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Writer Heather O’Neill , a former Concordia student, says a culture of harassment and power abuse has been entrenched in the university’s creative-writing department for decades.

Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The president of Concordia University in Montreal says that recent allegations about sexual harassment in the university's creative-writing department "are serious, and will be treated seriously."

The immediate prompt for Alan Shepard's statement to the university community on Monday was a long blog post by a male writer, Mike Spry, about his own sense of complicity in "the abuse of power and the normalization of sexualization of students by professors" in Concordia's creative-writing program. The post triggered a number of responses on social media from former students in the program.

One of them, Heather O'Neill, now a leading Montreal novelist, says an open culture of harassment and power abuse has been entrenched in the department for decades, with no apparent corrective action from the university.

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"It was pervasive when I was at Concordia in the late 1990s," says Ms. O'Neill, whose works have twice been shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. In an interview, she said that she was continually harassed by one of her creative-writing instructors, whose attentions included "constant groping," an invitation to spend time together at his country place and attempts "to get me to sleep with him."

Ms. O'Neill says she has spoken openly and often about how the man preyed on her, but it's only now, in the wake of similar allegations against others, that Concordia is responding.

Dr. Shepard's note says that Concordia's policies on sexual violence and harassment are "a work in progress" that includes a new Sexual Assault Resource Centre. The university's Code of Rights and Responsibilities includes a section that defines sexual harassment and alludes to ways in which power imbalances can foster it, but the code doesn't forbid sexual relations between teachers and students.

Ms. O'Neill isn't impressed with Concordia's statement. "They're not responding out of their own moral compunction, but because it's in the news cycle," she says.

Her instructor's approach began with an invitation to talk over drinks about publishing her work. "It was the way you were expected to network, and those who drank with the profs were always rewarded," she says. It became clear to her, however, that his interest was sexual. After he agreed to edit her work for publication, she says, he did no actual editing, but continued "to hit on me."

A bar was also the starting point for Toronto writer Emma Healey's relationship, as a 19-year-old student in 2010, with a Concordia instructor in his thirties. "I thought he wanted to put me in his class," says Ms. Healey, who wrote about the experience in a blog post in 2014. "He certainly got me to hang out with him based on my interest in being in his class."

Their sexual relationship during her undergraduate years was consensual, Ms. Healey says, "but there were many things within its borders that I did not consent to." Even though the man did not become her professor, the power imbalance was real, "and he certainly exploited it."

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The instructor's peers in the university "saw it happening and seemed to think it was perfectly fine, part of a pattern of acceptable behaviour," Ms. Healey says. As soon as the relationship ended, she says, the man took up with another female student.

Both Ms. Healey and Ms. O'Neill spoke of psychological damage that bloomed as they got older. "I was in my mid-20s," says Ms. O'Neill, "and at that age you don't always understand how wrong that is."

Two weeks ago, Ms. O'Neill joined several younger women writers in Montreal for a drink after a literary event. "They were telling me who were the latest men who were harassing them, male professors and poetry editors. It's exactly the same" as when she was a student, she says.

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