer comes to the table and she’s prepared to talk numbers. The director comes in with an arsenal of off-colour negotiation tactics: he closes each sentence with “sweetie,” tells her he’s happy to see her “pretty face,” asks her if she’s blushing. She could say to him, “This negotiation is over. We can resume when you’ve learned appropriate language.” She doesn’t. Instead, she says to herself: you are here to try and strike a deal, not to give a lecture. In the end, there’s no settlement, and she bit her tongue for nothing.

Here are some other redacted work stories I’ve collected over the years. A female candidate is told that this firm or that practice group is “really looking to hire a man” this year. A female law student is privy to the observation that women shouldn’t become judges until after they’ve given birth and are “hormonally balanced.” A female lawyer attends lunch meetings at Toronto clubs that only recently started accepting female members, and at Toronto clubs that still don’t accept female members. At a bar, a female lawyer sits quietly while her colleagues deride another female lawyer for glancing at her nails during a trial and, in the same conversation, delight in the rumour of a male lawyer who checks game scores in court. On the way to a firm event, a female lawyer learns that a man she admires, who rose to the utmost prominence in her profession, was the type of person who “couldn’t be left alone with his secretary.” A first-year associate considers whether putting “feminist” in her firm profile is worth the risk of professional alienation and decides that it’s not. A law student wanders the hallways of the Ontario Court of Appeal and makes her peace with its many, massive portraits of old, white men. That same student is later told a rape joke over cocktails at a networking event. Then, as a lawyer, she tries to do her job while being called “sweetie.”

Pet names really irritate me. I’ve been told this kind of language is benign, a fuddy-duddy relic of the days when lawyers called their assistants “girls.” But some lawyers still say “their girl” will make a photocopy, and pet names aren’t harmless. They’re a kind of benevolent sexism—masquerading as compliments but in fact reinforcing destructive stereotypes about women. Calling a female lawyer “dear” or “sweetie” infantilizes her. It plays on the trope that women need babying or protecting. It uncomfortably personalizes an exchange. When a male lawyer calls a female lawyer “honey,” he’s suggesting to whoever’s listening that he’s familiar with her, that he’s humouring her, and that she doesn’t really belong.

The prevalence of benevolent sexism in law recently prompted political action in the United States. There, the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) put pressure on the American Bar Association (ABA) to amend its Model Rules of Professional Conduct to prohibit sexist conduct in the profession. In support of these amendments, women reported incidents where they were patted on the head, scolded for acting in a manner “unbecoming a woman,” and addressed as “honey” and “darling.” NAWL’s efforts were a success and on August 8, 2016, the ABA voted to amend Rule 8.4(g) of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Under this model rule, it’s now professional misconduct for a lawyer to:

[E]ngage in conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is harassment or discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, or socioeconomic status in conduct related to the practice of law.

The ABA’s Model Rules are, as the name suggests, only guidelines with no force of law. They are published as a model for the rules of legal ethics created by individual states. But although the Model Rules are non-binding, they formalize the legal profession’s rejection of sexism on a national scale and are therefore of tremendous symbolic significance. As NAWL wrote in its letter supporting the amendments to Rule 8.4(g), “Perhaps when the refusal to accept discrimination and harassment is literally written into the moral code of the legal profession, women and minorities will be fully accepted as colleagues, partners, bosses, and opposing counsel.”

In Ontario, lawyers are regulated by the Law Society of Upper Canada, whose Rules of Professional Conduct specifically prohibit sexual harassment and state that lawyers have a “special responsibility” not to discriminate against any person on the grounds of sex or gender. And unlike the ABA’s Model Rules, the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Rules are mandatory and binding—if a lawyer breaks these rules, he or she can be required to take sensitivity training or counseling and may be reprimanded, suspended, or disbarred.

But although our Law Society’s “moral code” says sexism has no place in our profession, sexist language is still a problem. It goes unreported and unsanctioned, particularly when it involves one lawyer using sexist language as a tactic against another lawyer. I recently had cause to ask my female colleagues in the profession whether they, too, had experienced benevolent sexism. The responses were many: one woman had been praised by a colleague as “not just a pretty face”; another had worked with a lawyer who insisted that she was “too young” to be her client’s lawyer, she had to be her client’s daughter; one woman had been told that a male associate was preferred to attend a meeting, as a confrontation was likely; several women told me about sexual advances from clients or colleagues or counsel. “How do you deal with this?” I asked these women. I meant, “What should I have done?”

  • Point it out. Many women told me that a polite “Please refer to me as counsel” will sometimes do the trick, although this tactic invariably changes the tone of the exchange and puts the other party on the defensive. My sense is that this works best when the problem is older lawyers that reflexively use inappropriate language and will be embarrassed when it is pointed out to them.
  • Stand up. Though this isn’t a direct response to sexist language, a change in physical posture can work to equalize the power dynamic of a conversation. Some women I spoke with told me that they make a conscious effort to shift their body language to match opposing counsel. This can mean taking a more aggressive posture, standing up to avoid being (physically) talked down to, or leaning forward during a discussion instead of away.
  • Play dumb. One woman told me she has had great success feigning ignorance when opposing counsel uses inappropriate language or makes sexist jokes or generalizations. She said she responds to these kinds of comments with “I don’t get it” or “what do you mean?”—forcing the other lawyer to explain himself. This takes the momentum out of the comment and, as she put it, “there is nothing more awkward than someone having to explain their sexist/racist/ableist joke.”
  • Fire back. If the moment calls for it, a short retort can defuse the situation. One woman I spoke with told me that she once she responded to the question “How long have you been practicing?” with “Long enough.” I was also told the story of one female lawyer who was called “sweetie” by opposing counsel during a phone call. Apparently, she just hung up, but not before saying, “Did you just call me sweetie? Please call me back when you can use appropriate terminology.”
  • Set boundaries. Sometimes conduct is so egregious that more extreme measures are needed. One woman told me that, on a file opposite male counsel whose phone calls and emails were rife with inappropriate language, she simply refused to respond to anything but letters sent by fax. She found that by requiring counsel to sit down and write out a letter, he was forced into a sort of artificial professionalism.

This is all good advice to keep in your back pocket as a female lawyer, and I wish I’d had it earlier in my career. It’s useless, however, if women lawyers don’t feel they can respond to sexist language to begin with. Many women that I spoke with were concerned that taking any position, however polite, in response to sexist language would fruitlessly antagonize an opposing lawyer (or a judge or mediator) and prejudice their client’s case. The fear is that there’s not enough to be gained and too much to be lost, so female lawyers often let sexist barbs go unremarked upon. Similarly, women worry that if they are firmly or vocally opposed to sexist language, particularly from their own colleagues, they’ll be seen as bitchy or sensitive, or not a team player, or that they’ll damage relationships with important mentors. Ultimately, these women stay silent as a way to prioritize their duties to their clients and their own advancement within the profession.

But framing this problem in terms of “competing duties” sets up a false dichotomy—you either roll with the punches or you’re not fit for the profession. It’s wrong. Shutting up is not the best way for women to serve their client’s interests, and it’s not the best way for women to foster their own professional success. Being referred to as “sweetie,” for example, seriously undermines women’s competence and credibility in their client’s eyes. It also impairs women’s professional confidence. A recent study investigated the effects of infantilizing language on women’s self-perceptions and concluded that being called “girl” rather than “woman” negatively influences a woman’s feelings about and confidence in her own leadership qualities. It’s not hard to see why sexist language is used as a disarming tactic. In fact, the American Center for Law and Religious Freedom opposed the ABA’s amendments to rule 8.4(g) precisely on the basis that such changes would “impair the ability to zealously represent clients”.

In light of these realities, I add this to my list of advice received: yes, you can. Sexist language makes it harder to do your job, so yes, you can shut down the sexism you encounter. Sexist language causes you to doubt your own professional qualities, so yes, you can adjust the situation to regain your footing. Calling out sexism isn’t incompatible with women lawyers’ professional duties to clients, to the administration of justice, or to their own advancement. Calling out sexism serves the profession because doing so empowers us, the women within it.

There’s an important caveat to all this, which is that the burden of responding to sexist language shouldn’t be borne solely by female lawyers in the course of their day-to-day practice. It’s not a fair burden, and, in any case, it’s not enough. Firms have to be proactive. The Rules of Professional Conduct outlaw discrimination and harassment within the profession—why isn’t this commitment renewed in every retainer agreement? Since 2011, it’s been mandatory in Ontario for lawyers to undergo three hours of “professionalism” training per year. At least one of these hours should be spent learning how to avoid, respond to, and discourage discrimination and harassment in the practice of law. Setting up an in-firm mentorship network specifically for women would also go a long way. It would at least cut down on the time it takes to get good advice. For now, I’ll remind women in my profession, and when the going gets tough, I ask to be reminded in return: yes, you can demand professional treatment. Those are the conditions that best serve your client and foster your own success. You prejudice yourself, and fulfill no duty, by staying silent.

Here’s one more redacted work story. A junior associate endures sexist remarks from opposing counsel and confides in her mentor, a senior lawyer. From that point on, her mentor always refers to her by name in front of counsel and opposing parties, and specifically credits her for her role in the file. This reinforces the associate’s legitimacy and confidence in the profession and sexist tactics lose their purchase. All by using her name.

Daniella Murynka is an associate with Ricketts, Harris LLP in Toronto.


Society

L'Affaire Galloway

Whatever the star UBC prof may have done, the university made things worse

by
Illustration by Byron Eggenschwiler

• 3,814 words

When police arrived at his Holiday Inn room, Steven Galloway had been crying, but he was not, he insisted, suicidal. It was a cool mid-November evening in 2015, and the award-winning author had, hours earlier, given a lecture at Wright State University, in Dayton, Ohio. Galloway told the officer that, ten minutes prior to the event, he had received an email from the University of British Columbia putting him on notice that he was at the centre of a sexual-assault investigation involving a student. Ohio police were following up on a call from fellow creative-writing faculty member Annabel Lyon. She was afraid that Galloway’s reaction to the news could make him a threat to himself, and instructed police not to trust him if he claimed he was fine. “Steven can be very manipulative in order to get what he wants,” Lyon said.

Galloway admitted that he had “never felt this low,” but he had two daughters and was “too much of a coward” to kill himself. Raised in the BC town of Kamloops, the then forty-year-old novelist had spent his entire adult life at UBC: he’d been an undergraduate in the late 1990s and then a graduate student in fine arts before becoming a lecturer, and, finally, in 2013, a tenured professor and the chair of the creative-writing program. The police report states that Galloway was “very upset at these false allegations, as they are likely to lead to him losing his job.” The officer responded by placing him, against his will, in Miami Valley Hospital for a mental-health evaluation. Alone in a strange town and on lockdown in a psych unit, Galloway was traumatized. His girlfriend—now his wife—flew out to advocate for his early release, and authorities obliged.

As writing gigs go, Galloway had one of the best. He was head of the longest-running, the largest, and the most highly regarded creative-writing department in the country. The program dates back to 1965, when UBC became the first Canadian university to offer workshop courses—a peer-review method, pioneered at the University of Iowa in 1936, whereby groups of aspiring writers critique one another’s poetry and fiction. In the 1990s, the UBC program was a money-losing operation, but it has since grown into a successful marquee enterprise: nearly 4,000 students take its courses annually. Instructors include Giller Prize winners and finalists such as Lyon and Joseph Boyden; graduates have gone on to become some of the most celebrated names in Canadian publishing, among them Lee Henderson and Madeleine Thien. Agents, editors, and publishers regularly scout the university’s writing classes for the next big thing. Galloway, who kept a spreadsheet tracking enrolment sizes, liked to brag to first-years that they’d entered a program that provided CanLit with 10 percent of its authors.

On November 18, Gage Averill, the university’s dean of arts, posted a memo on the department’s website stating that Galloway had been suspended from his duties as department chair. His removal sent shockwaves through the literary community. Eight years ago, his third novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo, became an international hit. It sold 700,000 copies, was optioned for film, and was translated into more than twenty languages. The UBC program, famed for producing winners, had no better poster child than its own chair.

Galloway’s outcast status immediately drew comparisons with that of another former Canadian star: Jian Ghomeshi. But while rumours of Ghomeshi’s predatory sexual behaviour had been rampant, it was unclear what Galloway had actually done. When Averill spoke to the media on November 18, 2015, he alluded to “serious allegations” but refused to provide details. In subsequent weeks, members of UBC’s faculty, as well as students, began divulging to the press that the charges dealt with incidents of bullying and sexual harassment. The most serious charge, not disclosed at the time, is now said to have involved a sexual relationship with a student. It was the department’s disturbing insinuations—Averill, for example, suggested in the memo that UBC was prioritizing the “safety” of students and faculty—that divided writers, especially on social media, where Galloway’s supporters were vilified as “rape apologists.”

On June 22, 2016, Philip Steenkamp, UBC’s vice-president of external relations, announced that Galloway would not be returning to his position. The university’s decision to fire him without severance followed a months-long investigation by former BC Supreme Court judge Mary Ellen Boyd. In a statement, Steenkamp claimed that Boyd’s report—ordered by UBC and currently unrelated to any criminal proceedings—had revealed, in Steenkamp’s words, “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.”

“I’m so relieved that UBC did the right thing,” said one complainant, quoted the next day in the Vancouver Observer. UBC’s mishandling of previous sexual-assault complaints had received national attention, most notably in the case of PhD history student Dmitry Mordvinov. According to a Fifth Estate investigation, the university had waited a year and a half before acting on complaints made in 2014 by at least six women who claimed that twenty-eight-year-old Mordvinov had sexually assaulted or harassed them (he was ultimately expelled). After the investigation aired in late 2015, interim UBC president Martha Piper admitted that the university needed to do better. Frustration about the Mordvinov case led UBC faculty members to speak out against the institution in January 2016—at least two creative-writing professors signed an open letter pledging “to take an active part in improving UBC’s policies and procedures regarding sexual assault.”

Galloway may have seemed like a good test case for UBC’s zero-tolerance policy. But after studying the matter, Boyd threw out nearly every allegation made against him, including the assault claim Galloway had learned about in Ohio. (The Boyd report has never been released to the public—but the contents were made available to The Walrus during the course of my reporting.) Only one complaint stuck: Boyd determined that Galloway had conducted an inappropriate relationship with a middle-aged student—a relationship that, according to sources, had lasted several years and spurred speculation among faculty members.

Many of Galloway’s friends, including writers Lee Henderson and Kevin Patterson, have publicly expressed unhappiness over what they see as UBC’s mismanagement of the case. As Hal Wake, artistic director of the Vancouver Writers Festival, told the Canadian Press: “I have concerns that the handling of the matter may have been deeply flawed.” Facing backlash, they have since gone quiet.

Galloway, too, has remained silent, although his Twitter profile may offer some clue as to his feelings: his avatar is now an image of a noose accompanied by the words “The Crucible”—the title of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play that presents an allegory of the Cold War anti-Communist witch hunts.

Illustration by Byron Eggenschwiler

Galloway’s most recent book, The Confabulist (2014), features a narrator named Martin Strauss, whose life has been organized around the belief that he killed history’s greatest magician, Houdini. We soon realize that Strauss’s confession may be a fiction—the result of a cognitive disorder that causes him to fabricate events. Unsure whether his memories are real or imagined, Strauss returns to a deceptively simple question: “How is it we can be so sure that we’ve seen, heard and experienced what we think we have?”

That question is also at the centre of the debate that has galvanized UBC students, former students, faculty, and writers—some of whom have been struggling to square their perceptions of the talented novelist, teacher, and administrator they knew with the rumoured contents of the allegations levelled against him. A friend who watched Galloway’s rise through the program described him as “the Steve Jobs of creative writing: entrepreneurial, driven, occasionally abrasive.” He ran the department instinctually—“management by chatting in the corridor,” says the same friend. Galloway was able to leverage the popularity of creative-writing courses by pushing for lecture-style undergraduate classes that featured higher student-teacher ratios. He helped raise enrolment numbers, making him an asset to UBC, which competes with other Canadian graduate writing programs (including reputable departments at Concordia University and the University of New Brunswick) for applicants. To boost morale, he installed a sailing bell in the hallway for students to ring when they graduated. (It was removed after he was fired.)

Some, though, describe a man who was often intemperate—easy to bait, eager to feud. Soon after Raziel Reid’s debut young-adult novel, Everything Feels Like the Movies, won the 2014 Governor General’s Award for children’s fiction—worth $25,000—Galloway invited the twenty-five-year-old phenom to join the department as an adjunct professor. That kind of decisiveness is part of what made him an effective department chair, but it was hard not to see the hire as a dig against National Post columnist Barbara Kay. Appalled by the book’s sexual content, Kay wrote that she wouldn’t have wasted tax dollars on Reid’s “values-void novel,” and her comments inspired a petition demanding that his prize be revoked. In a press release announcing Reid’s appointment, Galloway—who had already sparred with Kay publicly six years earlier over her negative review of a Lisa Moore novel—included the following sentence: “We would like to thank Barbara Kay and everyone who petitioned the Canada Council for the Arts to censor his work for the recommendation.”

One female writer I interviewed praises Galloway for his “nerdy decency.” Others complain that he sidelined female students. “There were women he would just vilify,” says Erika Thorkelson, a freelance writer. “If I had a nickel for every time he called a woman ‘crazy,’ I would be rich.” In Galloway’s world, claims Thorkelson, women were kept in strict categories. There were those he was kind to, those he found attractive, and those he ignored. “I tended to be ignored,” she says.

His admirers see him as generous, loyal, funny, visionary, and sincere. “I’ve never seen a writer as loved by his peers as Galloway,” said Vancouver-based writer Peter Darbyshire days after the allegations emerged. Galloway’s detractors, though, characterize him as juvenile, egomaniacal, bullying, unprofessional, and sexist. Both camps, however, bring up the local veterans’ canteen, where he held court.

The canteen, commonly known as the Legion, is located in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood. It’s a tired space that serves cheap beer on rickety tables. Galloway would convene Thursday-night sessions there with up to ten students. The group would stay late, consuming alcohol at a pace that made some uncomfortable. “I would leave before everyone had too many drinks,” says a former student I’ll call Alison. According to Erin Flegg, Galloway’s former teaching assistant, these sessions became an informal part of the curriculum: participants would vie for Galloway’s approval and the gifts they felt he could bestow—references, teaching jobs at UBC, introductions to agents and publishers. He played favourites, says Flegg, creating a club of insiders. “He had power in that respect. The better friends you were with him, the more you benefited.”

The Legion is where one of the incidents is alleged to have taken place four years ago. According to Alison’s version of events, it had its roots in an exchange from the year before, when one of her friends, also a student, had admitted to Galloway that she didn’t like his writing. Galloway told her that he wanted to slap her, but wouldn’t—not until she graduated and was no longer one of his students. One night in 2012, Galloway met up with several students at the Legion to celebrate their graduation. It wasn’t late, but Galloway had already had quite a lot to drink, according to the witness. He was joking with the student who had insulted him, and then announced, “It’s time.” With that, he slapped her face. “It was loud and more serious than I expected,” says Alison. “There was a pause around the table. I was looking to see how my colleagues were going to respond. I looked at her. She looked startled. She sort of laughed it off. Then everything sort of went back to normal.”

The others at the table were either shocked or confused, but they were willing to go along with the idea that this had been nothing more than a joke between two friends. The woman who’d been slapped reacted as if she’d been in on the joke—which could have encouraged the others to file it away as just another example of the kind of weirdness Galloway was known for. “At the time, I remember rationalizing it: ‘Okay, she consented to it,’” says Alison. But today, she sees the incident as “totally not appropriate.” Alison says she later learned that the student had been distressed by Galloway’s behaviour.

But he also faced more troubling accusations. For about three years, Galloway conducted a relationship with a writer in her forties. He had a wife and kids; she had a long-term partner. They had met while she was taking an undergraduate course, hoping to enrol in UBC’s creative-writing program. “He invited her to come drinking,” says Flegg. “That’s how the relationship began. The power dynamics were there from the start: getting in was contingent on him liking her. That was common knowledge in the program. There was a culture of fawning over him.”

At some point during the affair, things changed. “She stopped coming out,” says Flegg. “Then, after a certain point, I noticed they were totally distant.” Thorkelson recalls the woman sitting at the Legion one night looking pale and upset. “I remember thinking, ‘She does not look okay.’” She now berates herself for not having asked what was wrong.

In the fall of 2015, long after the affair had ended, the woman reached out to instructors with an allegation about Galloway that shocked them—the same allegation that would later trigger Galloway’s breakdown in Ohio. When a former creative-writing student learned of the charge, she canvassed the department, asking whether others knew of any inappropriate behaviour from Galloway, and more complainants emerged. “People who didn’t like him came forward,” Alison says. Faculty members reportedly pushed for action.

In the wake of the Ghomeshi scandal, institutions that grant male employees the presumption of innocence risk looking as if they’re enabling abusers. More than half a million sexual assaults occur each year in Canada, but only a fraction result in charges against the attacker. This, for victims’ rights activists, is the result of a judicial system that too often puts the burden of proof squarely on the victim. Officials are now more inclined to trust the odds that the allegations are true—a core principle of the “Believe Women” movement—and act before they find themselves on the wrong side of public opinion. UBC suspended Galloway within days. Eight months later—despite his having been largely exonerated by the report it commissioned—he was fired.

Galloway has reportedly filed a grievance against UBC and has been warned that commenting on any aspect of his case would violate a confidentiality agreement that he signed. But while he may not be able to defend himself, his friends can argue on his behalf—and do.

They insist that they are not judging the complainants, but simply questioning the process. According to a close friend, many of the complaints filed were petty: one male faculty member allegedly groused that Galloway didn’t respect poetry; another objected to his enthusiasm for a Grumpy Cat meme on a Facebook post. Supporters also say that by keeping the details of Galloway’s suspension and firing vague, UBC created an environment ripe for innuendo. “Everyone was quite stunned that it was handled in this public way,” says Nancy Holmes, an associate professor in the creative-studies department based at UBC’s Okanagan campus.

“There was a sense that this was unheard of and really quite unusual,” says Holmes. “It was very difficult for a faculty member to not think he must have done something terrible—involving violence or theft—because you don’t fire people for no reason. And yet what I have heard since is that it was an affair with a student. That is a breach of trust. That should not happen. But, you know, it just seems amazing to me that a faculty member at UBC would be fired for that reason.”

Was Galloway a harasser? Alison, who attended his Christmas parties, never saw any signs of inappropriate behaviour. “He’s awkward, goofy—nothing I would consider flirty,” she says. Another female writer agrees. “Steve has an exuberant sense of humour, but he is not raunchy—especially not around students.” Indeed, sources say Boyd could find no evidence that Galloway had created a sexualized environment.

Sources also say that Galloway’s former lover—the woman associated with the most serious claim—changed the nature of her allegations several times during the investigation. Boyd ultimately determined that her claims could not be substantiated. The same woman also brought other complaints to Boyd later in the investigation. Boyd dismissed those as well. And that slap? Galloway’s friends explain that the complainant was a physical person who liked to push and punch Galloway. At one point, she slapped him a little too hard, and he jokingly warned, “Some time after you graduate, I’m going to slap you back.” And he did.

UBC has defamed Steven Galloway,” contends Reid. “They brought in a one-person judge and jury to investigate a case which was never legal—no BC police report has been filed. They betrayed Galloway’s constitutional rights, and that should alarm everyone. To be alarmed by that fact doesn’t betray the alleged victims. It’s not about picking sides; it’s about justice. Complainants have been given an outlet by the media to voice anonymous accusations that amount to nothing more than character assassination. What’s especially confusing is that what’s been revealed makes Galloway seem like a jerk—not someone who has committed criminal offences.”

Reid argues that because of how UBC has handled this situation—and because of a cultural climate of despair over a legal system that fails to convict abusers—many now see Galloway as a predator who escaped justice. “UBC has stated that their trust in Galloway has been broken and that’s why they terminated him, which is their right,” says Reid. “But why dangle this in front of the public, allowing slander to be perpetuated? Fire him and move on. Instead, they publicly hanged him.”

The witnesses and complainants, too, feel slighted by the process. Flegg was under the impression that Galloway would not see her written statement. However, Jude Tate, who was then the special advisor to UBC’s provost, later warned her that Galloway would have access to it. “In accordance with the principles of procedural fairness,” Tate wrote in an email to her, “your entire statement as well as your identity will be revealed. Since that may not have been clear at the time of your interview, I wanted to ensure that you are aware the investigation will now be broadened to include your complaint.” (Complainants and witnesses, however, will not be able to examine documents related to his own testimony.)

One witness was so rattled by Boyd’s investigation that she hired a lawyer. “She was being asked about her thoughts on the ‘Believe Women’ movement,” says Flegg. “Questions clearly intended to discredit her as a witness, and throw out her complaint.” Flegg also wishes the university had come out in support of the students involved, who had been advised not to speak with the media. “You had faculty attacking their own students and attempting to discredit them publicly.”

UBC has stated that it also had reasons for firing Galloway that were unrelated to the investigation, but it did not specify what they were. For her part, Thorkelson has no doubt that his dismissal was warranted, if not long overdue. “The experience of the main complainant was real, as far as I am concerned,” she says. “I believe her, because I saw the way he played with people, and the way he could be controlling and cruel, and the kind of power he wanted to have.”

Friends, on the other hand, believe that if the complaints—and Boyd’s conclusions about them—were made public, Galloway would be absolved. But would he? A generation ago, teacher-student trysts might not have been seen as a problem. (And, indeed, Andreas Schroeder has written that “the practice of professors sleeping with students” was “quite widespread” in the early days of the UBC program.) But cultural attitudes have since shifted.

In the meantime, Galloway’s firing has created a climate of fear. “There’s such a tense atmosphere on campus right now,” says a female student currently enrolled in the program Galloway once led. “Nobody wants to say something and realize later that you are defending something you know nothing about.”

* An earlier version of this article misidentified Kevin Chong as someone who publicly criticized UBC’s management of the Galloway case. The article also misidentified Flegg as being present when Galloway slapped a student. The Walrus regrets these errors.

Kerry Gold (@Goldiein604) reports on real estate for the Globe and Mail.

Byron Eggenschwiler has done artwork for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and GQ.


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