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Q&A: Professor Zoe Todd on Joseph Boyden, the importance of language, and the Galloway letter

Zoe Todd

Zoe Todd

Zoe S.C. Todd, an assistant professor at Carleton University’s anthropology department, was hit hard by the open letter written and distributed by Joseph Boyden – and signed by more than 80 prominent CanLit figures – calling for an independent investigation into the University of British Columbia’s firing of author Steven Galloway. Galloway, the chair of UBC’s creative writing program, was fired in June following accusations by complainants that included sexual assault, harassment, and bullying (the specifics of the complaints have not been made public).

Todd does not have a direct relationship with the literary community or Galloway, or any of his complainants, but says she was upset by the letter’s language and its implications. As a Metis woman (Treaty 6 Territory, Edmonton), professor, former student, and sexual-assault survivor, Todd felt the need to speak up. She quickly pulled together the Storify post “Rape culture, CanLit, and You,” compiling tweets and her own thoughts on the issue. Within a day, the story had been read more than 13,000 times, and has become a popular circulated link on social media.

Q&Q spoke to Todd about the letter and her response.

What was your initial reaction this letter?

I had this growing sense of disbelief as I went through the paragraphs. My primary response was as an educator and a professor who is charged with a duty of care regarding the students that I work with. As a professor – that’s why I felt I needed to speak up – I wanted to remind people that a nationally celebrated writer is not necessarily the underdog in a situation where students have potentially been exposed to, or allegedly been exposed to, violent or inappropriate behaviour within an academic setting.

I hope that it comes through that I’m coming from a place of love. I really care about the well-being of students. I care about the well-being of my peers and other faculty, and I think it’s really important for students to see their teachers and professors reiterate the importance of us respecting them and everything they do. I wish I’d had that when I was in university.

What specifically upset you about the letter’s language?

The repeated focus on one party. I understand why people close to Steven Galloway – or maybe even people who don’t know him but who have signed on – felt moved to ensure there was a fair process in the way UBC handled this situation. I can’t speak from any kind of informed point of view on what happened. I don’t know any of the people involved. I’m absolutely an outside observer. But just reading the letter it was clear that the position of the complainants was diminished in the writing. Though I don’t think that was intentional.

Could the letter have been written differently, and still made the point that UBC’s process is considered severely flawed?

Absolutely. There’s been so much advocacy at UBC spearheaded by indigenous and women of colour scholars who have worked very tirelessly to advocate for an open, fair, and transparent process for dealing with all issues of sexual violence, assault, and harassment on campus.

The letter comes about at a time when a specific prominent person is impacted, but there were a lot of non-famous people who’ve come forward in the past few years who have been published or whose anonymous accounts have been published about these very issues in a Canadian literary context. There wasn’t this rallying around them. The letter could have started from that position and said, “We acknowledge that sexual violence and rape culture are an endemic problem on university campuses. We stand in solidarity with all people who have been impacted by this. And to further that, we want to make sure that we contribute to conversations and actions and procedures that ensure that all people who find themselves in a case or a situation where they’re being investigated for sexual violence in a campus setting have access to the most ethical, transparent, and accountable process as possible.”

But this doesn’t accomplish it – it just shields the system. I’m not surprised, because why would people give up power and privilege when they don’t need to? Who are the people who can speak for the students? They don’t necessarily have access to the same halls of power that this person does. They’re unable to refute the weight of Margaret Atwood and Joseph Boyden and other people’s words that insinuate that the main complainant in this situation is a liar.

What is your response to those authors who have removed their signatures?

I think that’s amazing. I think it shows we can have hard and uncomfortable conversations. I’ve seen some of the commentaries from people who have taken their names off and they’re really thoughtful. I know that couldn’t have been an easy position to take because this list really is a who’s who of Canadian literary stars. To take your name off and signal to your peers that I don’t agree with how this was done, is really brave.

What kind of responses have you received to your Storify?

Overwhelmingly positive. A lot of those who are reaching out and thanking me are people who can’t speak out. One of the reasons I wrote it is that I’m not part of the Canadian literary establishment. I’m not going to be applying for awards or grants where the people involved are going to be reviewing my work. As a professor I feel safe calling into question these systems because I have the safety from my position to do that, and I know a lot of students can’t.

There have been a few aggressive or negative responses. Margaret Atwood’s flippant tweets were disappointing. The lack of response and refusal to answer public questions by Joseph Boyden is also very disappointing. Within indigenous legal orders and indigenous governance – at least in Metis governance processes – there’s this idea of collective accountability and reciprocity, which is really important. Asking questions of someone when they have spoken on behalf of a group of people is a form of accountability.

One journalist characterized my tweets as “angry mobbing,” which was quite amusing. But also what’s interesting is the way that the media reports are characterizing the issue now as Atwood and Boyden are facing backlash. I think that’s quite flippant and reveals this bias toward protecting prominent people rather than asking, “Who are the people who are questioning this?”

A lot of people who are questioning this are marginalized, racialized, minority writers and scholars and others who are very disenfranchised within the literary world, within academia. So it’s actually quite violent to characterize these questions as bullying or harassment. These are pointed straightforward questions that if other people were asking them, people would be saying, “That’s a good question.”

If you had an opportunity to talk to Joseph Boyden, what would you say?

One of the things about this that’s really scary for me, as a not-famous Metis woman, to speak out against a very prominent, beloved writer, is that it puts me in a vulnerable position. It opens me to critique from people who support the status quo.

Joseph Boyden has written extensively about his solidarity with indigenous women on issues of missing and murdered indigenous women, two spirit people, and girls. And his role in spearheading this letter and not tending to those nuances of experiences of sexual violence that many women experience inside of and outside of the academy really troubles me, because I have a hard time reconciling this letter with other public things that he has stated about his solidarity with indigenous women.

So my question to him is, “Why did you write the letter this way?” A lot of indigenous women in the academy face so much misogyny and racism day to day. It’s disheartening for young scholars to see someone prominent who we really look up to for the stance he takes on a lot of indigenous issues to be reiterating a lot of the stereotypes and harmful re-stigmatizing attitudes that do so much harm. I’m actually quite heartbroken over the role that he’s taken in this.

What would you like to see happen next?

I think there’s so much happening at UBC already, by people such as the recent graduate, Lucia Lorenzi, who just won a Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case for her work about campus sexual assault. There’s also Dr. Sarah Hunt, who’s an indigenous prof at UBC, and Natalie Clark, a social work prof who’s also indigenous. They’re doing such phenomenal work, and I really hope that the signatories and creators of that letter consider it their responsibility to approach the people who have already done so much heavy-lifting on these issues of transparency at UBC. Perhaps they can come humbly to those strong women and ask them, “How can we do this differently?”

This conversation has been edited and condensed.