World News

Toronto All-Boys School Rocked by Reports of Hazing Assaults

Posted November 23, 2018 2:56 p.m. EST

TORONTO — St. Michael’s College School had long been known in Toronto as a beacon of tradition, Catholic faith and elite hockey — until last week.

One hazing video emerged online. Then another — this one capturing a young student being pinned down by schoolmates in a locker room and sexually assaulted with a broom handle.

The Toronto police arrested six students, ages 14 and 15, this week and charged them with offenses related to sexual assault. Since the arrests, the police have received two more videos, bringing the total count of episodes to six. And they expect more.

The videos and arrests have rocked the institution, prompting the resignations of both its president and principal, and torn a rift between students’ parents and the school’s deeply knit alumni, many of whom identify themselves as St. Michael’s Men long after graduating, wearing their pride like their antique leather football jackets.

Some say the videos have exposed a strain of toxic masculinity sewn into the all-male Catholic school reminiscent of the debate in the United States that sprang up around the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Others say this is not the school they knew and loved, which instilled in them the motto of the centuries-old order of Basilian priests: “Teach me goodness, discipline and knowledge.”

Across Canada, the front-page story has spurred calls for a deeper discussion — once again — about how Canadians are raising their boys.

“Institutions like St. Mike’s are hotbeds of power exploitation,” said Jean-Paul Bédard, an elite ultramarathoner who has become a vocal advocate for victims since publicly disclosing a few years ago that he was sexually assaulted as a child. “It’s a stratified tension-filled atmosphere of high school, amplified by sports.”

Bédard played football at St. Michael’s for two years in high school and was put through a “sexual hazing,” he said.

“This is just the beginning,” he predicted. “If I experienced it over 35 years ago, there has been a lot of other people who have gone through this.”

Another graduate who described being similarly sexually assaulted during a freshman hazing ritual with McGill University’s football team in 2005 returned to St. Michael’s for solace and comfort.

“St. Mike’s was actually the place I went to, to get me over McGill,” D’Arcy McKeown told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. podcast Frontburner, describing helping out his old team. “A place where I felt safe.”

The school, which includes grades seven through 12, was built by the Basilian order of Catholic priests from France in 1852, 15 years before Canada became a country. The priests believed athleticism was an essential part of education and by the early 1900s had developed a hockey program that became a training team for the National Hockey League.

One wall of the school’s hockey arena is decorated with the photos of some 200 graduates who played at least one game in the league, including the hockey greats Dave Keon and Frank Mahovlich, said Larry Colle, a St. Michael’s graduate who co-wrote the book “St. Michael’s College: 100 years of Pucks and Prayers.”

Together with an elite football program, the champion hockey team was seen as a defensive shield for the Catholic boys, growing up in a predominantly Protestant city, Colle said.

While most private Catholic schools in the province have become public and opened their doors to women, St. Michael’s stuck to tradition, raising its tuition rates, which now run around $15,000 (about 20,000 Canadian dollars) and pouring money into its sports programs.

It also made a name for itself through charity, starting the city’s volunteer soup-kitchen program Out of the Cold, and through the arts, opening an $8.8-million performing theater on the campus in 2010.

At a news conference this week about the scandal, the school’s principal, Greg Reeves, said, “We are as shocked and horrified as you are.” Reeves, an alumnus himself, also said the school had “a serious problem.”

“This is not what our community is about,” he added.

Three days later, he handed in his resignation.

St. Michael’s, which has expelled eight students and suspended one other, has received two threats, including one about a bomb, and had police officers patrolling its halls. The names of those involved in the assaults have been shielded by the courts.

It has opened a phone line for students to report assaults, is hiring a social worker and announced that it will form an independent committee to examine the institution’s culture.

Many parents and alumni come from generations of graduates and identity with the school as akin to family. Some consider the reported episodes outliers, and blame the media for its coverage.

But as shock and defensiveness subside into sorrow, some have begun to demand a deeper soul-searching into how such demoralizing and abusive actions could become so normalized that boys would share them on social media.

Long before the culture study begins, theories have emerged, pointing to Catholic denigration of homosexuality, the competitive machoism of sports, and whether the school’s tradition of hiring alumni — long a point of pride — was part of the problem.

“You don’t know how hot the soup is when you are in the pan,” Bédard said. “That is why we need outsiders to get in.”

Mario Calla graduated from the school in 1970, and went on to run Costi Immigrant Services, a large nonprofit that helps new immigrants and refugees settle.

“There are good questions that need to be asked,” he said. “There are questions around ‘do we need all-boys schools?'” Speaking out from Beijing, a recent graduate and class president, Liam Mather, demanded that the school work to explicitly expand the definition of manhood.

“It needs to reaffirm to all of its boys that it is okay to be gentle, caring and artistic,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

He also pointed to a hypersexualized view of women that was “mostly unchallenged by the school,” an issue that he said he had been reflecting on since watching Christine Blasey Ford testify against Kavanaugh.

“I was troubled by the media’s portrayal of Kavanaugh’s high school, an all-boys Catholic private school, where gross sexism was ingrained into the student body,” wrote Mather, 23. “It haunted me because Kavanaugh’s school reminded me of St. Mike’s.”

The discussion of sexualized violence has gained more prominence in Canada in recent years, since the radio host Jian Ghomeshi was fired from his job, criminally charged and then found not guilty in 2014 of sexually assaulting women he was dating.

His trial was a public spectacle, leading to a national debate about toxic masculinity, self-reproach among women and the inadequacy of the legal system to resolve deeply rooted cultural problems. Long before #metoo hit Twitter, #beenrapedneverreported was crowding the internet in Canada.

In response to the reported assaults, St. Michael’s has canceled all group and team activities and its public performances for the rest of the year. Officials have reached out to its alumni network — more than 8,000 members strong, with branches as far as Dubai and Australia — seeking those with expertise in “anti-bullying, bystander education and responsible digital citizenship” to volunteer for workshops with students. Since the assaults were reported, Christine Nielsen says students at the school, including her son, have been called rapists in public and attacked online.

“These kids are terrorized, they are being shamed and blamed,” said Nielsen, who lost her composure with a reporter after attending a parents’ meeting last week. A video clip of their encounter went viral on Twitter, where she was widely disparaged.

Meanwhile, Toronto braces for more reports of assaults to be announced by the police.

“There are so many things messed up in this,” said Joe Mihevc, an departing city councilor who graduated from St. Michael’s in 1972, and has a Ph.D. in theology. “How do you bring healing to this one?”