Originally posted: April 15, 2017
I graduated from George Brown Theatre School in April 2006. In my second year, the school had presented me with the Second City Encouragement Award. In my final year, I had received just about the best marks anyone could hope to squeeze out of that place. My image was used in promotional material. I excelled at dialect work. I was cast in leading roles. Dancer in Hated Nightfall; Rochester in Jane Eyre. I was invited to perform on local access television and then in front of some of the industry’s biggest stars at an inaugural gala for the brand new Young Centre for the Performing Arts. I was a member of the first class to graduate from that building. It was the new crown jewel of the entire College. I was proactively approached by a prominent agent and invited to join her roster. I had every reason to believe that a prolific and fulfilling career in the theatre awaited me. I graduated with a deep love for my classmates and colleagues. I believe I had earned the respect of every single faculty member.
But in a couple of cases, that respect was far from consistently mutual. I had just spent the last three years using my acting skills to hide the fact.
During my first year at George Brown Theatre School, I had witnessed numerous, often daily incidents of harassment and abuse perpetrated by faculty against students.
Nobody, including myself, was immune. This behaviour was very often sexualized and gender-based and frequently directed towards the young women in my class. At that time, coming straight out of high school, some of them were not even legally adults yet.
After graduating, I still felt so unsettled by what I had witnessed there. I could have just put it all behind me. I had no formal ties left to the school. I was so relieved to be away from that place forever. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I felt I had to stand up and say something. I knew for certain that if I had said anything while I was still attending the school that I would have been immediately expelled from the program. I had invested too much time, money and heartache to let them have that power. And yet, I also knew that even after graduating that if I spoke out I would almost certainly be throwing my career out the window before it even got started. I would be branded a troublemaker. I would be blacklisted. But I had seen and experienced too much suffering to just let it go. So I spoke out.
In January 2007, I submitted a letter to the Human Rights Advisor of the College. It was urgent but respectful in tone. I expressed my concerns about the harassment, racism and other abuses of power I had witnessed at George Brown Theatre School. I spoke with great optimism that we could all resolve these matters collectively. I provided a list of recommendations and made repeated calls for open and respectful dialogue.
My letter caused a tremendous stir. It resonated with many. Huge numbers of former students wrote in to the Human Rights Advisor’s office with their stories. The problems turned out to be far more widespread and reached much farther back than I could have ever imagined. The stories submitted to the Human Rights Advisor’s office in 2007 ranged from incidents describing ongoing sexual harassment to tampering with transcripts to actual physical assault with a weapon. At the time, I was the only one who made my name public in this. Everyone else who wrote in to the Human Rights Advisor did so under the assurance that their identities would remain confidential.
On February 22nd, 2007 the Human Rights Advisor met with the Artistic Director of the theatre school and the Director of the Faculty of Business and Creative Arts. Although I was not invited to this meeting, we alumni nevertheless assumed that a new era had begun, that the widespread problems were over. We were all so happy.
Out of that meeting came a list of actions which appeared to be a genuinely good start. It was a very positive time. To my mind, the actions put forward were nowhere near a fully adequate response given the magnitude of the allegations. But I was acting in good faith and assumed that more actions would follow. It was a truly happy time. The theatre school and the College claimed to be taking our concerns seriously.
But then things just started to turn so sour. Evidence emerged that the administration, faculty and support staff were taking petty revenges on students who had written in with their concerns. The retribution was so targeted and so specific that none of us could think of any explanation other than that the identities of the students who came forward had been disclosed to the administration and faculty. One classmate reported hearing confirmation of this breach from the administrative support worker at the theatre school. It felt like a terrible betrayal.
I met in person with the Human Rights Advisor twice. They were long, informal, friendly chats. We hardly even spoke about the allegations. I suspected I was being demonized by the theatre school faculty and administration. The primary reason I met with the Human Rights Advisor was because I wanted her to see that I was just a person. An ordinary, friendly, kind person.
I made two attempts at diplomatic overtures in private email correspondence to some key faculty. I tried to encourage the nobler sides of their character. I made repeated calls for open and respectful dialogue.
I did not get a single response from any faculty member then or since. No faculty member has ever reached out to me. Not once was I ever invited to meet and talk with anybody from the theatre school. Not a single person on the College payroll – all of whom had an individual and collective legal and professional duty to protect the safety of their students – ever spoke out publicly. Shockingly, in the summer of 2007, I received an email from the Human Rights Advisor forbidding me from contacting the faculty or any students at the theatre school. I was told that even my minuscule and respectful communication was causing unwelcome interference.
I felt so betrayed and so disheartened. I couldn’t believe what was happening. That was the first time I walked away from the fight. A long silence followed.
Several months later, in February 2008 when the one-year anniversary of the original meeting had passed, I sent an email to the Artistic Director and to the Human Rights Advisor politely asking for any updates on the matter. Again, no response from the Artistic Director. What I did get in return was a harshly worded reply from the Human Rights Advisor with the same list of inadequate action items they had produced a year earlier. She gave me a thorough scolding. My correspondence with the school must stop, she said. She told me that the Artistic Director “feels that the department has addressed the concerns that you and others put forth and would like to move on from this.”
It was all just so impossible to believe. Nobody whose legal responsibility it was to take these things seriously was taking any of these things seriously. What was I to do then?
I was left with the greatest dilemma of my life. I was in possession of mountains of allegations ranging from sexual harassment to physical assault. Many students reported feeling so damaged by the treatment they had received at George Brown Theatre School that they were unable to set foot in an audition room ever since. Here were dozens of independent and mutually-corroborating reports of students experiencing widespread genuine trauma and the College’s responses had been silence, scoldings, and retribution.
The reason I was in possession of this material was because so many people had CC’d me when they had emailed the Human Rights Advisor a year prior with the details of their experiences.
I highly suspected that the school was demonizing me amongst the current students at the time. I assumed that the full truth had not been made available to people who needed to know about it.
That is when I made the decision to compile and categorize all of the allegations I had in my possession. It was an act of protest against the betrayal that so many of us felt we had experienced. It was a way to reclaim the dignity of former students who had written in confidentially, only to have their identities revealed to the alleged perpetrators.
I had wanted nothing more than to reach out to the current students at the time, but how could I? The Human Rights Advisor had expressly forbidden me from doing so. I had been acting in good faith by following her command. I had never had the opportunity to meet any of the new students so I didn’t have any of their contact information. I didn’t even know their names.
Consequently, there was no possible way for me to know what the conditions on the ground were like in that moment. All I was working on was the deep concern that students were still experiencing harassment and trauma. I felt an intense moral obligation to stop it and prevent its recurrence.
In April 2008, I distributed an anonymized and categorized compilation of the allegations in the hope that somebody somewhere someday would take them seriously and do something about it. I titled this document “A Legacy of Trauma.”
Along with this document, I included a lengthy letter, urgent in tone, providing an analysis of the events leading up to that point as best I understood them. Despite escalating tensions, I repeated my call for open and respectful dialogue. I mailed a hard copy of this package to every faculty member. To the Dean. To the College President. To every member of the Board of Governors of the College. To guest instructors. To members of the theatre school advisory board, including prominent talent agents. To the heads of the other Canadian theatre conservatories. To Theatre Ontario. To the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association.
No response from any faculty member. No response from any guest instructors. No response from any administrators. No response from any member of the Board of Governors. No response from the advisory board. No response from Theatre Ontario. No response from Equity.
Only one single person from that entire list replied. She was very supportive. She also happens to be one of the most revered and universally loved actors in the history of Canadian theatre. And forever since then, in my heart too.
I have faithfully guarded the identities of every student whose stories appear in “A Legacy of Trauma.” I will never disclose any details about them. I feel comfortable saying, however, that the students who came forward were from multiple cohorts stretching back many years.
But I was forbidden to have contact with the students who were currently attending the school at the time. In the months leading up to April 2008, what should I have done? Should I have violated the Human Rights Advisor’s gag order and started trying to contact the current students? The College very likely would have escalated to a restraining order. I wanted so badly to talk to the current students but I also had a deep suspicion that they had all probably been turned against me.
Only two years earlier I had been one of the school’s golden boys. But I was being recast as a sinister villain. Persona non grata. Public Enemy No. 1.
Following the release of “A Legacy of Trauma,” I started receiving emails from the current students. To put it mildly, they were harsh. I directly violated the Human Rights Advisor’s orders and responded to them. Even if it was hate mail, it was still mail. It was a place to start.
I stayed up sometimes all night responding to the emails and watched as the sun came up. No matter how much hate was hurled my way, I tried always to respond with kindness and clarity. I was very exhausted; I was very burnt out. I was also keenly and painfully aware that a few days earlier I had probably just sacrificed any hope of ever being invited to set foot on any Canadian stage ever again.
One of the members of that year’s graduating class sent me a particular email that just floored me. I responded with an inordinately long reply showing in absurd detail why her allegations against me were unfounded. My tone was so biting and so harsh. My response was wildly disproportionate. It was barely hours after sending it that I was horrified to realize what I had done. I immediately sent an apology and realized that under all the intense pressure I was showing the early signs of exactly what I had spent so long fighting against. I felt gutted. To that former student, I once again extend my deepest and unmitigated apologies.
The mail continued to pile. The suspiciously similar and oft-repeated arguments suggested to me that someone may have been manipulating things behind the scenes. Someone with perhaps a Machiavellian disposition. I hedged my bet that the College was planning a lawsuit.
And what did I know at that point, in April 2008? I knew that the current students were forcefully declaring that none of the behaviours I had reported were still happening. I knew that my fight had always been about protecting future students. When the current students declared that my advocacy was unwanted and unwelcome, I had no choice but to withdraw from the battle.
But what did I not know in April 2008? I did not know at the time whether the reported absence of harassment at George Brown Theatre School would be permanent or temporary. I did not know whether it was the result of a genuine and lasting commitment to higher standards or merely a fleeting period of good behaviour caused by the increased scrutiny brought about by my letter from January of 2007. In April of 2008, the answer to that question was inherently unknowable.
And so with the current students, faculty and administration all fiercely against me, I announced my withdrawal from the battle. I offered a truce. I walked away from the battle a second time. I said it was eternal. Turns out it wasn’t.
I didn’t know whether we had just achieved a tremendous victory or an abysmal and terrifying failure. Whether we had just achieved an historic advancement of students’ rights or just handed the keys to the kingdom back to a dangerous predator shielded by a towering fortress of complicity.
What nobody has known until this moment is that I also offered more than just a truce. I felt so strongly that the academic experience of the current students at the time had been grossly compromised by this horrible and completely preventable conflict. I also recognized my central role in that conflict. As a final peace offering, I wired a sum of money to the College and emailed a request to the President of George Brown College asking for it to be awarded anonymously as a bursary to a deserving graduating student. I told her I was extending this gesture not out of guilt or remorse and that despite some major mistakes along the way, I still believed I had done the right thing. I told her that although I was not a religious person, I nevertheless believed in that most paradoxical of maxims: “Love thine enemy.”
My gift was declined. Having sent it by wire, most of the money was just absorbed by Western Union without refund. Shortly thereafter, the Dean sent me a terse, scolding email. It confirmed my suspicion that they had indeed been planning to sue me had I not backed down. The Dean told me that the College was prepared to pursue legal action. Surprisingly, in the same email, the Dean also acknowledged that I had all along made frequent, repeated attempts at open and respectful dialogue. Nevertheless, she told me to never contact them again and to “pursue other interests.”
And so ended my once promising acting career. Before it had even really started.
A few weeks later I contacted the Office of the Ontario Ombudsman. I spoke with an official there for about an hour on the phone and described all the major events I have described here. About a week later I received a phone call back telling me that there was nothing they could do.
In the meantime, I had moved to a new city and started working with homeless youth. It was very rewarding work, but it paid very little. I came to the very difficult realization that if I was to become self-sufficient, I would have to go back to school yet again. Having already completed a B.A. and now with a college diploma under my belt, I found myself in the bizarre position of going back to pick up my Grade 12 calculus and physics. I fell in love with calculus and achieved very high marks. I applied to and was accepted into a university engineering program. Four and a half extremely gruelling (but harassment free) years later, I graduated with distinction. I became an advocate for the human right to clean water and sanitation. I built a new social network and became respected amongst my colleagues and within my community.
In June 2014, I wrote a letter to the Ontario Minister of Education and the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities outlining all the same events I’ve described here. I asked the Ministers to consider extending the same protections afforded under the Occupational Health and Safety Amendment Act (Violence and Harassment in the Workplace) – commonly known as Bill 168 – to the students of Ontario. I received no reply.
A couple years later, a comedy improv company was formed in my city. There I found a beautiful community of passionate, intelligent, caring, and hilarious people who welcomed me into their ranks. A few weeks ago, I finished teaching my first beginner improv course there. Once a week for seven weeks, I got to be the acting teacher I never had in theatre school. It was one of the greatest honours of my life.
For ten years I never stopped thinking about George Brown and the mistreatment that I and the people I love suffered at its hands. Those experiences have formed the filter through which I see the world. Through which I see authority. Through which I see the performing arts. Through which I see education.
I have gone through all the standard trauma stuff: depression, addiction, suicidal ideation. But I have been thriving for years now in recovery thanks to the help and support of a large network of caring people.
I have thought constantly about what I could have done differently ten years ago. I still don’t know all the answers to that.
What I do know now, however – what we all know now – is that in April 2008, the reported absence of trauma and harassment was indeed temporary after all. It was a passing blip. On February 17, 2017 Megan Robinson from the class of 2012 published an article titled “Confessions From Theatre School” in Intermission Magazine. Her article and the comments that follow* show that the same malicious and damaging behaviours – the harassment, the abuse, the overt racism and misogyny – started right back up again in September of 2009, just one year after I had withdrawn from my battle. It appears they have been continuing ever since.
A few days after Megan’s article was published, I submitted a letter to Kathleen Wynne, the Premier of Ontario. I provided her with a summary of everything I have said here. I told her that nobody at George Brown College whose job it is to care about this stuff appeared to care about any of it. On March 15, 2017 the Premier replied with a form letter thanking me for sharing my concerns about “Ryerson University.” Premier Wynne provided only the very unhelpful suggestion that I try contacting “Ryerson” directly. When I replied with my frustrations over her nonsensical response, she told me she was unwilling to become involved.
And so ten years after I had first blown the whistle on abuse at George Brown Theatre School, I concluded that apparently not a single person from all those teachers in all those classrooms, to the theatre school administration, to the Dean of the Faculty, to the Human Rights Advisor, to the College President, to the Board of Governors, to the provincial Ministry, to the Premier herself – was willing to demonstrate even the slightest concern about the most basic safety of the students in their care.
One of the things I find the saddest about all this is when I remember the genuinely caring and compassionate bonds I once had with some of the faculty. I did once have some wonderful memories of the good times. But all of that has long since turned to resentment towards their silent complicity. Since my original letter in January 2007, only one faculty member spoke to me ever again. After I released “A Legacy of Trauma” in 2008, even that person stopped talking to me.
And so the words of Martin Luther King Jr. have long echoed through my ears:
“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
There are so many bizarre and sad ironies to this story.
- The central person in this story whose job description was literally to uphold human rights was the very person who most persistently opposed my attempts at open dialogue and who most frequently suppressed my right to freedom of expression in the public interest.
- In the entire 16-month period of the original ordeal, not a single employee of George Brown College presented a single counter-argument or openly expressed to me a single word of disagreement with the substance of anything I had written. The few words I did receive from them only challenged my fundamental right to speak.
- Although there are few textbooks used in the George Brown Theatre School curriculum, there is one book that forms the centrepiece of any student’s time there. That book is called The Right To Speak.
- An entire publicly funded educational institution that claims to have zero tolerance for harassment and abuse has been found to in fact have an exceptionally expansive tolerance for it, so long as it is perpetrated by faculty. This includes blatant, ongoing sexual harassment and physical assault with a weapon. We now know that these issues were first brought to the attention of the administration in 2001, six years before even I wrote my first letter. So far, that adds up to 16 years’ worth of shockingly high tolerance. I can only ask myself if an upper limit even exists to their tolerance for harassment and abuse.
- There are many professional actors whose careers were built on celebrated Canadian plays that prominently feature stories detailing the horrors of domestic abuse and bullying. In 2008, when history called upon them to use their widely renowned voices in the defense of their vulnerable young counterparts, the community of professional actors (with one very notable exception) chose silence. Worse yet, in my final 2008 communication from the College, the Dean admonished me saying:
“Staff members and industry associates have requested that I advise you not to attempt to engage with them again in the future.” [emphasis added]
- In 2017, my list of recommendations from 2007 now reads like an unremarkable set of standard operating practices one would expect to find at any professional organization. These included diversity initiatives and transparency about graduation rates. My presentation of this list caused enormous backlash from the very same people who regularly dispensed genuinely cruel and irrelevant comments towards students. Those very same people who made a daily routine of berating students to develop a “thicker skin” turned out to have the thinnest skins of nearly anyone I know.
- An institution that so readily and routinely uses expulsion without any meaningful justification to punish its students for arbitrary, trivial and confusing non-offenses, has never fired a single employee whose flagrant, pernicious, and recurring misconduct has been so heavily documented by myself and others.
- George Brown College is named after the journalist and politician who in 1849 produced an exhaustive report of abuses and inhumane treatment at the provincial penitentiary in Kingston, leading to the removal of the existing warden and widespread reform of the Canadian penal system.
- Most tragically of all, a school whose only job it was to take already excellent, ambitious young actors and make them even better, produced scores of people unable to bear the thought of stepping onto a professional stage or into an audition room.
In 2013, when I graduated with a degree in Water Resources Engineering, I swore a public oath that I would “strive my uttermost against the belittling of my working-colleagues in any field of their labour.”
As an Engineer In Training, I made a pledge to “regard my duty to public welfare as paramount.” It is a duty I have never taken lightly. I hope that in my repeated attempts to stop and prevent the verbal, psychological and physical abuse of students that I have performed that duty faithfully.
Another sad irony to all this is that the President of George Brown College, herself a former engineer, would have pledged all of the same oaths that I did. And yet she and her fellow administrators knowingly allowed harassment, abuse and assault to go unchecked in their classrooms for nearly 20 years.
I have had many strong supporters over the years and formed some of the most meaningful relationships of my life out of all this. I am sometimes told that this doesn’t all rest on my shoulders. That is absolutely correct. Stopping abuse is everyone’s responsibility.
Nevertheless, I am all too aware of the broad societal dynamics surrounding gender-based violence. Just like the last time around, I have shared my story here with the knowledge that I do so at the risk of my career. This time it just happens to be a very different decade and a very different career. I also share this story with the knowledge that there are several people out there who no doubt would love to see great harm befall me.
Although it appears that my theatre school has changed very little in the last ten years, I know that the world beyond its insular, petty and cultish walls has changed enormously. In 2007, I was conducting all of this advocacy work by phone, email and snail mail. Facebook was still just pictures of soup and Twitter was barely a hatchling. Since then, both platforms have grown into powerful machines for raising the curtains of secrecy behind which predators thrive.
Since 2007: Jian happened. Brock Turner happened. Trump happened.
But so too did The Quebec Student Marches, Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, and The Women’s March on Washington.
I suspect that even now, rather than drafting a public statement acknowledging their negligence, the College will instead once again be calculating their likelihood of success in suing me for defamation. Should that be the case, I will refer them to the Province of Ontario’s Protection of Public Participation Act, 2015 (S.O. 2015, c. 23 – Bill 52) protecting expression on matters of public interest, and to the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2009 ruling regarding responsible communication on matters of public interest (Grant v. Torstar Corp., 2009 SCC 61,  3 S.C.R. 640).
Failing that, I’ll speak directly to the one thing they have always appeared to place before all other considerations: their reputation. George Brown College and George Brown Theatre School, I don’t anticipate that you will find much in the way of public sympathy if you try to sue a former student for speaking out against abuse and in favour of the very policies you have for so long purported to hold so dear.
Released in 2008, “A Legacy of Trauma” included three allegations of physical assault by a faculty member against students, along with a reference to two others that the College was already aware of in 2007. The comments below the Intermission article include further allegations of physical assault conducted by the same faculty member against students. Both sets of allegations described incidents that fall under the Criminal Code of Canada’s definition of Assault with a Weapon – an indictable offense liable to imprisonment for a period of up to 10 years. The College apparently saw no problem with its instructors committing these acts against their students. They did, however, take great exception to the many of us who risked or ruined our careers in trying to stop them.
I strongly urge both George Brown College and George Brown Theatre School separately to issue full public apologies to the hundreds of students they failed so terribly for so many years.
I strongly urge both George Brown College and George Brown Theatre School separately to come clean on their numerous acts of professional misconduct, accept full responsibility, and take leadership in striving towards peace and reconciliation.
One last sad irony: my own life story could very well put my own life in danger.
But I have told it anyways. I hope others will have the courage to tell theirs
Update: January 3, 2018
I don’t think any of us could have ever foreseen that the final months of 2017 would mark such a sudden and widespread sea-change against abuse and harassment in the entertainment industry. I could have never imagined it when I wrote my story above. I certainly could have never imagined such a massive cultural shift ten years ago when my classmates and I tried so hard to bring about similar changes, only to be shut down and thrown aside.
I offer my support and praise to the dozens who have so bravely come forward. I stand in solidarity with the #MeToo, #AfterMeToo and #TimesUp movements. I commend all those who continue to fight against the many forms of insidious misconduct that have so terribly polluted the industry and wreaked havoc on so many lives. I wish the organizers and participants of those initiatives the strength, healing and courage needed throughout their critically important work.
* Editor’s Update (March 10, 2018): All of the comments to Megan Robinson’s article have since been removed by Intermission Magazine. An archived PDF version of the article with the comments can be found at: Confessions From Theatre School (PDF Capture August 3, 2017)