Allegations of bullying and harrassment at Dawson

CJAD 800 has spoken with 6 former students out of over 20 who have come forward on social media with allegations of bullying and harassment at Dawson college.

The women are former students of the Professionial Theatre program who each say they had damaging experiences with long time teacher Winston Sutton. 

Allegations range from public humiliation, inappropriate comments about weight, looks, or potential, to suggestions that students undress for each other, or make comments about their sex lives.

They say they were told this was all part of his teaching method. 

"If you were having your head messed with, that was making you a better actor," says one of the former students who spoke with CJAD 800. "If you went through this abuse and you passed the test, you were meant for the real world, you were meant for the industry."

She says Sutton would pit students against each other to simulate the competition of the acting world, to weed out people he didn't believe would "make it".

Another student says he encouraged her and her male co-star in a rehearsal to lie naked onstage together to develop more convincing intimacy for their performance, which she refused. 

Another woman says he questioned her and her then-boyfriend about their sex-life, and regularly made students cry with his barrage of criticism.

Several say he would pick favourites, and tear down others in front of the class to elevate those he believed had talent.

CJAD 800 was told that the bulk of the abuse was not sexual in nature. 

Women who spoke to CJAD 800 asked that it be made clear that this was not largely a sexual harassment issue, but a pattern of psychological abuse that left many graduates reeling and discouraged from pursuing their chosen careers.

A former student says when she posted on Facebook about her concerns at Dawson, she was met with a barrage of men and women who had similar experiences.

"I realized I had a responsibility to come forward because I had to help stop it from happening to these fragile and vulnerable and impressionable students who were looking to him for guidance."

CEGEP students can be as young as 16.

"I have never experienced anything like that and I work in the theatre industry still," says a former student who would also prefer to remain anonymous. "I've never met a director like that. He's the only one that I've ever met." 

Students say they had brought up these allegations to the department heads for years, but were ignored.

"It breaks my heart when I hear from alumni that have been coming forward for many years," says another former student, now actor, who says she experienced bullying from the teacher at Dawson. "I've heard from students who said they spoke up 20 years ago, I heard from another who spoke up a couple years ago, and nothing happened." 

Another student wrote to CJAD 800 about her experiences from 1995-1997 with Sutton, who she says demanded students share their most painful secrets so he could exploit them to bring out emotion in the student actors.

"I remember being in an Audio-Visual class and there were 3 female students who began talking about how uncomfortable they were with Winston, how unsafe they felt. It led to a class wide discussion (only the women were affected) about being manipulated and some were brought to tears as they re-counted some of the probing they'd received from him."

She explains that the chair and co-chair, at the time Bertrand Henry and Victor Knight, brushed their concerns aside.

"Bert came into our class and shamed us about trying to slander a man and commit to an action that would compromise his career.

These were serious allegations that just didn't hold up."

Now that over 20 women have come forward on social media to share their experiences publicly they say the current administration has invited several of them to meet this week to discuss the allegations. 

Though one former student says she's glad that the college is finally taking them seriously, it is already too late for dozens of classes of students who passed through the program.

"I have to say that my experience in the real world has for the most part been very respectful, I've worked with dozens of directors and none of them have ever treated me that way." she said. "I honestly feel that if I had entered the work force with my self esteem and my confidence intact I could have done so much better so much faster."

Another says he discouraged others from pursuing their acting dreams. 

"I can name several people who didn't end going into acting because that's what they were afraid that they were going to face."

Winston Sutton responded to an email from CJAD 800.

"Dawson has launched its own internal investigation and I am not allowed to speak to anyone on the subject at this time," he wrote. 

Dawson spokesperson Donna Varrica could not comment on this specific case, but told CJAD 800 that the college was an early adopter of strict policies for protecting students and staff from abuse.

"We're still only one of two colleges that have an ombudsperson, in the entire network," she says, "so we've always pretty much been at the beginning of these mechanisms to safeguard the employees as well as the students."

She says it could be that students in the past, brought up their concerns to the wrong party.

"There are official channels to make complaints and then there's talking in a hallway," she says. "So you really have to make a commitment to follow up if you're experiencing a problem."

A former student says she had tried to make an official complaint, but was brushed off.

"I, along with a lot of people I know complained to the department and was basically told there was nothing we could do," she says. "We weren't pointed to an ombudsperson or the dean of the arts department, we weren't pointed to anyone, in fact we were subtly kind of encouraged not to."

"There's complaining and then there's filing a complaint." says Varicca. "We can't speak for every chair and how they handle each student... but the guidelines are there, they're on the website, in the old days they were in binders." 

The women we spoke to say they've been told Sutton has been suspended during the investigation. But Dawson would not confirm that or any other details about the case.