Sued for speaking out, I hope today’s Ghomeshi charges inspire openness and change

On EDGE: Opinion

With sex assault charges now laid, I hope the hand-wringing continues over what the CBC and many others knew about Jian Ghomeshi’s violent sex life before several women recently came forward to give credence to the creepy rumours.

Even I’d heard them in Yellowknife after a friend toured the CBC Broadcast Centre and got a photo with the disgraced radio host (and luckily, nothing else) on the set of Q. “I hear he’s into kinky sex,” she’d dropped one day.

What people did with that information was nothing, and that doesn’t surprise me. I have first-hand experience in Yellowknife with how little some people will do – in fact, how far they will run in the other direction – to avoid being embroiled in anything that has even a whiff of the words “sexual assault” attached to them. Even when speaking up could mean protecting children from such life-altering harm.

And when you look at what happened to me, you could argue that they had good reason to look the other way (you’d be wrong, but you could make a good argument). The stakes are high for anyone – the victim, the perpetrator, the friend entrusted with the teary story, the neighbour who hears a scream, the teacher receiving disclosures – dragged into the murky underbelly of unwanted sexual anything.

To seek justice against sexual assault – which can be legally defined as anything from an unwanted bum grab to rape – means pressing charges, going to court, going public. Who can afford the time, the stress, the money; who can bear the emotional toll, the humiliation, the legal chicanery and shaming that goes on there? And for what end?

According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, in a 2009 Statistics Canada survey, 460,000 women experienced sexual assault in just one year. About 10 per cent of those incidents were reported to police. Each year, only about 1,500 sexual offenders are ever convicted. Those are terrible odds.

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Couple that with the Vatican’s weak response to the vile abuses inflicted globally by paedophilic priests against unsuspecting children – and the ability of the church to still maintain a billion-plus followers – and a fairly clear message gets sent that sexual abusers have a good chance of getting away with their crime.

The details of my situation are long and nuanced. The full story still astonishes me, but this is not the place to chronicle it so.

Compelled to report sex allegations

Let me say that years ago I went to bat for a respected public school counsellor who eventually left Yellowknife after few others would come to her support. She reported allegations of sexual assault made to her independently by three pubescent girls in a local school – as the law and her position compelled her to do. In the aftermath, she was disciplined for making those reports, and, in writing, given a directive which compelled her to “consult” with her superiors before making any future reports of suspected child abuse to authorities.

That written directive amounted to screening, which is illegal under the NWT Child Welfare Act. She knew that very well since she had helped draft the accompanying Child Abuse Protocol, which describes the roles and responsibilities of school staff and others when they have even a slight suspicion a child is being abused.

I confirmed the written directive was illegal with senior child welfare officials in the territorial government, who instead of taking the letter and photocopying it so they could challenge its author, told me in effect, “keep at this, you’re on to something.” Stunned, I held it out to them, again…“but don’t you want this?” No, they didn’t.

The school counsellor could not, and would not, comply with the order. Her union was uninterested and ineffective at defending her. Colleagues did not rally to her support and began avoiding her. She went on medical leave from the stress…and she learned that the whole scene had a chilling effect on abuse reporting at the school.

A handful of concerned moms (including parents of some of the girls who claimed they were being repeatedly touched in ways, and places, that made them uncomfortable) and I tried to raise the issue with the school district but those efforts were thwarted. Trustees told me there was nothing wrong. I spoke out about the letter to a radio reporter, and shortly thereafter was served notice I was being sued for defamation.

Over time, as parents began to realize their school tax dollars were being used to pay the lawyer in a private civil suit by an individual against a parent, a petition was started to demand financial accountability.

When the petition was presented to the school board, hundreds of teachers crammed the meeting. Not, however, because they no longer felt safe to report suspected child abuse cases. Not because they thought it unfair a mother was being sued for defending their rights to do so. But because a sudden, unannounced deduction had been taken from their paycheques.

By the time a vocal father introduced the petition, all but a couple teachers had left.

I then asked the ministers of social services and education for an independent investigation into the whole affair, basically telling them they had an obligation to ensure everyone feels free to speak out about suspected child sexual abuse.

The NWT is second only to Nunavut for sexual abuse rates in Canada. Abused children have a much greater chance of becoming abusers, and studies link childhood sexual abuse to addictions and suicide. Again, a lot is at stake in breaking the cycle. The health and social services minister eventually agreed and hired an independent lawyer, who wrote a report validating my assertions.

Supreme Court refused case

That investigation led to the firing of the official who wrote the letter. The lawsuit against me faded into the background as he pursued wrongful dismissal all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which refused to hear the case. Then there was an out-of-court settlement, but taxpayers and parents will never know what that may have cost them, as its terms were not made public.

As for the alleged perpetrator behind the young girls’ complaints, he was investigated by the RCMP but no charges were laid (against agreed protocol, he did come to the school during the investigation, in plain view of the girls, because he wanted to take students to the pool that day). One week later, he proclaimed “pajama day” at the school and arrived wearing a robe, t-shirt, socks and shoes. Some teachers and students were upset by this and eventually a male teacher told him to put some pants on.

He also wrote the counsellor to inform her he’d ordered someone to “drill the lock” on her confidential client files while she was on sick leave, saying her replacement needed to access the files (I know the counsellor who replaced her; he said he would never make such a request). When she returned to the school, she says the files regarding the girls’ complaints were missing.

About six months before that, a committee of teachers had expressed concerns by letter about his physical contact and physical aggressiveness with students. There were more complaints against him. His contract was not renewed and he moved down south. The RCMP inspector in Yellowknife told me they alerted police as to his new location. The man now heads a Christian youth ministry.

Given my experience, and the aggressive lawsuit Ghomeshi launched against the CBC (which he dropped Tuesday), how could anyone with just a rumour to go on expect not to get blowback by going public in any way, let alone any traction from police to act on their suspicions.

But the Ghomeshi story has given the whole issue an unprecedented collective consciousness-raising. For the first time in years, I feel hopeful real change can come. That victims of sexual abuse will be emboldened and supported by this outpouring of sympathies and that perpetrators will be intimidated by them.

It will still be a “he said, she said” situation in court. And there will still be instances where allegations are wholly false. That will not change. But let’s think bigger than that.

Let’s raise our sons with immense kindness and understanding towards sexual relations. Let’s explain misogyny to them, let’s take time to understand the roots of it and male narcissism…the underpinnings of a society “in which aggression towards women is deeply entrenched in the collective male psyche,” according to author Dr. Gabor Maté.

Dr. Maté’s Toronto Star column is a good place to start. Julie Lalonde’s article on Rabble.ca also has some practical tips on ways to intervene when you see or hear of women being disparaged. Raffi Cavoukian is a tireless promoter of child honouring and vocal champion for women’s rights and the environment. I encourage you to explore his worldviews.

And if we want to truly heal ourselves as a society, while we are repulsed by their aggression, let’s dig deep to find some healing and kindness for the perpetrators, many of whom suffered abusive childhoods themselves. In all likelihood, no one spoke out for them in their darkest, most fearful hours.

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