|Philip Currie /Jason Woodhead/ Wikimedia|
I say supposedly, because it turned out that most of the signatories, by their own admission, had little knowledge of the facts of the case; four of them declined to join the retraction, for reasons which I will let other reporters explore. In signing the letter, these colleagues appear to have followed their basic instincts as academics, which is to quickly rush to the side of a powerful peer no matter what the consequences for his or her alleged victims.
The actions of the 38 signers fall into the category of what many #MeToo activists call "enabling," and which others see as full-blown complicity with abuse, depending on the circumstances. I have written a fair bit about enabling recently, both as a general problem spanning all walks of life and as a specific issue in a case I was personally involved in.
In those posts I argued that it is time to shift emphasis from the individual abuser and focus much more on the institutions and individuals that make the abuse possible, and without whom it would be nearly impossible. That will mean, in many cases, putting the spotlight on powerful, widely respected individuals, and creating a lot of discomfort for those who admire them, are dependent on them, or otherwise are reluctant to see the captains of their ships thrown overboard.
Last July, I wrote about the long history of harassment and related misdeeds by a paleontology graduate student, Aaron van der Reest, a protege of the famous University of Alberta dinosaur hunter Philip Currie and his wife, paleobotanist Eva Koppelhus. Among the things I was told by a large number of sources was that Currie and Koppelhus were well aware of complaints of harassment by van der Reest even before it became an issue within the Dinosaur Research Institute DRI) in 2018, and that Currie was aware that the university was investigating complaints that had been lodged by at least two alleged victims and supported by a number of other witnesses.
I also reported that Currie admitted to me that he had become aware of an earlier stalking episode when van der Reest was working at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta in the early 2000s. As Currie put it to me in an email:
I did subsequently hear (ironically when Donald Trump was elected) of the "sexual predation" story from someone close enough to it that they knew the person involved. However it is very hard to act on something when people don't want to become directly involved.
Yet, as a I reported, Currie continued to support van der Reest in his career even after the allegations became an issue within the DRI, whose board members became badly split on whether the organization should continue to fund him. Van der Reest is now working on his PhD in the University of Saskatchewan geological sciences department, where he is being allowed to teach undergraduates despite that department (and university's) full knowledge of the allegations against him. (More on that shortly.)
Given that Currie admits to being aware of the "sexual predation" story since at least the winter of 2016/17, I am going to expand here on what actually happened, based on testimony by direct witnesses. In particular, I am reproducing an email I received from a direct witness to the events at the Royal Tyrrell Museum. I have disguised the names of the individuals involved to protect their identities for the moment (it is possible that some of these witnesses will decide to go public in the near future.) I have also done some editing and redactions for the same purpose, and cut a few statements which were based on second half information or otherwise are unverifiable by other witnesses. However, I have let it run quite long, so that readers can have the full context for the severe stalking and violent conduct that van der Reest was seen to have directed at the young woman identified as "L."
Dear Mr. Balter,
Given your paragraph outlining the vague accusations of this time at the Tyrrell, I thought I'd provide what I know about "Creepy Stalker Aaron" (our nickname for him as there multiple staff members at that time named Aaron...). I hope this is of some slight use, even just as background...
On the subject of institutional failure, I immediately I want to praise the Tyrrell's middle management of the time, in particular the two female supervisors (Aaron's direct supervisor, and another I will refer to as Landlord, as she was Aaron's landlord) involved in the ordeal. They used every procedural and institutional method they could to get rid of Aaron once his predation became more widely known. To the museum's greater credit the upper management did not resist these supervisors' efforts, and he was removed within a matter of weeks... which in our post Metoo world is still rare.
The Tyrrell did not fail its female staff institutionally, as the UoA and potentially UoS are in your story.
I apologize if this is rather long. It turned into self therapy, for the overwhelmed and out of his league 22 year old I was at the time. I have held significant frustration about Aaron, and his literally getting away from real consequences back in 2003... while his transgressions were not as severe as these more modern ones, we all sadly predicted the exact tales in your story.
I was forced by proximity to be quite close to Aaron for those two months. He lived directly across the street from me, and so not only was he my neighbor, but he started to befriend my roommate. In addition to all of this one of my best friends of this time was the roommate of Aaron's eventual fixation and predatory target. So I had a front row seat to his predatory behavior and firing.
Disclaimer: I was not a supervisor in the below events. However due to my proximity to Aaron and being a key witness to his behavior, I was in a lot of formal and informal meetings with supervisors during the time. So the below is based on these communications. The museum may have a slightly different formal version, but I can vouch this is my personal understanding of the behind the scenes to these events if there is a discrepancy :
I can say Aaron was NOT formally fired for sexual harassment. So you can amend that in your article. It was commonly known he was being investigated for it, but this did not conclude, and ultimately (sadly) played no part in his termination.
There were allegations made against him, but an investigation was deemed too lengthy and risky by supervisors. They wanted him gone quickly, partially for the museum's operations and also genuinely to just protect their female staff.
Further as he had violated terminable staff procedures, it was easier to use these, as the investigation and dismissal would be rather instant.
Aaron had begun clandestinely taking the museum's program van from the dig site during his lunch breaks and driving into town to pick up take away. This was absolutely against the rules, as the van was the emergency backup on site should there be an accident on site and someone needed to be driven to medical aid (even during lunch!).
At the start of the week he was fired (sorry I can't remember exact dates 18 years later... either the last or second last week of June 2003) he ran into other museum staff at a local restaurant. Seeing him depart in the museum van, they reported it to his supervisor and the other museum personnel.
My understanding is this was the biases for his termination. I believe they proved his serially doing this through a discrepancy with the van's mileage. I do know with the eye witnesses they could immediately prove the single time in any case... the van incident(s) were the main formal basis for his dismissal (though there was more I was led to believe, touched on in my alleged section)
Also in this week there was a complaint put in with the local RCMP about his harassment of a coworker (my friend's roommate). However this was never followed up with charges, and I believe she only submitted a brief statement with physical evidence when making the compliant. His being fired mere days later was a large part of the lack of follow up. More on this incident in the alleged section.
Thankfully for the only time while we knew him, he did NOT lurk around the scenes of his crimes (much like you outlined in your blog post.. him being around the labs and conference when told not too. He did this a LOT in 2003 as well.)
Given he called me from a nearby payphone asking me to store his stuff, I think this plan worked. Especially as I denied his request!
Aaron was quickly known for being "creepy" around the female staff. and soon fixated upon a fellow summer staffer I'll call L. I wish I was still in contact with her, so she could reach out to you. My friends from this time and I are trying to find her online, and encourage her to share her story with you (and I'm sure she'd welcome the chance! It definitely defined the first half of her summer at the Tyrrell ).
I was as close as any of that year were to L., as she did not form any real solid long term friendships with our group sadly. I was very good friends with her roommates, and hung out with the household of them quite a bit.
L. was an anxious and socially awkward person, but unbelievably friendly and sweet. Unfortunately all the ingredients for a perfect predation target. Basically she was too friendly for her own good (and I'm not meaning that in a blaming way. Just as a personality type. I quite liked her, and helped out in the situation as best I could, as I hope will be apparent).
There were a number of inciting incidents, but I was not personally involved, and thus will not repeat my half memories of them. By two to three weeks in, it was clear Aaron was obsessed with L., and she was starting to get very uncomfortable around him. However he was blatantly ignoring her polite attempts at saying she was not interested in his advances.
Where I can confirm harassment first hand, was one night in mid May walking back home from the bar (I and Aaron lived about 10 blocks from the L. household) me and roommate arrived at their quadplex to a disturbing sight.
In the darkness looking through L.'s ground level basement apartment window, was a hunched person. As we walked up challenging them, it was Aaron who suddenly stood up startled. He attempted to play it off as just him just "looking for L". To which one of us sarcastically countered "by looking through her bedroom window?"... he denied this is what he was doing, and came up with some pathetic deflection like tying his shoe or similar. Roommate assertively told him to leave, and he grudgingly pretended to.
I popped in to their place, if just to try and let him get a head start, so I wouldn't have to walk with him. I can't remember if L. was home on this instance (there were more than one as you'll see). What I do know, is Aaron had NOT left the area. As when I left the L. household, he suddenly appeared beside me at their street corner, and proceeded to tell me bullshit excuse stories about what he was doing when we caught him and that he was JUST coincidentally arriving when we had... I didn't have the courage to tell him I knew he was lying.
I do not remember if this was the first time he was caught hovering by L.'s bedroom window, but it was not an isolated incident. It happened multiple times (I don't recall how many). I believe, the roommates caught him at least once more (before or after the time I was present for), and once she herself woke up to see him starring at her. It finally ended when she put up curtains or some sort of cover in the window... though he would show up frequently after dark ringing the door bell or knocking to "check if she was around"...
As Drumheller is a smaller town, most of our socializing was at the bars. There were three main ones museum staff would go to. I don't recall if this evolved due to Aaron, but what I DO remember is our not openly sharing WHICH was going to be the meet up for a particular evening until he wasn't around at work... Aaron began a nightly habit of walking between the various bars on patrol to "casually" bump into L. should she go out.
It got to the point where she was self isolating and hiding at home out of fear of his "just showing up" constantly. To try and re-empower her, we decided to dress up in costumes one night and go pseudo confront him. She dressed up as a bee from a popular music video and vented in a silly way (her style!), but the "aggressive" strategy was me and one of the roommates cross dressing. I came in, in drag, and sat down between Aaron and L. Every time he tried to talk to her, I'd interrupt and pretend to flirt with him. He did not like this, and after about 15 minute angrily stormed out.
There were numerous other incidents I was not present for, and now only have half memories of. So I won't muddy the waters with them.
My main role ended up being the L. household's lookout. Aaron's two sidedness (the fossil expert vs the predator) came into play in these early days. My rather academic roommate fell in with Aaron's science passion. So they were hanging out all the time. Meaning I was hanging out all the time. I was not a fan, given what he was doing to my friend's house... However it meant I could be a spy of sorts.
The moment Aaron left my place, I knew his "having other things to do", meant he was going to embark on the 10 block walk to L.'s house. So I'd immediately call them and give them the heads up. It helped prepare and prevent house call ambushes. They'd either go out, or make the house "battle ready", by looking outwardly like they were out.
The final major incident, and the one for which the RCMP complaint was lodged, happened at an otherwise normal night out at the bar. I do not recall details of the beginning of the evening, but Aaron's arrival and departure that night are my main memory of him.
Towards the end of June, Aaron's predation and inappropriate behavior was a widely known secret amongst the summer staff (who all hung out as a rough unit). People had taken to telling Aaron one hangout venue, and we'd actually end up at another... I did not practice this myself, and I wish other's had not. It just made Aaron angry, and if L. was present when he'd arrive, he would get very aggressive and possessive towards her as a result of the lie and wasting of his time and energy.
This one evening in late June, someone had lied to Aaron again, and he was absolutely livid when he tracked us down. He stormed in, and beelined straight for L. He immediately got physically domineering towards her, and was making it clear he was not going to let her leave his proximity. She got instantly uncomfortable, and tried to get away, and he tailed her.
L. hit a point within 15-20 minutes where she couldn't take it anymore, and made for the door. He was hot on her heels... This is where L.'s disorganized supporters (my biggest regret, is I wish we'd pooled our efforts sooner) sprang into action. Her roommate and myself were in pursuit, as was his landlord (the true hero of the story!). Aaron grabbed L.'s arm incredibly violently, leaving finger bruises across her arm right in front of us, and at this Aaron's Landlord physically intervened shoving him away and berating him for his unpaid rent (but just as a front to protect L. I must emphasis!). Giving L. a chance to escape with roommate. The landlord and I tailed him home, as we both lived in that area, and I deemed she could use some backup after the confrontation.
The next day L. was encouraged to go to the Police, and a complaint was filed. However Landlord in around this time discovered the Van incident(s), and began using this to get rid of him. She had little faith the museum could discharge him due to harassment easily... especially as he did not do it towards L. at work (he was out at the day dig site all the time)
She was successful. He was called into a meeting. Part of his dismissal I was told, included being for claims of harassment, and that as a result he was barred from the Tyrrell. I am not sure if this is still (or ever was formally) mandated, but Landlord was confident of it at the time.
In the grand finale, we were so worried about Aaron's demonstrated following up on things, that we took L. to the Day Dig site, to protect both her and the program site from potential revenge.
We had reason to believe he did stop by the L. household (he was spotted close and walking in their direction by a staff driving by), but no one was home (they were at the dig site), and my roommate and myself were dismissive to him in his desperate phone calls to our place for help or support that last day. Thankfully he gave up on the museum and town by midafternoon, and was observed by staff catching the early evening Greyhound out of town.
Thankfully that was the last time I had to directly speak with him. He tried to add me on facebook in the early 2010's but I blocked him without responding.
As I wrote above, I have included most of the detail provided by this witness so that readers can get the full context of the long and drawn out predatory behavior van der Reest exhibited towards L., and the valiant efforts that her friends made to protect her. This account was confirmed to me by another source, with direct knowledge of the circumstances of van der Reest's termination from the museum. This source writes (again, I have redacted a few phrases that might identify them):