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erin anderssen

Erin Anderssen

Over the holidays, a male doctor, a friend of mine, launched into a rant about the dentistry students at Dalhousie University. There was no question in his mind: The students involved deserved to get a swift kick out the door. (He was less polite.) This was his argument: These "gentlemen" as they called themselves on the abhorrent Facebook page, were not boys, but men wrapping up a minimum of eight years of postsecondary study, and months away from earning the title of doctor, with all the public trust that entails.

For this doctor, it was not about whether they would really "chloroform " women, as they joked on the site, or have sex with women until they were "unconscious." (They also voted on female peers worthy of "hate" sex.) The men involved demonstrated a lack of maturity and good judgment required for their profession.

Yet again, public behaviour has revealed a problem on Canadian campuses among future leaders in this country, sparking more "conversation." At what point, as a society, do we finally say this kind of misogyny is not acceptable? When do we stop treating Facebook harassment as somehow disconnected from the real-world attitudes of the people making them? We live online, and what we say there is a virtual reflection of our identities to which we should be held to account. Some of the comments in this case date back to 2011, but many others were posted in 2013. According to screen shots obtained by The Coast, the results of the poll on which classmates they most wanted for hate sex were posted on Dec. 6 – the 25th anniversary of the Montreal massacre.

As my doctor friend pointed out, these are not drunken 18-year-old frosh saying stupid things, with years left to mature into their chosen fields. This was not boyish locker-room hijinks, as the participants themselves described it. If these men had posted these comments mere months from now, their professional bodies would be dealing with them. (According to the Canadian dentistry code of ethics, adopted by provinces, a dentist shall represent himself or herself in a manner that contributes to the public's trust and confidence in the profession.) When they chose a career with big responsibility, they accepted being held to a high standard of behaviour.

So if after an investigation the Facebook record holds true, the penalty should be harsh. This includes naming them, so that every provincial licensing body can decide whether to accept them, every dental hygienist can decide whether to work with them, and every patient can decide whether to entrust themselves to their care. At the very least, it clears the name of male students who didn't participate, whose reputations may be tarnished for the misfortune of graduating the same year as their suspended colleagues.

In fact, the dental regulatory bodies of Ontario and Alberta have already called on Dalhousie to release the names to the licensing bodies confidentially. "I have a responsibility to see whether they have the integrity and honesty to practice dentistry," said Ontario registrar Irwin Fefergrad. Until the names are forwarded, "aspersions are cast on the entire class." The college in British Columbia has stated that any graduate wanting to practise in the province must disclose "accusation or findings of misconduct."

To date, the university has refused to pass on the names; it announced on Monday that 13 students have been temporarily suspended from clinical duties. (The decision to suspend was made on Dec. 22, but only made public this week.) A process of restorative justice and now a separate investigation, including a faculty review, is under way. But the response from the school has been all over the place. (This great piece in the Dalhousie Gazette demonstrates just how confusing the university's response has been.)

Let the investigation proceed. Determine who were bystanders and who were ringleaders. Until names are provided, it's clear any "gentleman" graduating in 2015 from the school of dentistry will be scrutinized by the country's licensing bodies. Fefergrad explained that each student involved would individually have "a big burden" to prove they merited a license. Circumstances the committee would consider, he suggested, included their role in the Facebook group, level of remorse demonstrated, and what the student did to make amends with female peers, outside of the restorative justice process. Licences may also be given with conditions, he explained, including preventing a dentist from working alone, and ordering him to take additional courses. Currently, these conditions, along with the results of complaints against dentists are not disclosed publicly, except in criminal matters.

But it shouldn't be left that way, to besmirch an entire class and leave future patients to do their own guess work. It's not enough, as one university official appeared to suggest this week, to make the participants "uncomfortable" by sitting them across from peers they victimized and be forced to apologize.

Those men who were truly stupid enough to post sexist and abusive comments in a public forum, gave up their right to privacy, and, arguably, the right to be trusted with the tools of their trade. Feel sympathy, if you must, for years of hard work potentially thrown away. In the end, when the facts are laid out, we may be thankful they outed themselves before anyone had to call them "Dr."