Inside the Coburg Coffee House, a cozy Victorian building with large mullioned windows, I have been told to look for a man in a bulky winter coat and dark blue tuque. The front door slaps shut with the sound of a screen door at a cottage, and I spy him. We nod at each other in silent acknowledgment across a room filled with university students. He's a "moral vigilante" from Expel Misogyny, an offshoot of Anonymous – a decentralized, international "hacktivist" and activist group that addresses issues ranging from the tragic death of Rehtaeh Parsons to African autocrats. "Where the system fails, Anonymous exists," he offers darkly over a cup of tea when we settle at a table.
The incongruity of this Halifax scene speaks to the turmoil at Dalhousie University that refuses to fade into the folksy woodwork. When I met with Expel Misogyny earlier this year, they were threatening to release the names of the 13 male dental students who were part of the infamous private Facebook group, the Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen, who wrote posts joking about drugging women with chloroform and which ones they would like to have hate-sex with.
For the general population, the DDS 2015 Gentlemen, who started the group in their first year of the four-year graduate program, are another troubling reflection of sexual violence against women, making headlines, along with the alleged behaviour of former CBC star Jian Ghomeshi and that of Bill Cosby, America's favourite TV dad, who has been accused of drugging and raping women.
But within the Dalhousie community, the DDS scandal has unleashed a torrent of anger toward the university's administration. The criticism had been building for some time, highlighting the challenges postsecondary institutions face in handling incidents of perceived misogyny and sexual misconduct in the stormy climate of gender relations on their campuses. "Our main goal is to expose Dal's systemic suppression of complaints when it comes to sexual harassment and even in cases of sexual assault," the Anonymous operative said.
The tension on the Dalhousie campus of roughly 20,000 students is palpable. This week, the 29 members of the fourth-year dentistry class who are participating in the restorative-justice process – confidential sessions that bring perpetrators and victims together with facilitators – released an open letter describing their progress.
The men reported "intensive and difficult self-reflection" and said they now "own" the consequences of their actions. The women expressed frustration with opinion makers who purported to know how they felt and what they wanted. They were not coerced into joining the restorative-justice process, as some onlookers suggested, they wrote, adding that they feel "safe with the members of the Facebook group."
The next day, the administration announced a conditional resumption of clinical work – which students need to graduate – for the Facebook members participating in the restorative-justice program.
The news provoked more debate. "I don't know what it means to own something if it's being done in a process of anonymity and privacy," Francoise Baylis, a Dalhousie professor and Canada Research Chair in bioethics and philosophy, says in an interview. "When I own something, I stand up and say this is what I believe and I put my name on it." Adding that she has been instructed to clarify that she is not speaking on behalf of the university, the faculty or the university senate, she notes that she "sees it as a failure" that the administration didn't honour the request for a formal process under the code of student conduct which four women in the final dentistry year made after choosing not to join the restorative justice program. "Why couldn't there be a parallel track for those who want another avenue of justice?"
How university administrations navigate issues of sexual violence and harassment is largely uncharted. Across Canada, policies around rape culture are inconsistent, according to the Canadian Federation of Students, which represents 600,000 postsecondary students at universities and colleges. Some universities don't have any such policies. "It has been a difficult process to get administrations to acknowledge that [rape culture] is a problem," says Jessica McCormick, president of the federation.
At Dalhousie, processes for how students report sexual assault are limited. To make a formal complaint, students must report to the Human Rights Equity & Sexual Harassment Prevention Office, which is part of the school administration. Anonymity is not an option, which is a deterrent for many women. In 2012, the ombudsperson office at Dalhousie was cut, eliminating a function that is "essential" in the context of rape culture, says Lucie Allaire, president of the Association of Canadian College and University Ombudspersons (ACCUO) and currently ombudsperson at the University of Ottawa.
"It acts as a safety net because it's entirely confidential and independent, allowing people who are reluctant or afraid to make a formal complaint."
Postsecondary institutions in Canada are not obligated to have an ombuds office – and the majority do not. The executive of the Dalhousie Student Union has been advocating for the reinstatement of the office, but "our demands have been stuck in a bureaucratic rabbit hole since 2013," says Jennifer Nowoselski, chief communications officer at the student union. "This DDS incident has given momentum to things we have been asking about for a long time. This is not an isolated event."
Many students are reluctant to talk about sexual harassment, but when they do, the stories come out with a sense of hushed alarm as though they're part of an education no one signed up for. Last fall, at Howe Hall, a dormitory mostly for first-year students at Dalhousie, some male students started posting images to Instagram of Dalhousie women performing oral sex, one student told me. No formal complaint was made.
In another incident last fall, Charles Barrons, a student in fourth year at Dalhousie, allegedly forced his way into his former girlfriend's apartment in Halifax and sexually assaulted her. Released on $5,000 recognizance, he still attends class and will go to trial in June, after graduation. The complainant, whose family lives in Toronto, didn't return for her second term after the Christmas break, and has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She feels she was given inadequate resources by Dalhousie, which avoided responsibility by saying "the incident didn't happen on campus."
Counselling requests for sexual assault are on the rise, creating long waiting lists, according to Jackie Stevens, executive director of Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Halifax, which organized the first rally on campus after the dentistry scandal broke in December. At South House, the sexual- and gender-resource centre at Dalhousie, a social-media campaign on Twitter with the hashtag #dalhateswomen was started as a protest, garnering more than 60,000 tweets.
"The rage comes from Dal's clear lack of transparency from the beginning," says Jude Ashburn, outreach co-ordinator at South House, adding that students heard about the dentistry scandal only when the Facebook posts were leaked to the media. Students have been excluded from discussions about the fraught sexual culture that many say they live with daily.
"Dal hasn't tapped into any of its resources, to the [student union], to this office or to South House," offers Andrew Childerhouse, a student who works part-time at the student union office of Equity & Accessibility, which was started when the omsbud office closed. They tried to set up a rape line at the start of school last fall. "It didn't happen," he says. "We are underfunded."
There has been progress on policies around rape culture at some Canadian universities. In January, the presidents of 24 Ontario colleges endorsed the framework for a new standard policy and protocol on sexual assault and sexual violence. The initiative was supported by Premier Kathleen Wynne. Yesterday, she released a wide-ranging action plan to combat sexual violence and harassment across all sectors of society, including campuses. Through proposed legislation, all publicly funded colleges and universities in the province will have to adopt sexual-assault policies, developed with the input of students.
Postsecondary institutions are a provincial responsibility. But it's tricky territory for administrations. At the University of Ottawa, president and former politician Allan Rock suspended the entire men's hockey team when sexual-violence allegations during a road trip surfaced last year. After criminal charges were laid against two players, the remaining 24 began a $6-million class-action lawsuit against the school for damages to their reputations.
Dalhousie president Richard Florizone has come under fire as well. (Repeated requests for an interview with him were turned down. When asked how the administration was helping the dental students who are not taking part in the restorative justice program, Brian Leadbetter, director of communications at Dalhousie, responded via email that "university staff have reached out to every student in the fourth-year dentistry class, and offered counselling and support.")
In January, at a second large rally against sexual violence on campus, students raised their middle fingers outside the president's office window. In February, a 4,000-word story in the Dal Gazette, the student newspaper, documented his perceived inconsistencies in the dentistry scandal, including a controversial move to restorative justice before the women involved had all agreed. As well, he has initiated a task force into the incident under Constance Backhouse of the University of Ottawa. Its report is due in the summer.
Lawyers for Ryan Millet, who blew the whistle on the Facebook group and is the only member to opt out of restorative justice and submit to the school's disciplinary hearing, have called the disciplinary system "irrevocably broken." This week, they issued a statement contending that the administration has made "no effort … to reach out or include him in the healing process."
Mr. Millet feels he is being blamed in part for the "reputational harm" the university has suffered, the statement added. On Friday, the academic standards class committee found him guilty of professional misconduct related to issues of sexism, misogyny and homophobia. He will be allowed to return to clinical work on the condition that he acknowledges his guilt – something he refused to do as part of the restorative justice process – and submits to counselling and other remedial initiatives. Mr. Millet is reportedly weighing his legal options.
Last month, in what seems to be a bid to embarrass the administration further, The Coast, a local weekly, revealed the names of professors in the dentistry faculty whom the "gentlemen" on Facebook said were being investigated for sexual harassment.
Dentistry is a jewel in the crown of Dalhousie. In 2012, the same year it celebrated its centennial, the faculty won the American Dental Education Association's award for achievement, the first time the honour has gone to a Canadian school.
Small and elite – and the only dental school in Atlantic Canada – the institution has deep ties in the local community. But there have been rumblings of trouble. Last summer, according to Ms. Nowoselski, members of the dentistry class complained to the student union about sexual harassment and preferential treatment of male students.
They were told to go to the Human Rights, Equity and Harassment Prevention office, but, unwilling to put their names on the reports, the women chose not to pursue them.
Repeated requests to confirm information from a source close to the matter that dentistry professors and students were given training on sexual harassment in 2013 yielded only a statement that many faculties and students undergo periodic training.
The school's human-rights office declined to reveal the number of formal or even informal complaints of sexual assault or harassment.
But the apparent strategy of silence is jeopardizing the careers of innocent men.
"We are getting the brunt of this thing. I'm sending résumés out to B.C. and Alberta, and people are asking, 'Are you involved in this?' " a final-year dentistry student, dressed in his scrubs, told me in the faculty's cafe.
He is sitting with two classmates, a woman and another man – they asked that their names not be used. They are among the five students in the second year of a two-year program for foreign dentists trying to qualify for work in Canada. (The core DDS 2015 class comprises 19 men and 19 women.)
"We were not aware of this Facebook group at all," the student says. He and his friends were studying for their exams in December when they learned a test had been cancelled.
"And we thought, 'Is it real?' I asked the dean the next day – and they said, 'The exams are cancelled and we can't disclose why.' " The very next day, the story broke in the media.
"The guys who are involved, we are working with them frequently. It's a small class. To me, they're decent guys," he says when asked if he knows the implicated dental students. "It's a shock. The qualifying-year students are not involved."
As we talk, a faculty member approaches the table. "Are you alright?" she asks the students. I tell her that I'm with The Globe and Mail.
"I'm here for the students," she says, and the students fall silent.
But when she turns away, the man shakes his head. "Do you see that?" he asks. "How is that [allowing for] free speech?"
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article described a request for a formal inquiry. This version has been corrected to describe it as a formal process under the code of student conduct.