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Former Dawson College student denounces harassment in theatre program as faculty members step down

A female student works on her laptop next to lockers at Dawson College in Montreal.
A female student works on her laptop next to lockers at Dawson College in Montreal. Graham Hughes / The Canadian Press

Note: This story has been updated to include clarification from Dawson College.

Two faculty members in Dawson College‘s professional theatre program have stepped down as co-chairs of the department following multiple claims of alleged harassment and bullying.

Though the college acknowledged the resignations, it said it would not identify the teachers who stepped away, when they did so, nor name the professor involved in the alleged harassment.

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“The faculty members who have resigned are entitled to their opinion,” the college said in an email to Global News.

“But they do not determine the course of action the college is required to take by law or in accordance with collective agreements.”

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A former student, who has asked to remain anonymous to avoid emotional distress, says the bullying has spanned at least 20 years.

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“He [the professor] would compare students, berate them, pick out favourites, build you up and then tear you down,” she told Global News.

She was 19 years old at the time, admitting she didn’t have the “life experience” to know what was happening.

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“He even told me in my final meeting that he wanted to break me to see if I was cut out for the industry and I passed the test,” she told Global News.

She said she took to Facebook last fall to share her story, “in the midst of the #metoo movement,” and heard back from at least 30 other alumni who said they shared her experience.

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“I hope they’re going to rethink the system and change the policies so a tenured professor that is being abusive to students is not able to get away with it,” she said.

“This whole process has caused me anxiety and lack of sleep because I was worried about how things were going to go. It hasn’t been easy.”

The 31-year-old is now a teacher to young actors — some of whom are graduates of the program.

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“I’m being told, ‘I want to quit acting,’ ‘I’m suicidal,'” she told Global News.

“It’s not a nice thing to hear from young, fragile students and performers. It’s heartbreaking.”

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In her role as mentor, the former student said she reached out to Dawson’s current dean, in January 2017, who seemed very understanding and open to hearing what she had to say, “but a year goes by and nothing.”

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“I want to make changes so other professors don’t do this, too,” she said.

“I kept hearing from other alumni that the behaviour I had experienced was still happening and I came to realize that it was a pattern. I didn’t want to reopen old wounds. I wanted to let it go, but it got to a point where I couldn’t anymore.”

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Dawson College insisted it carried out an internal investigation over the last six months, in collaboration with legal counsel and the teachers’ union.

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“The ‘inaction’ to which they [the department heads] refer has in fact been an overriding preoccupation for the college,” it told Global News.
“[The investigation is] adhering to collective agreements and labour laws and under the strictest provincial confidentiality laws.”

Some of the students coming forward on social media are speaking about alleged bullying that dates from more than a decade ago. Since those students never filed official complaints at the time of the alleged incidents, the college said it did what it could.

“In legal terms, harassment has a 90-day limitation. As those allegations were against someone still actively teaching, in good faith, the college reached out to those making accusations on Facebook, an unregulated, unsubstantiated and unaccountable platform where you can pretty much say anything you want about anyone or anything without being subjected to any recourse,” the school stated.

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“Once those interviews [with former students] were completed, the college proceeded to investigate by speaking to current theatre students to ascertain whether they felt threatened or abused in that environment. If teachers in the department are dissatisfied with the college’s actions, it is not because due diligence was lacking, but rather because they were not satisfied with the outcome.”

The former student points out she thinks the bigger issue is that it seems tenured professors are getting away with inappropriate behaviour.

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“Our school system is allowing for this. Professors that aren’t tenured, they can get them out of there, but when they’re tenured it’s almost impossible,” she said.

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“Twenty years ago, some students said they went to the chair of the program and they were shamed; they were made to feel completely terrified to make any formal complaints, but unless you make a formal complaint to the right person, it’s like it never happened.”

She argued there should be a third-party investigating the allegations to make sure it is done properly.

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“They hired the internal HR team, but it’s a conflict of interest,” she claims.

“HR is hired by the college and their job is to make the problem go away as quickly as possible.”

She admitted it’s been scary to put herself out there, to open herself up to experience anxiety and emotional distress.

“I’m not doing this for me. I’ve come to peace with my experience. I’m doing this for everyone who hasn’t been heard,” she explained.

“I have to continue this fight, but I don’t want it to be about me. What I experienced is, on the spectrum of everything I’ve heard, what I experienced was low on the spectrum. It’s not a fair representation of the abuse he’s capable of.”

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rachel.lau@globalnews.ca