Margaret Atwood and fellow novelist Susan Swan have issued a joint statement, explaining their decision to sign a controversial open letter and apologizing for the harm caused by what has been an ugly chapter in Canadian literature. The UBC Accountable open letter, which called for due process in the case of fired creative writing program head Steven Galloway, has been a flashpoint in CanLit circles.
“We regret any perception of harm or silencing effects that this decision [to sign the letter] may have had on other complainants in Canada, as we regret the misconceptions about and attacks upon signatories of the Letter. We are sorry for any chilling effects the Letter may have had on sexual assault complainants who were considering coming forward,” reads part of Ms. Atwood’s and Ms. Swan’s joint statement, which is posted to a new site, “Where we are now 2018,” rather than the UBC Accountable site.
The UBC Accountable letter was written and posted following the firing of Mr. Galloway, a bestselling novelist, from the University of British Columbia. Dozens of people, many of them high-profile writers, signed it, including Ms. Atwood, who became a vocal advocate for the contents of the letter.
The backlash has been passionate, persistent and intense – from some complainants in the Galloway case and others, including authors and academics. A counter-letter petition was posted and received hundreds of signatures. Some signatories of the original letter removed their names; others added statements of explanation. Still, there have been repeated calls to take down the site. Instead, it has now been labelled as an archived site.
“I believe archiving the site is meant to be a gesture toward reconciliation,” Ms. Swan told The Globe and Mail on Thursday. “The feeling was it is time to turn the site into a historical document and start moving the conversation to a more constructive place.”
When Mr. Galloway was suspended in November, 2015, it was for unnamed “serious allegations” – a term used publicly by the university. UBC did not reveal specifics, but it was eventually revealed that Mr. Galloway was accused of sexual assault, harassment and bullying. A retired judge was hired by the university to conduct an investigation.
According to a statement released by Mr. Galloway through his lawyer in November, 2016, the investigator concluded in her report that on a balance of probabilities, Mr. Galloway had not committed sexual assault. Mr. Galloway said he had an affair with a student for about two years. But that student, the main complainant in the case, said in a subsequent statement released through her lawyer that her complaint was not about a consensual affair.
Mr. Galloway was ultimately fired for what the university said was “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.”
The controversial open letter called the university’s conduct in the matter “of great concern” and asked UBC to establish an independent investigation into how the matter was handled.
“The situation is a test case of what happens when protocols for procedural fairness aren’t followed by an institution − everyone including the institution, the complainants, and the defendant are vilified and the community of people around the institution suffer,” Ms. Swan told The Globe.
In their statement, Ms. Swan and Ms. Atwood explain that they do not know Mr. Galloway and that despite the way the letter was interpreted, their intention in signing it was not to discredit the complainants. Nor do they believe that it was the intention of other signatories.
They also call out UBC for how it has handled the case.
“We trust that in due course the University will see fit to do the right thing and issue an apology to the many writers, teachers, students and other individuals involved in the case. As a result of the University’s prolonged lack of the transparency owed to its funders – both donors and the taxpaying public – and its opaque, divisive, and misleading communications, many of these have suffered silencing, loss of employment or the threat of it, and damaging attempts at character assassination and career destruction.”
UBC declined to comment for this story.
Meanwhile, the controversial website has now been revised and labelled as “archived.” What remains is “an archived snapshot of the letter as of March 22, 2018,” according to a note on the website, suggesting the site’s creators do not intend to update it further. The intention or benefit of describing the website this way is unclear, as the “archived documents” remain publicly accessible, including statements posted by a number of signatories. (Ms. Atwood’s original statement, however, is no longer posted.)
Efforts to reach UBC Accountable spokesperson Carmen Aguirre and organizer Brad Cran were not successful Thursday.
A Globe request for reaction from the main complainant in the case, made through her lawyer, did not receive a response Thursday.
But Chelsea Rooney, an ancillary complainant in the case who has been strongly critical of UBC Accountable, was not impressed with the developments, including Ms. Atwood’s and Ms. Swan’s statement.
“They are worried about their reputations, they have books coming out, they never expected the public perception of UBC Accountable to be this negative. They’re trying on one hand to appear as allies to sexual-assault victims and on the other hand maintain their position that the main complainant is lying and you can’t have both,” said Ms. Rooney. “Until that website comes down and there’s an apology to the main complainant, none of this means anything to me. My stance hasn’t changed.”