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Canada Dalhousie board calls emergency meeting; independent inquiry urged

A few hundred protesters gathered in front of the offices of the President of Dalhousie University, in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Scott Munn/The Globe and Mail

Dalhousie University's board of governors is set to convene an emergency special meeting early Friday morning, as calls grow for the school to begin an independent inquiry into misogynistic comments posted in a Facebook group by men in its dentistry faculty.

The meeting could be a sign that the university is ready to announce further disciplinary steps, such as academic suspension, before classes in the dentistry faculty resume on Jan. 12. The school has suspended 13 men in the "Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen" Facebook group from clinical activities, and said it would make further decisions this week.

A tide of criticism has swelled over the university's handling of the crisis, and on Thursday, Nova Scotia's provincial government said it is closely monitoring the situation.

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Minister of Labour and Advanced Education Kelly Regan said she found the posts, many of them misogynistic or sexist comments about the men's female classmates, "extremely upsetting."

"This is a difficult, emotional situation that continues to change hour by hour," Ms. Regan said in a statement. "Dalhousie has indicated it will focus on the victims and follow a just process. I expect both to happen. … They have the responsibility to handle this situation, but we are watching it closely."

On Monday, the university's senate will consider a motion asking Dalhousie president Richard Florizone for a third-party investigation. Before the winter break, Dr. Florizone announced that the women who had made complaints about the comments had chosen a restorative justice process, an approach several other women in the class say they rejected.

Those asking for an independent inquiry say it could probe wider issues and establish the role of each of the students in the private Facebook group.

"All universities must provide a safe learning environment," said Karla MacFarlane, Progressive Conservative critic for the Status of Women and MLA for Pictou West. "The punishment should be very clear and a third-party investigation is necessary. We have to know who said what."

Transcripts of the Facebook posts read by The Globe and Mail make it clear that some men in the group were more active than others. Dr. Florizone has told the university's campus newspaper, The Dalhousie Gazette, that he has read only a "handful" of the posts. The university has not commented on several requests for information from The Globe and Mail over a number of days.

Calls have been increasing to name the men in the group as a way to protect their potential future patients. The Ontario and Alberta dental colleges have asked for the names, but the university has declined to identify them for privacy concerns.

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The hacker collective Anonymous has reiterated its threat to reveal the names. Yet some of the campus groups that have been at the forefront of calling for faster and more punitive measures reject that strategy.

"That's an approach that spreads fear, hatred and violence toward individual people rather than toward the system," said Alexandra Killham, a board member of South House, the university's sexual and gender resource centre. The centre is advocating for the reopening of an ombudsperson's office that was cut several years ago and mandatory ethics classes for all health disciplines, among other measures, Ms. Killham added.

In an open letter directed to the university president earlier this week, four women in the graduating class of 2015 said they will not participate in the restorative justice process and are concerned the university has not provided them with copies of the Facebook posts it has.

No decisions appear to have been made in a separate complaint launched on Dec. 21 by four faculty members and brought under the Student Code of Conduct. The professors asked the university to suspend the students.

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