Dawson College drama teacher quietly stops teaching after new allegations of sexual misconduct

Winston Sutton is no longer teaching at the school following sexual harassment allegations against him, nearly three years after complaints from former students led to his suspension.

Warning: This story contains sexually explicit language and subject matter that may be upsetting

Grace Gordon and her theatre teacher Winston Sutton at her class's graduation cocktail party in 2012. Gordon says Sutton made inappropriate comments in emails to her. (Submitted by Mara Lazaris)

A Dawson College drama instructor is no longer teaching at the school following sexual harassment allegations against him, nearly three years after complaints from former students led to his suspension.

Winston Sutton was suspended by the college in 2017 when more than a dozen former students accused him of bullying and harassment. He returned to his post the following semester, in early 2018. 

At least three more former students now accuse him of grooming them emotionally and, in two cases, of sexually harassing them, CBC News has learned. (CTV first reported the sexual harassment allegations last week.)

He began an affair with one of the women within a week of her graduation in 2010.

Interviews with nearly a dozen former students and a review of email correspondence suggests Sutton sought out close relationships with female students, engaged in unwanted physical contact and tried to have conversations about their sex lives, over a span of about 20 years. 

Dawson has confirmed it is investigating the allegations, and one of the women interviewed by CBC News says she already met with a college dean to share her story.

In a statement, Dawson's director general, Richard Filion, said "the allegations were deemed extremely serious, which led the college to launch an investigation." He said the college would share its decision publicly once the investigation is complete.

Filion said Sutton has not taught at the school since Aug. 31, the first day of the fall semester. 

"Dawson College wishes to reaffirm our values of respect and well-being for all and our commitment to academic integrity," he added.

Earlier this week, the college said it could not answer follow-up questions about how it plans to address allegations of a toxic environment, citing legal considerations.

Sutton did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In interviews with CBC, at least four women described being regularly called to visit him in his office. During these visits the women say he gave them unwanted hugs, tried to hold hands or caressed their hair.

"He would do things like hold your hand for a very long time and stare into your eyes, and hold your face," said Kayleigh Choiniere, who has spearheaded efforts to get Dawson to take another look at the allegations against Sutton.

"He took me into his office in the first couple of weeks, sat me down and said, 'You are cold and arrogant and broken and damaged,'" she recalled. "And then [he would talk] about how I must be so insecure with my body and I'm very attractive, but that won't get me anywhere."

Kayleigh Choiniere has been active in the effort to have Dawson College re-evaluate its investigation of Winston Sutton. (Submitted by Kayleigh Choiniere)

Some of the former students who did not come forward in 2017 say a combination of factors, including time to reflect on their experiences during the pandemic, a resurgence of the #MeToo movement in Quebec and the fact that Sutton was set to oversee two productions this year, have led them to call for his removal.

'If he liked you, that meant you were a good actor'

The women say Sutton gave them a personal email address he said he'd created especially for them.

"I honestly felt like I had finally won his approval," said Grace Gordon, who was in the theatre program at Dawson from 2009 to 2012.

"If he liked you, then that meant that you were a good actor."

In an email he wrote to her at the end of her second year in the program, Sutton encouraged her to masturbate instead of engaging in sexual relations. 

"Often the fantasy is more passionate and gratifying than the act itself," Sutton wrote. "In the interest of self-worth and self-esteem, I would still vote for a dildo and your fingers as viable options."

Mara Lazaris says Winston Sutton made comments of a sexual nature to her in his office. (Submitted by Mara Lazaris)

Emails to Mara Lazaris, who was in the program at the same time, are similar. 

Sutton at times showers Lazaris with praise, but in others he shares his disappointment that she did not try to find him at the school or after a show. Many are sent in the middle of the night or in the morning.

One is nearly 3,000 words long. Another says simply: "Just thinking of you today."

In June 2011, he wrote: "When I saw you last in red, I almost asked if you lost weight; you looked so beautiful. I said nothing at the time because you'd look beautiful to me even if you were 400 lbs."

A month later: "If I had met you 159 years ago, I would already be frequenting Laval, 'sweet-talking' your parents, buying them gifts, cooking them food and by 2015 we would have one or two mixed kids running around the house."

On one occasion in his office, Lazaris says Sutton even made explicit suggestions about masturbating with various objects.

"He was telling me how I'm going to be experiencing sex and all that, and how I should have tested my body and learn what I like before engaging in any sort of activity with my boyfriend," Lazaris said in an interview. 

Lazaris kept their correspondence and his comments secret at the time. But a friend in the program, Adam Capriolo, says he remembers the teacher spending hours in his office with a select number of female students, including Lazaris. 

Capriolo says closed-door meetings and the "invasion of personal life" were normalized in the program and that students were told it was part of the theatre industry.

"So, when Mara had meetings with Winston that would last hours, we were told that was fine, but we knew it was bizarre," he said.

Lazaris says she was a shy student and remembers feeling uncomfortable, but would try to "block it out." She started the program at 17 years old and was 18 at the time she says Sutton made the comments. 

Affair began after graduation

Another former student, who had graduated two summers before Lazaris, in 2010, says she had an affair with Sutton, who is married, within a week of her graduation.

"I recognized a lot of what my colleagues, Mara and Grace, said in their testimony," says Irina Ghitulescu, who was in the program from 2007 to 2010 and was 22 at the time. "And a lot of it was word-for-word, quite frankly."

The set of The Crucible, a play Dawson theatre students produced in 2010, which was directed by Winston Sutton. Irina Ghitulescu was in the play. (Ghitulescu/Medium)

Ghitulescu says the affair lasted less than two months, until she had to go overseas to visit family that summer.

She says what Gordon and Lazaris shared online about their experiences made her reconsider the relationship she had with Sutton. 

"I came to realize very recently that I definitely was groomed, emotionally speaking," Ghitulescu said, adding she feels he betrayed her trust.

Ghitulescu wrote a letter that was signed by more than 15 alumni in support of Sutton after the allegations in 2017. 

In an essay she posted online Tuesday, she apologized, saying, "I thought I was doing the right thing based on the information I had at the time, and I am profoundly sorry for the harm that my advocacy compounded."

She says she kept quiet about the affair because "I felt so much shame and guilt …. There was a lot for him to lose if I spoke up."

She has now joined her voice to those calling for his removal from the college. 

Two co-chairs of Dawson's professional theatre program, Kimberley Barfuss and Carolyn Guillet, resigned in 2018 after Sutton returned to his post, telling CJAD at the time: "We tried to do our best to be accountable, responsible, reflect and take action in the best interests of our students and the college intervened."

Dawson says Winston Sutton has not taught at the college since Aug. 31. (Jérôme Lafon/CBC)

The former students interviewed by CBC News say that beyond Sutton's dismissal, they hope Dawson puts measures in place to establish clear boundaries between students and teachers. 

A recent student in the program, who did not want to be named for fear of repercussions to her future career, said she looked up Sutton's name before class one day because she felt uneasy around him and learned about the allegations made in 2017. 

The student said she left the program last year because "the environment was just toxic. Some teachers were pushy and some classmates made it hard to work with them. I also just wasn't comfortable."

Sutton was the artistic director of the Montreal-based Black Theatre Workshop in the late 1980s and early 1990s, according to current artistic director Quincy Armorer.

"The stories that I've been hearing are quite disturbing," Armorer said over the phone. "It speaks to a kind of behaviour that has absolutely no place in our industry at all… I think it's incumbent on Dawson College to have some kind of accountability."

With files from Jonathan Montpetit