What the CanLit controversy means to an aspiring Canadian writer

A collection of Canadian literature in Stauffer Library. 

With Canadian names lining my bookshelves and a lofty dream to be one of those renowned Canadian writers some day, one incident is hard to swallow — the involvement of those renowned names in the Steven Galloway scandal. 

Last November, the University of British Columbia (UBC) fired Steven Galloway, a celebrated Canadian writer and former chair of the University’s creative writing program. 

Another celebrated Canadian writer, Joseph Boyden, penned an open letter in response to the allegations against Galloway, which included accusations of harassment and sexual misconduct. 

The letter, which was accompanied by the signatures of 88 CanLit luminaries and shared widely under the hashtag #UBCaccountable, stressed the significance of “due process and fair treatment for all,” expressing Boyden and many CanLit personalities’ support for Galloway. 

Nowhere in the letter did it express concern for the former UBC student who had come forward, offer support for survivors of sexual assault or recognize the difficulty of coming forward with such an experience.

Internationally-acclaimed powerhouse Margaret Atwood, multi-awarded poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje, and 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Madeleine Thien were all signatories of the open letter. 

In short, a generous helping of Canadian literature’s biggest names, people who aspiring Canadian writers idolize, overtly disbelieved those who had come forward — that speaks volumes.

When I read the letter last November and scanned the names below it — many of them populating my bookshelf — I remembered watching the 2016 Canada Reads competition and feeling proud of Canada’s literary community. 

The annual competition includes five Canadian icons each defending their favourite novel of the year, with the last book standing dubbed as the book all Canadians should read. 

The 2016 competition featured novels that delved into all facets of Canadian identity. Discussions and debates explored all facets of identity — race, culture, sexual orientation, gender identity, health and ability — and championed the power of the written word to represent and embody all of them. 

I remember watching and feeling as though the CanLit community was one that pushed readers to engage — that asked Canadians to welcome the unknown, to explore the untraversed and most importantly, to speak for those who go unheard. In the words of The Walrus’ Simon Lewsen, “it reminded you that somewhere — perhaps across mountains, prairies, and lakes of calving ice — there were people whose lives you should care about.” 

And then, with a letter that protected the privileged and alienated the vulnerable, supported by Canada’s most heralded writers, CanLit seemed to become an elite club that tightens to protect one of their own — not a place that publishes and empowers diverse voices.

As a professor at Carleton University tweeted following the letter’s release, “imagine being a young writer in Canada. Imagine being sexually harassed. Imagine seeing the top writers in the country sign that letter.” 

Sierra Skye Gemma, a former student who was one of the complainants against Galloway, told The Toronto Star that reading those names was incredibly emotional. 

“I wept when I read those names because I truly believe those writers have no idea the silencing effect this letter has on victims, both of the past and of the future,” she said.

As an aspiring writer, Canada’s literary community often made me feel hopeful — in a time where it’s tough to be non-white and non-male, words that reflected worlds that looked like mine were, and still are, a place of refuge.   

But as a female student, on one of the many campuses in this country still struggling in a battle to protect survivors of sexual assault and those most vulnerable to it, the world of Canadian literature isn’t making me feel hopeful right now — it’s giving me a sour taste in my mouth. 


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