Open Letter Regarding Devon Boorman

The following collection of first-hand accounts and supporting documents is the combined work of Claire Wemyss, Sylvie LaRiviere, Jon Mills, Kris Meier, and myself. It details a series of incidents and patterns of behaviour spanning ten years that we believe demonstrate that Devon Boorman, director of Academie Duello, is a harmful influence in our community who actively makes it less safe for women and other members of marginalized groups:

To the best of my knowledge, everything in these accounts is true, and we have provided as much evidence as we can make public without endangering other victims or stepping outside the bounds of our own first-hand knowledge.

If you are a member of the Historical European Martial Arts or Western Martial Arts communities, and especially if you hold a leadership position, please take the time to consider our words.

If you have questions, comments, or stories of your own that you’d like to share with our team, you can reach me, Claire, Sylvie, Jon, and Kris via 2020dbinfo@gmail.com.

I have copied the full text of my own account below.


July 7th, 2020

Dear friends and colleagues in the Historical European Martial Arts community,

It’s time we talked about Devon Boorman.

Maybe that’s uncomfortably blunt, but I’ve come to believe that our community’s safety and integrity is not well-served by prioritizing comfort over clarity. Many industries — from comic books to fiction publishing, education, and policing — are currently turning a cleansing spotlight onto their local bad actors, and ours needs to do the same. 

My colleagues and I at Valkyrie Western Martial Arts Assembly were recently asked to share our experiences with Devon within the framework of a nascent Canadian HEMA Federation. On June 19th, a representative of that group sent me an email explaining their goals:

Our mission is to create a Canadian Federation. I strongly believe that Federation has to have clear inclusiveness, anti-racism and anti harassment policies built into its constitution as well as a complaints and resolution process. If it doesn’t, the bad behaviour will continue, and HEMA will forever be stuck in the illegitimate limbo it currently is in. A federation has to have that bedrock or it is illegitimate. If it does not service practicing HEMAists, then it is irrelevant.

He then shared some concerns:

In the midst of all of this, a shade from the past has emerged. One of the club leaders that was invited to talks by another member is Devon Boorman. I have read some troubling things about [Devon’s school, Academie] Duello on Reddit. I have scheduled a call with him tomorrow to ask him about what I read. My concern is that we will become what we oppose if this is not handled correctly. I find myself wondering why the only person willing to talk about Mr. Boorman is Mr. Boorman himself.

He finished by inviting us to a meeting of the group that was to take place two days later, highlighting our role as representatives of multiple minority groups within HEMA:

I really want your voice to be heard in this. I am a cis-gendered, hetro [sic] white male, and I cannot represent the concerns of minority, LGBTQ and female practitioners the same way they can. Please consider attending and adding your voices to the discussion.

My colleagues and I discussed this invitation internally, and decided to send a representative. Claire Wemyss volunteered to attend the meeting and discuss the concerns that multiple members of the Vancouver HEMA community had about Devon’s leadership. She did this with less than 48 hours to prepare, in front of an all-male panel of strangers, while Devon himself was present and given the opportunity to respond at length.

Within a week, several members had left the group out of discomfort with interpersonal conflict, and the Federation’s organizing committee was dissolved and re-formed as a new group that excluded all members from British Columbia.

They did this without informing Claire, and told her that the next committee meeting had been postponed, when it was actually held at the scheduled time in her absence. It is unclear to me if they are continuing with their project of building an organization that aims to serve marginalized people within Canadian HEMA, and I wonder how they intend to do so when they turn away from our stories and shut out our voices as soon as we say something that might lead to conflict or difficult conversations.

The events of these past few weeks have confirmed that I cannot trust these issues to be resolved within so-called proper frameworks that are dominated by men who find these issues too uncomfortable to confront directly. I continue to believe that HEMA desperately needs more accountability, and that we all have a duty to speak up when we see others being harmed or placed at unreasonable risk. I see no path remaining but to have this conversation publicly.

And so, I am writing today in support of my friend and colleague Claire Wemyss, and the voices that she has collected and amplified in her summary of Devon’s misconduct over the past decade. To the best of my knowledge, everything she has reported is true.

Within our community, Academie Duello is often held up as an example of what HEMA could grow up to be. Its beautiful, downtown training location — complete with a museum and original printings of the very treatises its students learn from — is what most backyard clubs dream of. Its extensive programming, from swordplay to archery to horsemanship, is beyond what the majority of North American schools are capable of offering. It has an enormous community that claims to be inclusive and welcoming. I’ve heard it spoken of as a temple, and as a glowing beacon of everything that we want as martial artists.

The stories that Claire has collected, along with my own experiences, make it clear that it has failed to live up to these expectations. The space is still beautiful, and the curriculum still broad, but there are systemic issues within Academie Duello’s leadership and community that make it far from a safe and inclusive space for women and members of marginalized groups. 

These issues begin with Devon Boorman. In the ten years that I have been a part of the Vancouver HEMA community, and been a student and colleague of Devon’s, I have come to believe that he is not willing or able to prioritize the well-being of his students over his self-interest. I am choosing here to share only my own experiences. They are a small fraction of the stories that I am aware of, but they are all that I can responsibly share in public.

My martial arts journey began at Academie Duello. I took my first swordplay class in January of 2010 and immediately fell in love with the art and the school. It was an awe-inspiring space and everyone was so friendly. Devon himself was very approachable and I was excited by how accessible the maestro of the school made himself to students. I quickly became more and more involved, volunteering to assist with the first-ever Vancouver International Swordplay Symposium (VISS), joining the Demo Team, and serving as an Apprentice and later Novice instructor in the Taste of the Renaissance program.

My involvement gave me a window into how the school was managed and how Devon interacted with his students and staff; I became concerned by what I saw. His approachability quickly turned into familiarity, and an intimate, physical closeness with female students that was different from how he interacted with men. 

During that first year, I remember hugging him goodbye at the end of an event and feeling both of his hands drift down to rest firmly on my butt for the remainder of the embrace. I laughed it off at the time as a slip-up caused by a few too many drinks. I didn’t realize yet that this was not a slip-up but part of a larger problematic pattern.

I was going through a difficult divorce in early 2011 and confided in him that it was affecting my ability to teach and train; he put his arm around my shoulders, pulled me close, and told me he would always be there for me. The interaction made me uncomfortable, but I couldn’t articulate why. We were friends, weren’t we? He was just being supportive.

It was only much later that I realized that I was reacting to a pattern: Devon would use moments of vulnerability (intoxication, emotional turmoil) to test boundaries with the women in his community. It’s a tactic I now teach students to watch out for when I teach self defense.

Around that same time, I first witnessed Devon’s apparent indifference to sexual harassment by other men. Mishaël “Lopes” Cardozo, who has now been widely identified in the HEMA community as a serial sexual predator, was a guest instructor at Academie Duello sometime between 2010 and 2012 (I cannot recall the exact date). I joined him, Devon, and a couple of other men from the school for food at a nearby pub. I’d never met Lopes and had not participated in his class. He spent most of our meal making crude sexual comments about women in general and at one point, while making eye contact with me, he made a profane gesture for oral sex (fingers in a “v”, tongue waggling between them) at me. 

It was unwanted, unpleasant, and unsettling, and those feelings were aggravated further by Devon and the other men treating his behaviour as completely ordinary. I was the only woman there and, despite my significant discomfort, I laughed at his comments and joined the banter. I felt outnumbered, and felt pressure to be cool with inappropriate behaviour lest I be excluded from future social and networking opportunities, like so many women in male-dominated fields. It was a minor incident, but it taught me not to speak up.

In my time there, Academie Duello was full of women, but they were almost never in positions of power. They worked the front desk, where they were frequently dismissed as unknowledgable and “just a pretty face” by male students and visitors, or served in a vaguely-defined marketing position that nobody seemed to stay in for long. I am aware of at least two women in these jobs being sexually involved with Devon, and have heard multiple people refer to the administrative staff of the school as “Devon’s dating pool”.

There were also a good number of us in junior, unpaid or barely-compensated teaching positions (I paid full tuition during my entire time as an Apprentice instructor from January to September 2011, and was given a “work study” credit of 1 free class/week as a Novice instructor from September 2011 until February 2012), but very few in paid teaching posts, or even senior unpaid ones. Devon structured the school in a way where women had a very visible presence, but little voice.

These were some of the factors that led to me leaving Academie Duello to train elsewhere, and ultimately to my role as one of the founding members and co-owners of Valkyrie WMAA. Courtney Rice (another Academie Duello alumna) and I were tired of women being marginalized within these arts we love so much. We set out to build a space that would centre women’s experiences and give us a clear, strong, and honest voice within our training community.

Valkyrie WMAA was founded at the end of 2012. In the first few years of our school’s existence, we maintained cordial ties with Academie Duello. We held shared rapier tournaments, invited students to each other’s open sparring sessions, and Valkyrie instructors attended VISS and encouraged our students to attend. I attended VISS 2013 as a student and taught at VISS 2015 and 2017. My experiences at these three events would ultimately lead to me severing all ties with Devon Boorman and Academie Duello. 

During VISS 2013 (February 15th-17th, 2013) a guest instructor, Tom Leoni, sexually harassed me and touched me without my consent. Tom had a long history of using his position as a teacher to make advances on female students and touch them inappropriately. Devon and his fellow instructors teased Tom about being a “flirt” and joked about him being “so Italian”. It was clear that his behaviour was well-known to Devon and his colleagues, and that they didn’t see it as a real problem. I didn’t feel comfortable reporting the harassment to Devon as a result of his condoning, or at least active acceptance of, Tom’s behaviour.

VISS 2015 (March 27th-29th, 2015) was my first-ever event as an invited instructor. I was extremely excited and nervous: I was the only woman teaching at the event, and the youngest instructor by a good margin. In other words, I was vulnerable. Another guest instructor, Mark Mikita, spent the entire two-day instructors’ summit (a professional development event that took place immediately before the VISS weekend) aggressively hitting on me: Mark offered me a shoulder massage within hours of us meeting. Mark then spent an entire lunch meeting with his arm draped over the back of my chair and his legs touching mine. He was camped right inside my personal bubble. I felt trapped and was too unsure of my position within the group to speak up.

I was nonetheless visibly uncomfortable enough that two other instructors checked in with me at the end of the day to make sure that I was alright. Devon was not one of these instructors, despite having witnessed all of Mark’s harassment of me. Devon and I were also both present during a dinner conversation where Mark blamed women who were victims of domestic abuse for their own suffering. These two days alone should have given Devon a clear picture of the risk that Mark posed to his female students, staff, and guests.

A few years later, I spoke to a male colleague I trusted, Jon Mills, about my difficulties with Mark. Jon told me that he had approached Devon between VISS 2015 and VISS 2017 with his own concerns (apparently, Mark had been making aggressively anti-immigrant posts on social media during the 2016 US presidential election). Jon told me that Devon appeared very sympathetic throughout the conversation and agreed that Mark was a problem. He took no visible or effective action.

At VISS 2017 (February 17th-19th, 2017), I was invited back as an instructor and panelist. Both Tom and Mark were invited as well and listed prominently on the instructor roster. Because of the stress that their presence would cause me, I considered foregoing this opportunity to teach and to learn from colleagues I otherwise couldn’t afford to train with. Tom ended up not coming for unrelated reasons, and I made the decision to attend. 

I also resolved to finally speak up about Tom’s harassment of me. I had been too scared to do so when it first happened, because Devon held such power over my ability to train and build a career as a martial arts instructor, and because he had so consistently shown me that he valued the friendship of predatory male colleagues over my safety or comfort. I had never seen him act to stop them, and had repeatedly seen him treat their behaviour as unremarkable or — at worst — kinda tacky, all while continuing to put them in positions of power over his students and junior colleagues. Now that my own school was reasonably well-established and I did not need to rely on Devon’s goodwill to continue working in my chosen field, I was determined to say something.

During a panel on gender in HEMA titled “Men vs Women”, I spoke about Tom’s harassment (without identifying him by name) and how I’d felt powerless to speak out because his behaviour was so normalized. Immediately after the panel ended, several of my fellow panelists followed up with me to say that they’d recognized that it was Tom from my account. Two of the men apologized for having let it slide in the past when they’d witnessed him behaving similarly towards other women, and multiple panelists went to Devon and told him they were no longer comfortable working with Tom and did not want to teach at events that also featured him. Not long after Devon was told that there might be consequences to his continued endorsement of Tom, Tom was blacklisted from VISS. 

I was happy to hear of this outcome, but disappointed that it had taken professional pressure from men for anything to actually change when Tom had been making women uncomfortable in front of Devon for years. I was further disappointed when I learned that nobody had actually told Tom why he was blacklisted, or spoken with him to address his behaviour. Tom was no longer a direct threat to me or other VISS attendees, but there was nothing to stop him from continuing the same behaviour elsewhere. Devon’s silence robbed Tom of any opportunity to learn and do better, and instead just made him someone else’s problem. Devon failed as a leader by avoiding the difficult conversation with Tom after his subordinates had dealt with much worse; he failed as a teacher by not giving Tom the information he needed to learn and grow; and he failed as a responsible member of the HEMA community by doing nothing to mitigate the likelihood of Tom simply choosing a new pool of victims.

I didn’t attend VISS 2019. I was too exhausted by my prior experiences. I’d also heard from a growing number of former Academie Duello students and employees who felt similarly unheard and unsafe at the school and its events, and I wasn’t comfortable recommending VISS to my own students as a result. I direct you to Claire’s collected accounts for a small sampling of the stories that I have heard. 

While I kept my non-attendance quiet and didn’t speak out against the event or discourage others from attending, post-event summaries written by a number of VISS attendees mentioned that there had been an organized “boycott” that was aimed specifically at undermining Devon and the reputation of the event. From their accounts, I understood that Devon had used his role as host of the event to complain about a malicious boycott by local schools (thus implicating Valkyrie WMAA) and to paint himself as its target. As far as I am aware, there was no boycott. I had simply made a professional decision to stay away from an event that did not meet my standards for attendee safety, and not to publicise it or actively encourage my students to attend. No other Valkyrie instructors were invited.

Since then, several colleagues have asked me to reach out to Devon and reconcile with him, as if my distance from Academie Duello was the result of a personal dispute and not a matter of keeping myself and the students under my care safe. Given that Devon has made no effort whatsoever to reach out to me to reconcile, his conversations with other members of our community about the matter seem less like a hurt colleague expressing genuine concerns and more like manipulative attempts to control the narrative and frame the distance between our schools as a petty grievance or inter-club rivalry. 

For the past few years, I have chosen the path of quiet disengagement from Academie Duello. My experiences and those of other women taught me that any concerns I brought directly to Devon would be dismissed or buried. I feared that any public complaint would be framed as sour grapes from a competitor in the Vancouver martial arts community, and that speaking out more loudly than I had at VISS 2017 would harm Valkyrie or its students. I spoke privately with a few trusted friends and colleagues, all of whom advised me to take the high road and quietly put my energy into building a better, more positive space than the one I’d started in.

So I did that, and I’m enormously proud of what Valkyrie has grown into. It is the space that I and others like me needed in order to thrive and grow into our full potential as martial artists. I’m also proud of the larger community that it belongs to. I have colleagues all over the world who are just as committed to building inclusive, safe, and healthy communities, and are doing so in their own ways. I love the HEMA community, and especially the opportunities it gives me and my students to grow and challenge ourselves through contact with other schools that share our values, but have different pedagogical and technical approaches to our arts.

Through all of that growth and the positive connections Valkyrie has built with schools across North America and as far as Australia and the UK, a wound remains here in Vancouver. The health and strength of the relationships we have with other schools has only served to highlight what is missing in our local community. There is no closeness with Academie Duello and its hundreds of students. No sharing of knowledge. No mutual testing in competition or play. There’s a rift between schools that should be friends and siblings who help each other grow.

That rift is painful, but it cannot be repaired until Academie Duello’s leadership, and Devon in particular, demonstrates that their commitment to diversity, inclusion, and healthy community goes beyond a few lines of marketing copy. Until I know that my students will be safe from predatory behaviour and discrimination when they attend an event or take a workshop, I cannot recommend they visit that school. Until Devon demonstrates that he can consistently prioritize the well-being of his students and staff over his own desires and his relationships with predatory colleagues, Valkyrie cannot endorse his work or his events, and the rift cannot heal.

My experiences and the stories I’ve heard from others have led me to the difficult conclusion that I cannot trust Devon to hold himself, his instructors, or his guests accountable. I have consistently seen him pay lip service to the ideals of safety and inclusion, to make all the right noises and superficially soothe the worries of those who come to him with concerns, and utterly fail to act with substance or positive consequence.

The one time that anything changed for the better (Tom Leoni’s exclusion from VISS, half-done though it was), it changed because multiple colleagues came together to put pressure on Devon and show him that continuing to do nothing would cost him their support and their regard. There is enormous power in our community to hold accountable those who shirk their ethical responsibilities and won’t hold themselves accountable.

And so that’s what I’m asking of you. If Academie Duello has ever been your shining beacon on a hill; if you’ve ever held it up as an example of what HEMA schools should be; if you’ve supported its fundraisers, promoted its events, or invited Devon to teach at your own; then I ask you to use your voice and your influence to hold him to account. I ask that you help make sure that those of us who publicly claim to stand for equality, diversity, and inclusion actually act upon our words.

I don’t want Academie Duello to fail. There is room for it, Valkyrie, and many more HEMA organizations in Vancouver, and the loss of such a large, influential, and long-lived school would impoverish us all. What I want is for its reality to live up to its image. I want Academie Duello to do better: to genuinely offer its students and staff the community and opportunities they’ve been sold on, and to protect them from predatory behaviour and exploitation. This will require change (some of it difficult and unpleasant) and a genuine and permanent commitment to prioritizing the safety and growth of its most vulnerable members.

And that, in turn, will require external accountability. It will require that we scrutinize Devon’s actions and the actions of his representatives, and make sure that they actually match his pretty words.

We have a responsibility, as a community, to make sure that those whom we hold up as leaders and exemplars live up to our standards by actually exemplifying them. We have a responsibility to make sure that our ideals line up with the reality of what we’ve built, and to course-correct when those two things diverge. It’s time for such a correction. It’s time for us all to expect better of our leaders, and of ourselves.

Sincerely,
Kaja Sadowski

Valkyrie Western Martial Arts Assembly

Postscript, added July 12th, 2020: At 2am today, on the Academie Duello school website, Devon published an open letter to the Canadian HEMA community accusing members of Valkyrie WMAA’s leadership team of “harassment, rumour-spreading, and hostility”, as well as “bullying” in reference to our interactions with the Canadian HEMA Federation. He further claimed that we have “continue[d] to defame [Academie Duello] and coerce the community at large.” At no point did he provide evidence of this wrongdoing, nor did he identify any specific actions on our part that might constitute harassment, rumour-spreading, defamation, or coercion.

These are very serious accusations to make so publicly, and with no evidence. I ask readers to consider them in the context of my concerns on page 6 of this letter about Devon deliberately misrepresenting Valkyrie’s relationship with Academie Duello and creating a false narrative of petty conflict. I also ask readers to consider the timing of these accusations: today, July 12th, was the original date Claire gave the Federation organizers for when she would share a complete account of Devon’s past behaviours. I have difficulty believing that the timing of his letter was a coincidence, unless it has become standard business practice to publish important correspondence in the middle of the night on a Sunday. Finally, I ask readers to consider the power dynamics inherent in using the official website of the self-proclaimed largest HEMA school in North America to publicly accuse a much smaller colleague of bullying and coercion.

I stand by every word I have written here, and believe more strongly than ever that I have an obligation to bring my concerns to the wider community. If I have erred in doing so and if my words and actions have done the harm that Devon claims they have, then I am willing to be held accountable for them. All I ask is that my words here be considered in good faith, and evaluated on their own merits.


For a PDF version of this letter, additional accounts, and supporting documents, please visit the following link:

To speak to me, Claire, Sylvie, Jon, and Kris regarding anything contained within this letter or the linked files, please email 2020dbinfo@gmail.com.