Leading the Dentistry task force: An interview with Constance Backhouse

- February 25, 2015

Task Force chair Constance Backhouse (provided photo).
Task Force chair Constance Backhouse (provided photo).

Constance Backhouse wrote the book on sexual harassment.

That’s not just a figure of speech: Prof. Backhouse, a distinguished university professor and university research chair in the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law, was the author of Canada’s first major text on sexual harassment. Titled The Secret Oppression: Sexual Harassment of Working Women and published in 1979, the book would be a landmark publication in any academic’s career, but Prof. Backhouse has followed it with decades of award-winning work — inside and outside of the academy — in issues of gender, discrimination and ethics.

Later this week, Prof. Backhouse will make her first visit to Dalhousie as chair of the Task Force on Misogyny, Sexism and Homophobia in the Faculty of Dentistry. Together with University of Ottawa colleague Don McRae and human rights lawyer Nitya Iyer, Prof. Backhouse was asked by President Richard Florizone to lead the external task force assessing the broader environment within the Faculty of Dentistry. President Florizone launched the task force early last month in response to the discovery of the Dentistry Facebook group in December.

Read more: Constance Backhouse’s bio

“We determined, based on the facts known about the situation, that we needed an independent, third-party assessment of the broader environment within the Faculty of Dentistry,” explains President Florizone. “I’m pleased Prof. Backhouse, Prof. McRae and Ms. Iyer have all agreed to contribute their time, expertise and insight towards this important task.”

In advance of Prof. Backhouse’s visit on Friday — the first of at least four on-campus visits for the task force — she spoke with Dal News about the task force’s mandate and her hopes that the situation at Dalhousie could represent a crucial moment for moving forward in addressing misogyny, sexism and related issues.

An opportunity to move issues forward

Prof. Backhouse is hopeful her team can deliver a report (due by June 30) that builds on the momentum of the moment to offer recommendations that will be of great benefit to Dentistry, to Dalhousie and to the broader cause of addressing and eliminating misogyny, sexism and homophobia.   

“My goal is to see if we can come up with a report that contains recommendations that are really useful, that will find broad support and will move this agenda forward — not just at Dal, and not just in the Faculty of Dentistry, but also across the country,” she says. “All of us need to figure out how to do better, and if we can contribute in some way to that, then this whole process will have been useful.”

Like many Canadians, particularly those invested in the related issues, Prof. Backhouse was following the situation in the Faculty of Dentistry well before she was asked to get involved. She says she sees parallels with similar incidents at other campuses across the country in recent years.

“I’m anxious that we all move forward to do better. I would like to see less sex discrimination, less violence tied to sexual discussions and practices. I would like to see our campuses be bastions of research and education designed to reduce discrimination rather than perpetuate it. So I have a big stake in this as does, I think, just about everyone else in Canada.”

That’s part of the reason she agreed to take on chairing the task force. The other was that, based on the reaction she saw from the Dal community, she felt the particular situation represented an opportunity to advance the agenda of equality and inclusiveness more broadly.

“I saw very strong voices for positive change coming out of Dalhousie that gave me a lot of heart,” she explains. “Within your community at this university you have a lot of people who care, and who care enough to put their opinions into the public realm. Not all of them agree, but they have a shared passion for moving these issues forward. That’s a good sign.”

A focus on Dentistry

When asked about the scope of the task force’s work, she points to its terms of reference, which outline its mandate to collect and assess facts relating to the Dentistry Facebook group but also to examine the broader culture, practices and policies within the Faculty of Dentistry. The task force has also been asked to consider policies and practices at Dalhousie related to issues of misogyny, sexism and homophobia and make recommendations for ways they could be improved.

Read more: Task Force Terms of Reference [PDF]

She’s careful to make clear that the task force is not a disciplinary mechanism. The status of the individuals involved in the Dentistry Facebook group is being assessed through two processes: the Academic Standards Class Committee and a restorative justice process. (Learn more about these processes.) And, outside of policy review, the task force’s work will be largely focused on the Faculty of Dentistry, allowing it to look deeply and critically at the environment in which the Facebook group came to be. (The broader conversation about issues of diversity and inclusiveness across the university will be supported by the ongoing strategic initiative led by Dean of Law Kim Brooks.)

“So our goal is to finish this by the end of June,” says Prof. Backhouse, “with a report that offers some analysis of the context behind this incident but, more importantly, addresses any potential environmental questions about the Faculty of Dentistry. We’ll be carefully considering why this might have happened there and try to offer suggestions for how it might be prevented in the future.”

Even before its members arrive on campus, the task force is receiving information from the university.  One item identified by the university, for example, was the existence of a “graffiti wall,” managed by students in the Dentistry student lounge, which contained inappropriate comments. When central university administration became aware of the wall’s existence last month, photographs were taken and access to the wall was immediately locked. The task force is being provided with copies of the photographs and will be given access to the lounge.

A strong team

Prof. Backhouse will be joined on the task force by Don McRae, who teaches international law at the University of Ottawa, and Nitya Iyer, a former academic who’s now a practicing lawyer in Vancouver with expertise in human rights and equality issues. Each brings experiences that Prof. Backhouse feels will be incredibly valuable to the task force’s work.

Read more: Task Force members’ bios

In the case of Prof. McRae, he’s widely credited with helping successfully lead the University of Ottawa law school as dean through an intense period where issues of gender and equality were under high scrutiny.

“It’s really quite a privilege to have his time and attention on this task force, because he will teach all of us lessons on what he learned from those experiences,” she says.

As for Iyer, who taught at both the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia before entering private practice, Prof. Backhouse calls her a “brilliant” lawyer and notes her leadership in a series of inquiries on issues of sexism, racism and other issues within universities.

“She has conducted inquiries, litigated, educated and offered policy advice on human rights issues as well as issues that relate to equality and the workplace,” adds Prof. Backhouse. “So she brings a background that is, again, different from mine and Professor McRae’s, in that she’s now in the world of practice."

Opportunities to contribute

The three task force members will meet as a group for the first time this Friday during their first of four scheduled visits to campus. For this initial visit, they’ve arranged meetings with several key stakeholders at Dalhousie and in the Faculty of Dentistry, but they expect to expand their scope and outreach on subsequent visits.

Individuals and groups within the Faculty of Dentistry (students, faculty/staff, alumni, etc.) will be invited directly to participate in the task force’s work at various points in the process, but Prof. Backhouse welcomes input from anyone — in Dentistry or otherwise — who wants to contribute.

Submissions for consideration can be made to dentistrytaskforce@dal.ca, an email address accessible only to the task force’s members. (Individuals can also contribute via a confidential online submission form.)

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