Feminism and Responsibility

At the age of 47 I suffered what I now like to think of as “The Year of Living Stupidly.” Unlike Sigourney Weaver in the film that inspired me, I did not live dangerously, although there was certainly a lot of drama. That was the year I suffered my last serious crush. …More

The Curious Case of Steven Galloway

On a frigid night a few years ago, a friend dragged me to an event at a popular Montreal bar. Students of a local graduate program in creative writing were giving a reading.

My friend and I sat close to them. I watched as pitchers of beer came and went and the students danced attendance on an older man, perhaps an instructor or organiser of the event. As the night went on and inhibitions were lowered, evidence of unruly feelings, of jealousies, slights and complications, became obvious. Most creative arts departments are proverbial hothouses as far as egos go and this group was no exception. They were living proof of that punk axiom: eventually, love would tear them apart. The emotions I saw guaranteed it.

Annabel Lyon. She's the colleague of Galloway's who insisted he be taken to a psych ward, after news of MC's accusations became known.
Annabel Lyon. She’s the colleague of Galloway’s who insisted he be taken to a psych ward, after news of MC’s accusations became known.

As a teacher and lover of literature, I’ve got an odd admission to make. I don’t like university creative writing programs: they may be prestigious and even profitable, but I suspect they are more about buying clout and less about incubating talent. The students that night read about love and sex from an autobiographical perspective—with some texts directed at other students in attendance—and yet none read anything exceptional or even interesting. Yes, they were young; yes, their work was embryonic and might improve. But that didn’t dispel my fear that they were being duped by a university experience that was misleading by its very existence. They believed they were members of a coveted cadre and destined for literary glory; a statistical improbability if there ever was one.

So it’s not surprising that the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia, another hothouse, imploded last year over allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct. Foregrounded is the alleged bad behaviour of the former department chair, Steven Galloway, acclaimed Canadian novelist, and backgrounded is a program as rife with contradictions as the one I saw that cold February night. That conversations about Galloway are taking place without acknowledging the complexities of his milieu is bizarre, a bit like summarising Robinson Crusoe and failing to mention it takes place on an island. The context is important because here’s what I’ve seen over decades of teaching: even the most level-headed students can enter these creative communities and develop borderline personalities in an instant.

The scuttlebutt, where UBC is concerned, is that there was none, apart from an announcement that “serious allegations” had been made against Galloway and he’d been suspended for the “safety” of students, words cryptic enough to become irresistible as click bait. Of course allegations of sexual abuse—assault and harassment—did surface eventually and came from the department’s most disaffected students. However, they arose in an atmosphere primed for hysteria: a previous case of harassment, concerning a PhD history student, had been handled too slowly for some in the UBC community and investigative journalists, from the CBC’s Fifth Estate, took aim at the university’s administration. It’s likely their coverage, and the negligence it claimed, had more to do with Galloway’s treatment than any bad behaviour on his part. 


Chelsea Rooney, one of the students who helped MC (main complainant) build a case against Steven Galloway.
Chelsea Rooney, one of the students who helped MC (main complainant) build a case against Steven Galloway. She sent out a secret memo to other students, asking them to come forward with complaints. Judge Mary Ellen Boyd rejected much of her evidence.

What happened? As that previous case was being decided, a letter was circulated, criticising the university’s handling of sexual impropriety and assault. It’s unclear whether the letter was actually written by an ex-lover of Galloway’s, a woman in her 40s and a former student, or whether she simply circulated it with the intention of getting his attention. (Sources on this issue differ.) Whatever the case, it worked. Galloway saw the letter, recognised its intent and called the woman. He’d had a two-year affair with her that started in 2011 and did not end well. Both had been in other relationships and kept their affair quiet, a decision that made sense at the time, but was eventually Galloway’s undoing. The letter triggered a series of events that would lead to further accusations by other students. However, an independent investigation, led by Judge Mary Ellen Boyd, concluded that of the five accusations against Galloway, only one was credible–that he’d had an undisclosed sexual relationship with a student. Still, UBC concluded that Galloway’s actions irreparably damaged an atmosphere of trust and he was subsequently fired. While his union grieves on his behalf, Canadian authors, led by luminaries Margaret Atwood and Joseph Boyden, wrote an open letter to UBC. They want a more transparent explanation of the process that led to Galloway’s firing.

Cue the predictable outrage.

The problem is that Galloway’s ex-lover (MC for main complainant), did not go directly to university administrators whose job it is to help students in crisis. Instead, it appears she wrote a different letter to other faculty members in the creative writing program, a letter that suggested those faculty members consult other students to collect evidence of her claim. The upshot is that two other students, both of whom ended up being complainants themselves, did their own detective work. One distributed a secret memo to other students asking them to come forward if they had any complaints about Galloway; the other, who was also an employee of the university, used her position to dig into his use of department finances. Both students did this clandestine evidence-gathering under the direction of one of Galloway’s colleagues. That colleague was the same one who insisted that he be taken to a psych ward after he received an email about the accusations against him. He was in the U.S. at the time, giving a talk at another university.

Sierra Skye Gemma. She used her position at UBC to investigate Galloway's use of financial resources.
Sierra Skye Gemma. She used her position at UBC to investigate Galloway’s use of financial resources. Apparently this was not done with the university’s approval.

As the letter by Atwood and Boyden made clear, no criminal charges were ever laid against Galloway. Although there were complaints about bullying and favouritism, any professor heading a creative writing program is vulnerable to the same. For students, the headiness of belonging to a (self-perceived) group of up-and-coming writers is bound to be matched by high levels of exquisite sensitivity, levels that would render their criticisms dubious. However, sensitivity isn’t the only problem with this department. There’s another that can be summed up with that annoying buzzword from the 90s: Everyone was violating boundaries.

Here’s a recap of the emotional boundaries that were compromised:

  1. Galloway had an affair with a student while he was married. He later married his second wife, who was also a graduate of the creative writing program.
  2. When his ex-lover sent her letter to his colleagues, they did not go to the administration. Instead, they met at a private home and strategized with two students.
  3. The first of those students is married in a relationship with another creative writing professor at UBC. After Judge Mary Ellen Boyd questioned her, Boyd decided that her credibility and eagerness to insert herself into the investigation were problematic.
  4. The second student was an employee of the university and used her position to investigate financial matters.
  5. MC was also in a long-term relationship when she had her affair with Galloway.
  6. The colleague who supervised the evidence gathering also called the police and insisted Galloway be taken to the local psych ward because he was suicidal. (Galloway denies this.)

I’m not a fan of extra-marital affairs, but I’m not sure it’s the worst thing on this list. The duplicity of Galloway’s colleague reflects the kind of gaslighting most of us consider abusive, although I’d like to believe she acted from a position of confused loyalties rather than malice. And MC’s claim that she was assaulted by Galloway? It’s suspect and here’s why: were we to do an epidemiological study of recent, high-profile assault accusations just like it–against celebrities like Jian Ghomeshi and porn actor James Deen–we would have to include some rather incongruous elements.

Here are some rape “risk factors” for women:

  1. A relationship ends.
  2. The former partner is a man of some renown.
  3. The woman has some difficulty processing rejection. She continues to insist her former partner is guilty, despite evidence to the contrary. She believes the legal system has made a mistake.
  4. The woman has a tendency toward exhibitionism combined with a need for public vindication. Other non-celebrity examples of this would include “Jackie” from the false rape story reported by Rolling Stone, the “Mattress Girl” at Columbia and Mandi Gray of York University.

If you’ll notice, many of the conventional risk factors for rape, like wearing a mini-skirt in the wrong part of town, or getting drunk at a party, aren’t making it onto the list. That’s because the focus in this version of sexual assault, notable precisely because of its contagion, is on a soured relationship and a need for vindication. With the proliferation of these accusations, it may be time to start flagging these risk factors and asking tougher questions.


Galloway's novel has sold over 700,000 copies and been translated into 21 different languages.
Galloway’s novel has sold over 700,000 copies.

About 20 years ago, I had an older colleague, an inveterate womaniser, who regaled me with stories about the wild, early days of Quebec’s CEGEP system. One was about a young woman who had escaped an eastern bloc country–before the Berlin Wall fell–and how he’d helped her win a large and prestigious scholarship. He’d approached four of her other professors and asked them to also write strong letters of reference, focusing on the young woman’s escape from an oppressive regime, her determination to make it in Canada and her quick adaptation to English education. So instead of just one letter, she had five, all praising her strength and courage. The colleague didn’t tell his other colleagues that he was also sleeping with the young woman, who was then in her early 20s.

That story always rankled despite its heroic aspects. It bothered me that another woman, arriving in Canada under similar circumstances, might also deserve the scholarship, but might try to win it honestly, without resorting to sleeping with a professor. The issue came up again a few years ago. The woman’s scholarship paid for a significant portion of medical school. While I was searching for a local specialist on Google, her name came up along with about 20 ratings. She had one star out of five and patients had written comments like, “How did this woman even become a doctor?”

I’m sharing that anecdote because I’m tired of being expected to be sympathetic to women like MC. It doesn’t sound as if she benefited from her relationship with Galloway, but if she did, I think we have the right to hear about that too and to demand that her degree, or at least some credits, be revoked. As a woman in her 40s, and one who also chose to cheat on a partner, MC is not a victim. Her life experiences should have prepared her for the consequences of a relationship with a man in Galloway’s position. That that did not happen is her tragedy, not ours.

If we really want to rid the academy of discrimination, we must acknowledge all forms of it. False allegations and crying foul over ordinary life experiences–like getting dumped–should not be career-ending occasions for anyone.


Camille Paglia discussing campus politics:

The Pronoun Debate: Who Won?

Canada’s new Bill C-16 has free speech advocates worried. At issue is the introduction of social construct definitions of gender identity and gender expression into our country’s Human Rights code. The bill makes it illegal to target those who identify or express themselves differently from their biological gender. Specifically, it protects against genocide and the public or willful incitements of hatred.

To read more at Quilllette.com, click here.

Refugees, Immigrants and Caregivers

As events in the U.S. are captivating the world, comparisons to Canada’s refugee intake and general open-mindedness are everywhere. Our low-key patriotism, typically expressed in our gosh, darn, humble ways, is now strutting its stuff, puffing out chests and straightening spines around the country. With Trump’s presidency and the specter of race riots looming, the temptation to feel smug and superior is proving irresistible to many.

That said, Canadians’ collective desire to welcome immigrants and refugees is sincere. If we’re big-hearted, it’s because most of us have relatives who arrived here under trying circumstances.

I’m no exception: my parents left Europe right after the Second World War. My Slovenian father, who had narrowly escaped being purged, had been living in a refugee camp in Austria; my Austrian mother, whose adolescence had been upended, had been struggling to find her way in a country beset by postwar shock.

They made lives that by working-class standards could be judged successful. When my mother had a stroke in 2008—my father died in 1994—I used her savings to pay for an extended recovery. Our healthcare system, so vaunted by those who don’t grasp its limitations, only provided three months of rehabilitation. Although the hospital offered to transfer her to a nursing home, where they said she would get further rehabilitation, private conversations with healthcare insiders were far more discouraging. So I brought my mother to live with me; I promised her two years of private rehabilitation funded with her savings. That’s when I entered the world of live-in caregivers.

* * *

It’s important to understand that supply and demand, when it comes to live-ins—nannies and elder-carers—works against families in this country. There is a shortage of those willing to live with the infants and elderly that need them, a problem that in this age of silo thinking is perhaps not surprising. However, a solution can be found in Canada’s Live-in Caregiver program. Its fast-tracked residency status is a draw for would-be immigrants. In it, newcomers must work as caregivers for 24 of their first 36 months. Families provide them with a private, lockable room while paying them over the table and making appropriate tax and insurance contributions. The job I was offering was particularly attractive: it came with above average pay and a fully loaded, self-contained apartment.

Although there was a lot of interest—I eventually spoke to over 70 applicants—I had several problems, not the least of which was my misplaced optimism. For example, I needed help immediately, so couldn’t undertake the months-long process to bring a caregiver to Canada. However, I was told it wasn’t an issue since many were already here and looking to fulfil their work requirements.

The problems started when each one I spoke to asked to be paid in cash, saying their paperwork and taxes were being taken care of elsewhere, usually by previous employers. That made no sense, so I guessed they were working at fictitious jobs, aided in the deception by compatriots who’d arrived in the country before them. Since I was unwilling to evade taxes, I turned these applicants down. However, as the end of my sabbatical approached, I got desperate. I finally hired one with the proviso that she allow me to play by the rules eventually.

* * *

And that’s when things got weird. When I told her the apartment wouldn’t be ready for a month, she said was staying with her sister and could wait. Around that time, I also needed to clear out my mother’s house back in Ontario. So I arranged for the caregiver to stay over one weekend while I left on the Friday morning. After a seven-hour drive, I got to the house and my mother’s partner, who was also moving out, handed me the phone. Apparently there was an emergency back in Montreal.

The caregiver had gotten sick after eating food taken from the fridge and had gone to the local emergency room. The person telling me was a neighbour who said he couldn’t stay to watch my mother for more than another hour. Since my mother had been especially ill that week–her erratic blood pressure had only been brought under control on Thursday–I went into a full-blown panic. Even if I were able to get a flight back, the trip would still take hours. I called a nursing agency at ten to five, just before they left for the weekend, and was able to make arrangements for a worker to stay overnight.

So I spent the weekend managing the emotionally charged task of clearing out my mother’s home, with her distraught partner, all while giving instructions for her care to friends and agency workers back in Montreal. When I called our caregiver at her sister’s on Saturday morning, she told me she was still sick and would return on Monday. As I drove back on Sunday night I thought about offering her compensation on top of the pay she was owed. Thoughts of e-coli and Listeria, and of all the bad outcomes that could have happened, flitted through my mind. As the speedometer crept upward, so did my guilt.

So it was with some consternation that I listened while an agency worker, who was there when I got home, told a mystifying story. The woman had been on duty that Friday night. Our sick caregiver had turned up around midnight, flown into a rage, and ordered her to leave the house. The woman didn’t budge, however, and in the end the caregiver left, but not before creating the impression she hadn’t been sick at all. It was a bizarre story and I didn’t know what to believe. When I told a colleague a day later, he suggested I speak to his wife.

She phoned that evening and her first words after hello were, “Do not let this caregiver move in.” She followed up with an invitation to stop by the next day. I did and learned the food-poisoning had likely been staged. She herself had received a phone call a few weeks earlier, asking her to take over when a similar emergency had happened to a friend. His new caregiver had gotten a severe case of food poisoning, gone to the local emergency room, and then recovered a few hours later. This caregiver was looking after his recently disabled wife and had agreed to work the weekend of an academic conference. When he arrived at his hotel, he got a call similar to mine–there was an emergency at home.

My colleague’s wife hadn’t suspected anything. But when she mentioned it to a sister who owned a nursing agency, she got a shock. The sister said these calls were evidence of a “long con.” Caregivers were manipulating families via fear, relief and then guilt, the exact pattern that followed the narrative. The emergency phone call instilled fear; the return of the caregiver provided relief; the knowledge that the family’s food had harmed the caregiver instilled guilt. Once thusly primed, the family would be more likely to concede things like pay raises and bonuses, and extras like smartphones and transit passes. In my case, I might concede to continue paying my caregiver under the table and letting her sister move into the apartment, a request she’d made before I left for the weekend. Her anger with the agency worker became understandable: she was thwarted when I’d replaced her so quickly, a move that diminished the impact of the con.

My colleague’s wife also told me about various scams run by caregivers and the coaching they got from members of their ethnic communities, some of whom were involved in social justice work. It was an eye-opening conversation, one that in our heightened climate of political correctness could not have taken place at a dinner party, work, or even a coffee shop. The information she gave me encompassed workers of many nationalities and all colours, but if we’d been overheard, I have no doubt we would have been called racists.

I heard about caregivers who had been known to move elderly charges, with whom they were living, to tiny bedrooms or basements while they rented out space in the rest of the home. I heard about caregivers who started bidding wars by accepting two jobs at the same time. At the eleventh hour, they would pit one family against another to get the highest salary, not caring that the lives of sick and elderly patients would be put at risk. I heard about the inventiveness one group had for false accusations, nuisance suits and the liberal use of cough syrup to make their charges–babies and the elderly–more malleable.

Of course, stories of abuse directed at caregivers come up too while I conducted job interviews, and at first I was sympathetic. With my own background, how could I not be? But talking to over 70 candidates gave me a more global perspective, one that painted a picture that became darker with each conversation. The same plaintive narratives, including the same details, came up repeatedly. Among other things, I began to wonder just how many families in Montreal had decided that only two pieces of bread were adequate for caregivers’ meals. When the third of at least a half-dozen candidates reported this, I knew was hearing calculated stories and not the truth.

* * *

In the end, I took the advice I was given and didn’t let that first caregiver move in, although I couldn’t fire her for a few infuriating weeks. My colleague’s wife had also told me that groups of caregivers–linked by ethnicity–monitored online job ads in Montreal and if I placed one, my caregiver would soon hear about it. So I started searching in a nearby city and eventually found a male caregiver whom I trusted right up until one day, 18 months later. It was the day after my mother went into a nursing home and his job ended. That’s when he said I owed him thousands of dollars in overtime. I’d taken precautions, so could easily disprove his claim, but the worst thing happened an hour or so later and didn’t involve me at all. The results of it stung, however, and owed much to the vagaries of political correctness.

I discovered the caregiver had set up the conditions for a bidding war. A misdirected phone message alerted me and I made the difficult decision to inform both families; I was concerned that a sick and elderly person would be left without care, even if only for one day. The first family was upset but thanked me for the warning. The second was a man with a background in healthcare. He turned on me, saying I was interfering in the caregiver’s life. “It’s an open-market system,” he said. “Why shouldn’t he get the highest wage he can?” When I answered, “Yes, but not under duress,” he didn’t call me a racist outright, but it’s clear he thought so. Although the call ended civilly, it was distressing enough that I blocked the man’s number. I reckoned that when he had difficulty with the caregiver, as he was bound to do, he would forget we argued and call me back.

I was right. I’d rerouted his emails to an out-of-the-way sub-folder and only checked it months later. A succession of messages, each more panicked than the next is what I found. As I had predicted, the caregiver had continued to increase his demands. I didn’t read all the messages, and I didn’t contact the family. Just seeing the emails bumped up my heart rate, a symptom that told me I was well out of it. But it was one more story to add to a growing pile of stories I was hearing from real-life friends: one who found his 90-something parents living in the basement of their home while their caregiver rented out bedrooms to her fellow countrymen; two others, one a small-business owner and the other an IT manager and newcomer to Canada herself, both with babies who’d been given adult-strength cough syrup by their nannies; a prominent and caring family, under threat of a noxious nuisance suit, forced to pay an exorbitant sum to a caregiver who claimed she’d been abused.

There were also stories of trips to the emergency room made by caregivers whose temporary replacements–fellow countrymen and friends of theirs–had demanded $100 an hour before agreeing to step in to take care of sick and, in some cases, dying patients. I myself paid several bribes during the first months my mother lived with me and I was struggling to get help. There are whole underground economies being managed by ethnically cohesive segments of the caregiving workforce in our country. However, overheated, PC beliefs about racism prevent knowledgeable Canadians from openly saying so.

And that’s the problem with our smug brand of political correctness in Canada: seeing ourselves as saviours also prevents us from complaining, even when there’s just cause. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to help refugees and immigrants, but there is something wrong when a government agency–like Canada’s Live-in Caregiver Program–has a hotline that only takes calls from caregivers and not from families that may be suffering at the hands of one. That suggests two things: either the administrators of the program don’t believe Canadians are being victimised or they don’t care.

A conservative MP in Ontario has proposed mandatory screening of immigrants and refugees for something she calls ‘Canadian values.’ She’s getting an awful lot of push-back from the political left. I understand how some see screening as autocratic and over-reaching, but I think she’s right. The rule of law isn’t respected everywhere on the planet. Like it or not, some immigrants are bringing that problem with them.




Healthcare, Halos, and Jordan Peterson

An audio/visual version is available below. 

Here’s a snapshot of my life, taken when my stroke-afflicted mother lived with me. I’d returned from errands and was just shutting the front door when I saw her in her wheelchair. The back of it was pitched forward at a steep angle and when she shifted slightly, I knew what was coming. I ran toward her, fell to my knees, and caught her just as she started sliding down…

Read the rest at Quillette.com.

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir written by young American lawyer, J.D. Vance. Through it he tells the story of hillbillies, impoverished immigrants who came from Scotland and Ireland in the eighteenth century to settle in the American south. It’s also an apologia of sorts, one that may explain why Donald Trump, that inveterate carnival barker, has achieved political prominence.

To read this is in full at Quillette.com, click here.