Former students accuse U of M drama professor of sexual harassment
Allegations against University of Moncton's Andréi Zaharia span more than 20 years
Several former students who attended University of Moncton between 1997 and 2017 are accusing drama professor Andréi Zaharia of harassment, sexism and misogyny.
"As a woman, you don't finish your bachelor of dramatic arts at University of Moncton in one piece," Stacy Arseneault, a student from 2012 to 2017, told Radio-Canada.
She said she alerted the university to Zaharia's behaviour.
"It's toxic. It poisons my life."
Arseneault said the professor sexualized all female roles on stage.
Actors would be performing a fable, she said, and Zaharia would want the woman to act as if she wanted to be ravaged.
"Is that really the story?" she said. "It's disturbing."
Arseneault still wonders why she was made to wear a towel in one play.
"It was never written in the script," she said.
Arseneault said she gained some weight after taking a medication, and Zaharia commented on it in front of her class. She said she found the incident degrading and it had consequences for her mental health.
She took a semester off to avoid having to work with him.
The University of Moncton declined to do an interview, citing a need to protect the privacy of all involved.
But after complaints about Zaharia appeared on social media, the university acknowledged July 13 that allegations had been made against a member of its teaching staff and said it was doing the necessary followup.
Radio-Canada tried to reach Zaharia to get his comments on the allegations against him, but he did not respond.
It's not clear how many complaints have been made against Zaharia or what if anything the university has done about it.
Emma Haché said it was an issue when she was a student in 1997.
It was weird, she said, to be told as a 17-year-old, to deliver a line as though she could "feel the tips of her breasts burning."
Years later, Haché attended a rehearsal by graduating students and was surprised to see a female student in the nude on stage.
"I was shocked that an actress would be asked to do that in a learning environment," she said. "To me, it was really, really inappropriate."
Haché said she wants to know what measures have been put in place to protect students.
"We're talking about decades," she said. "Apparently he was operating in an environment where he felt protected."
The university pointed out that it adopted a sexual violence policy in 2017.
It provides mechanisms for people in the university community who claim to be victims of all forms of harassment or assault.
Brigitte Gallant said she filed an anonymous complaint about Zaharia to the university once she'd finished her studies.
"That man should have been fired a long time ago," said Gallant, who started in drama at University of Moncton in 2010 and quickly realized she was one of Zaharia's favourite students.
"Not for my talent," she said. "I was a body and a face for him.
"He never gave me constructive feedback on my performance. They were always comments about my looks."
Gallant said the professor, who was also head of the department at the time, behaved inappropriately toward students and sexually harassed her.
His approach sexualized women, she said.
For example, she might be told to rub her breasts in a scene or to bend over, for no apparent reason.
"If we asked for a justification, instead of explaining to us why we had to do it, we were reprimanded a little," she said.
"I was not comfortable in his class."
The professor regularly made comments about her physical appearance, she said — pointing out if she wasn't wearing makeup or if she had gained a few pounds.
"He's misogynistic and sexist," said Gallant. "We don't have to go through that. It's completely ridiculous and unacceptable."
Caroline Bélisle, who was a student from 2010 to 2014, claims to have witnessed repeated sexist behaviour as well.
According to Bélisle, in most of the performance classes taught by Zaharia, regardless of the context, the female characters were directed to play up their sexuality and present themselves as wanting to be desired.
"I never felt that he was looking to stimulate creative energy to bring out a character. It was more like he had created this sexy image of a person in his head, and he insisted that we reproduce it for him. It was like I was a puppet on the stage."
She found the way he presented female characters to be sorely deficient.
"They didn't have brains," she said. "They were always morons. Huge morons."
A woman who attended from 2009 to 2013 said previous students warned her about Zaharia.
Isabelle Bartkowiak said she was told he liked young women and to expect a lot of sexuality in the plays they did.
She said she expected a certain amount of sexuality in a theatre program, but the extent of it in Zaharia's classes seemed gratuitous.
She recalled one incident where he told a classmate who was kneeling onstage that he liked to see her on her knees in front of him.
She also heard him make comments about female students' appearances and weight.
Bartkowiak said the individual incidents may seem relatively small and harmless, until you add them up and consider that others have left the department or given up their careers because they didn't want to work with Zaharia.
"That's when you're like, 'Wait a minute, he's a monster.'"
The association representing University of Moncton professors responded Thursday in a news release.
Referring to the allegations against the professor that were made online, Mathieu Lang, the president of the association, said social media can play an influential role in education to prevent and eradicate sexual violence. But he reminded the community that the university has mechanisms to deal with allegations appropriately and fairly.
With files from Radio-Canada's Wildinette Paul