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News / December 14, 2017

Assault Allegations in the Halifax Arts Scene

The often close-knit Halifax arts community is grappling with how to best respond to allegations of assault by a former AFCOOP staffer
Though the alleged assault did not take place at the Atlantic Filmmakers' Co-op facility on Cornwallis Street, other arts organizations in and out of the building say accountability is needed. Photo: Google Streetview. Though the alleged assault did not take place at the Atlantic Filmmakers' Co-op facility on Cornwallis Street, other arts organizations in and out of the building say accountability is needed. Photo: Google Streetview.

Awareness of sexual assault in the arts scene is growing—and Halifax is no exception.

The often close-knit arts groups in this Maritime city have been dealing in recent weeks with allegations that a (now former) staff member at the Atlantic Filmmakers’ Co-operative has sexually assaulted other individuals in the community.

While the story is surfacing publicly now, it stretches back to 2016, when AFCOOP received an anonymous allegation against one of its staff members.

“That [2016] allegation was not in relation to AFCOOP activities,” said AFCOOP director Martha Cooley via email. “At that time AFCOOP conducted an investigation with the assistance of external legal counsel,” and the case was eventually closed.

Then, in early November 2017, those allegations were posted on a personal Facebook feed. That Facebook post included screengrabs of an earlier email exchange a survivor had had with AFCOOP about their allegations.

Also in early November 2017, AFCOOP received what Cooley calls “another non-anonymous allegation against the same staff person, and we re-opened our investigation.” Cooley emphasizes the alleged assaults did not take place on AFCOOP property, nor during AFCOOP programming.

Then, on November 24, a group of Halifax arts organizations—including the Centre for Art Tapes, Eyelevel, Nocturne and the Khyber Centre for the Arts—issued what it called “a shared public response from concerned members of the Halifax arts community” in the wake of the AFCOOP allegations. (AFCOOP and Eyelevel share an office space, while AFCOOP and Centre for Art Tapes have done shared programming in the past.) The letter was also signed by the South House Sexual and Gender Resource Centre.

The letter called on AFCOOP to respond more clearly to allegations of sexual assault and create more appropriate codes of conduct.

“As much as we would like to believe the spaces we hold sacred cannot reenact lateral violence, we know that institutional silence is a vehicle that allows sexual assault to remain endemic in our communities,” the joint letter stated. “We choose not to participate in this violent erasure as it perpetuates rape culture.”

The joint letter encouraged AFCOOP to “issue an apology to the survivor who reached out to them in 2016 for their mishandling of the survivor’s complaint by neglecting to respond to the survivor in a timely, transparent and respectful way.”

The letter also stated that “the organization’s current board and staff must engage in training and education with South House, Avalon Sexual Assault Centre and/or another survivor-centric community organization as soon as feasibly possible following a complaint of sexual assault.”

As it turns out, AFCOOP has now slated such training for the new year: “In addition to staff and board training,” says AFCOOP’s Martha Cooley, “AFCOOP will be offering a free workshop for our members in the New Year on sexualized violence and trauma informed practice, presented by Avalon Sexual Assault Centre.”

In a December 12 communication with Canadian Art, AFCOOP says its investigation into the non-anonymous November 2017 allegations is due to wrap up soon.

Cooley also reconfirms that the staff member in question is no longer employed by the organization.

“As an organization, AFCOOP is committed to ensuring a safe and progressive environment and we will be reviewing our policies to include information about how staff, the board, members and those who use our resources and participate in our programs conduct themselves while engaged in AFCOOP-related activities,” writes Cooley. “The board has struck a new committee, which is open to AFCOOP members, in order to guide this process.”

Other organizations in the city are hoping survivors, no matter where they are in the arts, will get more support in future.

“Our hope was that through mutually agreeing on this course of action [detailed in the joint letter], and calling on AFCOOP to join us, we can support them right now,” says Centre for Art Tapes director of operations Sally Raab in an email.

Founded in 1973, AFCOOP is the oldest English-speaking film co-op in Canada. In the past, its annual Film5 grants program has helped launch the careers of the Atlantic region’s most prolific and successful filmmakers, including Thom Fitzgerald (Cloudburst, The Hanging Garden), Andrea Dorfman (Heartbeat, Love That Boy) and Andrew Bush (Rollertown, Picnic Face).

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is news and special sections editor at Canadian Art. A graduate of NSCAD University and McGill University, she has also written for the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail. She welcomes tips, corrections and comments anytime at leah@canadianart.ca.