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Canadian Conductor Jonathan Dagenais Sues McGill University

Dagenais is suing the university for $300,000 in exemplary damages for employment discrimination


On June 6, 2023, conductor and educator Jonathan Dagenais filed a lawsuit at Canada’s Quebec Superior Court against McGill University’s Schulich School of Music, specifically for the school dean’s “culpable and discriminatory behavior” against him during the selection process of a tenured position at the school.

Dagenais explained the hiring committee at McGill had twice unanimously agreed that he was the most qualified candidate for the role — but this choice was questioned by the school’s dean, Sean Alastair Ferguson, “for reasons [of] diversity,” and implied it was due to his race as a white man.

Subsequently, he is claiming compensation from the school as $50,000 in monetary damages, $100,000 in moral damages, and an additional $150,000 as punitive and exemplary damages, totaling $300,000.

A part-time and replacement lecturer at McGill’s music school for over a decade, Dagenais has served as McGill’s lecturer of the wind orchestra and instrumental conducting since August 2021. 

In October 2022, he applied for the school’s role of assistant professor in instrumental direction wind orchestra and community engagement, and after a seven-month application process, Dagenais became one of three final candidates for the tenured position. 

Ultimately, as announced in a press release in May 2023, the school's dean offered the position to a female finalist candidate, Danielle Gaudry. A doctorate in wind orchestra conducting, who specializes in music education, she is a woman of Métis/Aboriginal ancestry, according to Ludwig van Montreal

Gaudry joins Mélanie Léonard and Marina Thibeault as new appointments at McGill’s Schulich School of Music. 

Further, in response to the lawsuit, McGill’s Media Relations Department stated the following:

“In its hiring decisions, McGill follows applicable laws and internal policies, as well as a process that includes an open call for applications and merit-based assessment, with built-in accountability measures.

“McGill does not privilege belonging to a group seeking equity over excellence, whatever the context, including in terms of university recruitment. In the context of university recruitment, including tenure-track and tenure-track positions, McGill will only offer offers to candidates who are deemed to be excellent and who are at the upper end of the candidate pool. Any candidate who is offered an academic position must meet or exceed all requirements and expectations associated with the advertised position.

“Although we cannot comment on whether any particular person will be considered for a position within our university, we can guarantee that all persons appointed to academic positions are eminently qualified and able to develop intellectually and academically at McGill University.”

Dagenais says he implements diversity and inclusion in all his teachings and understands the significance of inclusiveness, but felt the final decision “went a bit too far.”

“It’s important to promote diversity, to give equality of chances,” he told Global News. “But this wasn’t [that]. There’s a difference between equality of chances and equality of results.”

“McGill used my client in order to give some credibility to their selection process, while they knew from the beginning that he never had a chance to get that position,” stated Dagenais’ lawyer, Gabriel Chaloult Lavoie.

Dagenais further claimed if he had known McGill was specifically seeking a diverse background candidate, he may have sought other employment — and despite his desire for the job, would have understood the decision process. 

“[This] situation could however have been avoided if Mr. Ferguson and/or the Faculty had shown a minimum of consideration for [Dagenais], in that both knew full well that he never had any real chance of getting the job, but that they nevertheless did everything they could to make him believe and/or suggest the opposite, all as will be demonstrated during the investigation as well as at the audience,” the lawsuit stated.

Addressed on April 19, 2023, to the rector, an additional letter of support for Dagenais was signed by around thirty students. Its statement read:

“We, the student signatories of this, believe that Jonathan Dagenais is the most suitable candidate for this position for the following reasons: First, Jonathan's level of teaching, conduct, classroom innovation, and commitment to EDI demonstrated his deep desire to ensure student success. His leadership and technical ability, rich musical knowledge and pursuit of diversity have exceeded all expectations over the past two years.

Second, among the three candidates, we know that Jonathan's close ties with the Montreal and Quebec community, as well as his commitment to civil society, are major assets for the school's success. In addition, his contacts across North America will be of great use for recruiting at McGill.”

On the day he filed the lawsuit, Dagenais had received “Music Lecturer of the Year” and teaching awards from McGill University, despite not being selected for his desired role. A recipient of a master’s in orchestral conducting, Dagenais teaches composition at Sherbrooke University and serves as a Yamaha Canada Master Artist Educator, a guest conductor and clinician for Twigg Musique and the Fédération des Harmonies and Quebec Symphony Orchestras (FHOSQ), and the artistic director of MusicFest Québec music festival.

Part of a letter by McGill University sent on May 26, 2023, to Dagenais’s lawyers reads:

“After being informed of the recommendations of the selection committee and analyzing the applications of Mr. Dagenais and Prof. Gaudry, Dean Ferguson doubted the accuracy of the conclusions. Obviously for him, Prof. Gaudry was highly more qualified than Mr. Dagenais and met all the qualifications for the position, whereas this was not the case for Mr. Dagenais. 

“Moreover, a simple review of the curriculum vitae of Prof. Gaudry made it possible to see how prestigious, rich and varied her experience was, constituting an obvious added value for the Schulich School of Music and its students. These findings were worrying, especially since the candidate deemed superior by Dean Ferguson was a woman from an Aboriginal community, and therefore part of a minority group that is often disadvantaged in recruitment contexts.  

“The University and Prof. Ferguson deny that the appointment of Prof. Gaudry relies solely on the basis of her belonging to an Aboriginal nation and/or for economic or financial considerations. This claim is crude, as is the claim that the appointment of Prof. Gaudry constitutes discrimination against Mr. Dagenais, considering the high quality of the candidacy of Prof. Gaudry, the breadth and variety of her professional experience and education. The University believes, however, that the membership of Prof. Gaudry as an Indigenous Nation will be a great asset in carrying out the community engagement activities associated with the role.”

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