Author Tags: Law
Lawyer Joan McEwen first heard about the plight of Ivan Henry in 2010 following his acquittal by the BC Court of Appeal. Her first book, Innocence on Trial: The Framing of Ivan Henry (Heritage House $22.95) investigates how failings of the justice system—police, lawyers, prosecutors, judges, politicians, etc.—forced Henry to spend 27 years in prison for crimes for which he was later excused, but never declared not guilty. Over three years in the making, the book has led to compensation for his wrongful incarceration.
McEwen inherited her passion for social justice from her staunchly NDP father and her morbid fear of prison from a childhood glimpse of a jail. In 2008, determined to conquer that fear, Joan began writing a (fiction) book about a prisoner and his (female) parole officer. What began as research ended up with her volunteering to teach a creative writing program in Matsqui Institution. Since then, she has become a volunteer/advocate for prisoners, helping long-term offenders reintegrate back into society. Along the way, she discovered the work that "innocence projects"--the first of which was established in New York in 1992--do to represent, free, and assist the wrongly convicted throughout the world. 978-1-772030-02-0
Innocence on Trial: The Framing of Ivan Henry (Heritage House 2014) $22.95 978-1-772030-02-0
Backgrounder on Ivan Henry case
[Freelance article published by Joan McEwen published in Vancouver, Oct 1, 2012]
In May 12, 1982, Ivan Henry, 35 years old, living with his wife and two young daughters at Main and East 17th, was arrested without warrant and forced into a hastily constructed lineup composed mainly of plainclothes officers.
Struggling for air as three policemen held his head in a chokehold, he was identified by three of 11 women—by his voice. The police released him, but Henry was immediately placed under surveillance. According to the VPD, that didn’t stop him from raping two more women—one the next day, the second three weeks later. After hypnotizing one of the victims, then showing her a photo array that included a picture of Henry with bars in the background and a police elbow in front, the police got the identification they needed.
Resurrecting identifications from earlier victims, they re-arrested Henry, charging him with 17 counts of sexual assault involving 15 women.
Feeling paranoid that the legal aid lawyers who had represented him did not have his back—not a single one of them took the police-conspiracy elements of this account seriously—he opted to represent himself at trial. As the victims cried and quivered under his overly aggressive cross-examination—Henry as good as accused them of making the whole thing up—jurors shook their heads in disgust. So convinced was trial judge John Bouck of his guilt, and so poor at legal self-representation was Henry, a former construction worker who was selling jeans across the province out his hatchback, that Bouck kept conflating the words “attacker” and “accused” in his instructions to the jury. They came back after just hours: guilty of 10 counts of sexual assault on eight women.
This was the time of the Clifford Olson serial murders, and the public mood was fearful and unforgiving. Like Olson, Henry was designated a dangerous sex offender and given 11 concurrent life sentences. The likelihood he’d receive parole before he died? Slim to zero.
Henry served 26 years for those crimes. Imagine it, nearly 10,000 days knowing, arguing with anyone who’d listen, that he’d been set up in order to secure a conviction and close a file. For all those days—those 10,000 days—almost no one listened. Finally in October 2010, an end to the nightmare: the B.C. Court of Appeal exonerated Henry, holding that no properly instructed jury could reasonably have rendered a guilty verdict on any of the counts. The lineup photo—showing the chokehold and a good deal more—played a key role in the court’s ruling regarding tainted identification.
Having finally won release, Henry today is adrift; he lives on an old-age pension that takes no account of decades spent working in prison kitchens and laundries, sewing shops and warehouses. He has no résumé, no modern skills: every cent he earned behind bars—$5.25 per eight-hour shift, plus the pittance received from other inmates for help with court filings—went into the fight to regain his freedom: photocopies, court filing fees, envelopes made from butcher paper. Before Canada Post cottoned on, he used to lick the squiggly black lines off franked stamps and reuse those that he didn’t sell.
When a convict is released on parole, no matter how heinous his crime, he spends time in a halfway house. If he’s lucky, he receives job assistance and community support. He’s given a shot at reintegration. But when a convict is declared to have been wrongfully convicted, the court simply sets him loose—though he’s entrenched in institutional thinking and has likely endured decades of physical and psychological trauma.
Typical of exonerees, Henry has filed a civil suit against the police, the Crown, and every level of government, seeking compensation for the horrific waste of a life. And now he waits, powerless as ever, for the defendants’ high-priced legal team to argue that he’s the author of his own misfortune. While he waits, he spirals.
“Depression’s a common problem among exonerees,” says Tamara Levy, executive director of the UBC Law Innocence Project, one of a few programs in Canada that review claims of wrongful conviction. “While some states in America provide ‘life after exoneration’ programs, our government’s been silent on the subject.”
A 1996 graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Ontario, Levy, seeking to fill “an important gap in the justice system,” established Canada’s second Innocence Project in 2006. (The first was in Ontario.) The UBC project now includes as many as 15 law students in any given year, a roster of 23 pro bono lawyers, and a growing stack of inmate applications. Levy inhabits a cubby¬hole office crammed with binders full of legal authorities and plastic bags of news clippings and journals and scrawled notes—anything that might remotely be relevant. Innocence work is burgeoning since the widespread adoption of DNA testing in the 1990s, but it’s not for the faint-of-heart. Overturning convictions is hard enough when DNA’s available to rule out the offender. It’s almost impossible when, as in Henry’s case, semen samples collected at the time are later “lost.”
“Our project is part of the international network that exposes, documents, and prevents wrongful convictions,” Levy says, “but success stories in Canada are rare.” Up and running six years, they have a number of applications in the drafting phase but only one ready to file in the court of appeal.
“Each case—we’re currently dealing with 21—involves a painstaking review of everything from the original investigation to the final appeal. If, at the end, we believe we can verify that a major miscarriage of justice occurred, students assist outside counsel in preparing the appropriate application.
“We do our best, but we’re underfunded. The Crown has been quite cooperative but there’s a fair amount of foot-dragging by police when we ask for disclosure.”
The phone rings. It’s Ivan. “I’ve been waiting 20 minutes.” His words slur together. “Where are you?”
Our meeting is for tomorrow, not today.
“I had a rough weekend. Wide awake till dawn, five nights running. I got no money. First thing in the morning, I started knocking on doors. Worked eight hours raking leaves. Made $50.” He chuckles. It’s part of the man’s charm, this habit of laughing no matter how bad it gets. It’s part of why I’m using my legal training to help him and why I’m writing a book about his wrongful conviction.
We meet anyway, and as he flops into the passenger seat, dishevelled, reeking of booze, he’s far removed from the proud, take-charge man he’s struggling to become.
“Half a mickey of Bailey’s,” he admits. “A handful of these.” He brandishes a bottle of clonazepam.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I really am.” When he smiles, his lips stay pressed together. Prison dental care is an oxymoron.
“When a tooth got rotten,” he’s told me, “I grabbed a set of pliers and yanked it out. When—if—my lawsuit ever ends, I’ll be getting myself a new set of teeth.”
Does he need a stomach pump? He’s not a man to overindulge.
“It’s these new meds,” he mumbles, sweat trickling down his cheeks. “I’ll be fine.”
He slumps forward. “It’s just so hard,” he whispers. “All of this. So bloody hard.”
After a burger and several cups of coffee, he’s ready to work, producing a battered notebook from his back pocket. “1997. Have a look.”
“Perfect timing,” I say, hauling out my laptop. “I just finished 1996. We’re halfway through your incarceration.”
I direct his attention to a pyramid on my screen. “Today, I thought we’d do something a little different.” I explain to him the theory behind Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: the levels of motivation that extend from basic survival up to our highest reasons for being. “Are you up for it?”
“Fire away,” he says. “You’re worse’n a small dog nipping at my heels.” He’s learning to trust me—a woman. No small feat for a man who’s borne the “sex offender” label for so long.
“At the bottom, physiological needs—food, water, shelter, and the like. The most fundamental needs.”
He says he can cook a chicken so that every part tastes delicious. His ideal living space? A solid concrete building where “no one can penetrate my senses. So I’ll never be hurt again. In jail, I read Victor Frankl, Thomas Merton. Merton said that the entire world, the spirit of the divine, takes place in your own thoughts. When I looked to my faith, I learned that the Church was also with me. Roman Catholic doctrine says a man has a right to a fair trial.”
“Safety needs,” I say. “Financial security, the health and well-being of you and your family.”
He takes a breath. “After they arrested me, the cops asked my daughters whether I’d ever molested them. Ten years later, after their mother passed on, I begged the courts to help me find them. The bastards said they lacked the jurisdiction.”
He looks out the window. “I used to cry all the time,” he says, “But it got me nowhere, so I stopped.”
“Next level: love and belonging. Tell me about that.”
“Simple: thank you to those who supported me; screw everyone who railroaded me. As for love, listen to this. I was working as a cleaner in the private family-visit huts. There was a certain redheaded guard I liked, maybe even loved. I asked her which is more important, love or trust. She said love, so when I got back to my cell I grabbed one of the I Love You labels I’d made to stick on letters to my kids and pushed it through the window slot. She reported me to the security officer. I never talked to her again.”
Tormentors were everywhere, he says. Guards forced a strip-search on his elderly mother when she came to visit, opened his mail and defaced it, wrote obscenities on the photos of his girls, scratched out the letters on the keys of his typewriter, blasted tape-recorded profanities into his cell, laughed when an inmate hid shit in his bed, rewarded inmates for taunting him. As they passed his cell, they hollered, “What’s that smell?”
“Because of my crimes, and because I wouldn’t confess, I was considered lower than a snake.” When he was sentenced, a psychiatrist testified that his denial of guilt created a “disconnect between him and his victims’ pain.” Labelling him an “anti-social type” suffering from a “personality disorder,” he said that Henry failed to show remorse, and therefore “lacks the quality of insight that would enable him to modify his behaviour.” The stigma continued in lockup; that’s the correctional system’s Catch-22: either admit guilt or forgo access to the rehabilitative programs that are one step on the road to release.
“Everyone was waiting for me to fail. I could see it in their eyes.”
He’s free today, but still carries an inmate’s mentality with him. “Police tail me in ghost cars,” he says, “place women in my path to try to entice me into sexual overtures. No one thinks I’m innocent.”
A VPD member who worked in an unrelated department in the 1980s recently told me, “Ivan Henry? The man’s guiltier than sin. The fact that he got off on a technicality galls me—galls all of us—to the bone.”
A technicality? Despite B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bouck’s reputation as an expert in criminal jury trials, the court of appeal concluded that no reasonably instructed jury could have convicted Henry on the identification evidence led by the Crown. When Bouck learned, in January 2009, that Henry’s appeal would be reopened, he struck back on his blog. As Vancouver Sun reporter Ian Mulgrew wrote at the time, Bouck “continues to believe justice was done in spite of last week’s announcement that another man may be responsible for Henry’s crimes.” Mulgrew added: “Justice Bouck insists that, if Henry did not receive a fair trial, it is his own fault.”
Moving up Maslow’s pyramid to esteem, I ask Henry whether he feels valued by others.
“Did I ever tell you my turkey story?” he says, a glint in his eye. “At our Christmas social—at Mountain, where I was transferred in 1994 from Saskatchewan Penitentiary—I cooked 22 25-pound turkeys and a bunch of 12-pound roasts. Before the visitors arrived, I caught one of my men throwing roasted turkeys out the window. It was my job to make sure we didn’t run out.” There’d be 440 inmates and 160 guests. 600 people. “I gave the goof hell. Told him he was giving them an excuse to add more security, shut the joint up tighter than ever. A total disrespect for the inmates who died fighting for justice, the inmates we honour on Prison Justice Day every August 10. The other inmates respected me. I never wavered, never stopped working towards release. When they realized I wasn’t just fooling around, that’s when the respect came.”
At the apex of Maslow’s hierarchy is self-actualization. I ask him what realizing his full potential would look like.
“Stop violence,” he says. “That, and advocate for little kids. Oh, and one more thing. Once I get me a little money I’ll be going after all the bad guys. Legally speaking, of course.”
As we prepare to part company, he digs in his pocket and brandishes a brand-new roller-ball pen. I recognize the significance: during his early days in prison, when his fight was just beginning, he wrote his first appeal submissions using dried-up felt pens dipped in ink mixed with kerosene.
“Only cost 99 cents,” he says. “It’s for you.” I accept with thanks.
Having survived the nightmare of serving 27 years in jail after being wrongfully convicted of major sex crimes, Ivan Henry may one day be as well-known to Canadians as David Milgaard or Steven Truscott. Meanwhile he’s fighting to proclaim his actual innocence as lawyer Joan McEwen describes in her remarkable book, Innocence on Trial: The Framing of Ivan Henry (Heritage House $22.95).
Labour lawyer Joan McEwen first heard of Ivan Henry through reports of his acquittal in 2010 by the B.C. Court of Appeal. Curious to know how he’d survived in penitentiaries as a sex offender for almost three decades, she contacted him through his lawyers.
“Half an hour into our first meeting, at a coffee shop in North Vancouver,” she recalls, “I was listening, open-mouthed, to the story of his wrongful conviction.”
For starters, there was an infamous police line-up. Struggling for air as three policemen held his head in a chokehold, Henry was identified by six of 11 women as a serial rapist that had been terrorizing Vancouver. Though released at the time due to “questionable line-up identifications,” Henry was rearrested ten weeks later when a new Vancouver Police Department detective took over as lead and resuscitated those same identifications.
Ivan Henry had grown up rough in the prairies, quitting school after Grade 8 and running away from an abusive home for a life of petty crime. In his early adult years, the crimes got worse. Besides convictions for break-and-enter and car theft, his record includes a three-year prison term for stealing a television and a five-year term for attempted rape.
In the early 1980s, while on mandatory supervision, Henry came to Vancouver. To support his drug-addicted wife and their two young daughters, he worked on construction sites and pedalled designer jeans from the back of his car.
This was also the time when the Clifford Olson sexual murders of young people had galvanized the Lower Mainland. Just as it was being publicized that the RCMP had paid Olson’s wife $100,000 in return for Olson revealing the location of the corpses, a serial rapist was at work, week after week. The police badly needed to find the rapist and fast.
With his record, Ivan Henry was a likely suspect. Police pulled him over in May 1982 and muscled him into that bizarre police line-up. Something not known at the time is that Henry’s wife, before she died in 1990, confessed to one of their daughters that she herself had caused the arrest. She had fingered Ivan Henry as the rapist, not because she believed he was guilty, but because the police threatened to turn her daughters over to Child Welfare and paid her $1,000 for her information.
After the preliminary hearing, Henry—committed to trial on 17 counts of sexual assault involving 15 women—dismissed his legal aid lawyer. Representing himself, he cross-examined the complainants whose cases made it to trial. As the victims cried and shook under his aggressive cross-examination, Henry as good as accused them of making the whole thing up. The jurors shook their heads in disgust.
The trial judge made errors, too—errors that would not have been made had he appointed an amicus curiae, a friend of the court, to help Henry through the legal process.
Henry was no saint, but his prior conviction for attempted rape shouldn’t have been allowed into evidence. “In contravention of the presumption of innocence, to which every offender is entitled, the judge kept referring to the women’s attacker as ‘the accused,’” says McEwen. “It is obvious that not only had the women been coached by the police, their memories had been manipulated and distorted.
“Expert studies in the area of memory implantation show that people can come to honestly believe they saw things they did not. The six trial complainants who had attended the line-up went from having only fuzzy and distinctly different memories of their attacker to providing very specific and similar descriptions at trial.”
As for the line-up photo, Ivan Henry maintains it is fake. He was never in the line-up, and he was certainly never handcuffed. The judge told the jury, incorrectly, that Ivan Henry’s reluctance to participate in the police line-up implied guilt. Henry asked to take a lie detector test but it was never administered. No physical evidence whatsoever tied him to the crimes.
Ivan Henry was 35 years old when he was led off in manacles. Most of his time was served in the Saskatchewan Penitentiary, near Prince Albert, and at Mountain Institution near Agassiz, B.C. The horrors of life behind bars as a sexual offender are disturbing and too many to recount here. But whatever his faults, Ivan Henry is a man of extraordinary fortitude, faith and perseverance. He read the Bible and he prayed.
Henry also spent so much time poring over legal texts that they named the prison library after him. His best friend inside, a serial killer, protected him. When Henry’s teeth rotted and he couldn’t get dental care, he yanked them out with pliers.
What got him through was his love for his family and his faith that one day the truth would be known. He never stopped pushing. In October 2010, Ivan Henry was finally acquitted. But there are two kinds of innocence: actual and legal.
Like most wrongfully convicted people, Henry was not exonerated, merely acquitted. Without an official declaration of innocence, such people are often viewed as offenders who got away with it, beat the system on a technicality.
Henry is now 68. Trying to adjust to a much-changed world, he resides in the basement of a daughter’s house, playing with his grandchildren, cuddling a chihuahua, struggling to cope. Initially someone posted his address in a nearby mall and he received death threats. He seriously considered whether or not returning to the familiarity of prison might be a better option.
While he waits, he spirals.
“Depression’s a common problem among exonerees,” says Tamara Levy, executive director of the UBC Law Innocence Project, one of a few programs in Canada that review claims of wrongful conviction. “While some states in America provide ‘life after exoneration’ programs, our government’s been silent on the subject.”
Lawyers in Henry’s civil case will argue he has suffered humiliation, disgrace and pain, losing his liberty, reputation and privacy, the enjoyment of life and everyday experiences, as well as income, benefits and a pension. His suit also seeks compensation for his daughters, who were deprived of a father and of the benefits of a father’s love, guidance and affection.
If past settlements are any indication, he is entitled to a compensation package in excess of $10 million (the amount of tax-free compensation for David Milgaard, who spent 23 years behind bars after his wrongful conviction on rape and murder charges). In the meantime, he survives on a pension cheque.
It is the hope of Joan McEwen that her book, Innocence on Trial: The Framing of Ivan Henry will lead to a timely and just resolution of Ivan Henry’s lawsuit. As well, she hopes that it will shed much-needed light on the lives of the “post-convicted” in general and, in particular, on the lives of those who are actually innocent.
“Ivan Henry is tragic, living testimony to the fallibility of our legal system,” McEwen told journalist Gary Stephen Ross. “He’s innocent as a matter of fact—not just a matter of law. I want to see him exonerated, and I want to see him properly compensated for the horrible waste of his life. I don’t plan to stop until that happens.”
She is far from alone in her belief.
According to former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Ian Binnie, “The disastrous trial and subsequent tribulations of Ivan Henry, including a quarter of a century of hard prison time for multiple sexual assaults he likely did not commit, shines light on an appalling miscarriage of Canadian justice. Ivan Henry emerges as stubborn and misinformed; a misguided, self-represented litigant. But there are lots of such people trapped in the courts, and the system needs to do a better job of dealing with them. In Ivan Henry’s case, it failed miserably.”
“The story of Ivan Henry,” says former B.C. Premier Ujjal Dosanjh, Q.C., “demonstrates that, when prosecutors and police blindly pursue convictions, they ignore the inherent obligation of the state to be fair and just. This book should be required reading for every law student, prosecutor, defence lawyer and trial judge in Canada.”
“Reading Innocence on Trial, says exoneree Thomas Sophonow, “brought back vivid memories of my own experience of wrongful conviction. There were so many similarities between Henry’s case and mine, with many of the same players, that ultimately I found it too painful to finish the book.”
“You don’t have to like Ivan Henry,” says Julian Sher, author of Until You are Dead: Steven Truscott’s Long Ride into History, “or agree with everything Joan McEwen says to shudder in horror at how our justice system grinds on and sometimes grinds people in its wake.”
A Return to Burns Lake
If one considers the importance of Joan McEwan’s book about how and why Ivan Henry was wrongfully imprisoned for 27 years, she would certainly deserve to be in the running for ‘BC Author of the Year,’ if such a contest existed.
Joan McEwan went where most mainstream journalists would dare not to go; or, more correctly, where most journalists would not be employed to go. She reached out to a person who is largely assumed to be an unsavoury character because it was the right thing to do.
McEwen first heard about the plight of Ivan Henry in 2010 following his acquittal by the BC Court of Appeal. Her book, Innocence on Trial: The Framing of Ivan Henry (Heritage House $22.95) detailed how failings of the justice system—police, lawyers, prosecutors, judges, politicians, etc.—have ruined much of Henry’s life.
Now she’s again raising her voice against the tide of opinion.
On November 26, 2015, the National Observer published lawyer Joan McEwan’s article entitled “Waiting to be Heard” about the ongoing legal battles arising from allegations made by journalist Laura Robinson, first aired in Georgia Straight, about the actions of 2010 Olympics head honcho John Furlong when he worked in northern B.C. among First Nations children.
Again, Joan McEwan has gone where mainstream journalists have not been encouraged to go. She has visited the Burns Lake area to meet First Nations people in order to investigate the validity of accusations that were raised in Laura Robinson’s controversial article.
Here is her chronological report that aired in the National Observer.
First Nations v. John Furlong: “Waiting to be Heard”
by Joan McEwan
In September 18, 2015, Madam Justice Wedge of the B.C. Supreme Court dismissed an action brought by investigative journalist Laura Robinson against John Furlong, CEO of the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) for the 2010 Olympics.
Furlong declared himself vindicated and, on October 30, Geoff Plant, the former Attorney-General of B.C., wrote in the Globe and Mail that a door had closed on a particularly nasty part of Furlong’s life—nasty in that he had been unfairly vilified by Robinson.
Opinions differ on the judgment, but one thing is clear: The voices of the First Nations alleged victims have never been heard. Yet, though not a single one of these people has testified in court, they have been discredited—both by the judge and in the court of public opinion.
A thumbnail sketch of the chronology is in order.
In September 2009, shortly before the February 2010 Olympics, Robinson received a tip that Furlong had worked as a Catholic missionary somewhere in Northern B.C. when he originally came to Canada. Finding nothing on the Internet about that, she dropped the matter.
In February 2011, while writing a review for his book Patriot Hearts, co-authored by journalist Gary Mason, it struck her that certain information regarding his background, arrival in Canada, and work experience appeared to be missing or did not make sense. Her research revealed that he had come to Canada as a Frontier Apostle missionary, and had taught at a Catholic elementary school in Burns Lake (1969-1970) and, from there, a Catholic high-school in Prince George.
In April 2011, Robinson wrote the review as well as an op-ed for the Danish organization, Play the Game.
After interviewing by phone eight people, Robinson travelled from Ontario to Burns Lake in April 2012. She took statements from eighteen individuals who alleged abuse by Furlong at one or both of the schools.
On September 26, 2012, the Georgia Straight published her article, “John Furlong Biography Omits Secret Past in Burns Lake”—featuring allegations of psychological and physical abuse (only) against Furlong.
On November 27, 2012, Furlong sued Robinson for defamation (Furlong v. Robinson). In his Notice of Civil Claim, Furlong asserted that the First Nations’ allegations of abuse were without merit. In Robinson’s Defence to Civil Claim, she relied upon the statutory declarations sworn to by eight of the former students.
On March 31, 2015, Furlong dropped his lawsuit against Robinson.
Meanwhile, Robinson, having sued Furlong in January 2014 for defaming her (Robinson v. Furlong), pressed forward with her suit. The two-week trial (which I attended) took place in June 2015. (In that second action, Furlong raised, as part of his defence, the disposition of the one criminal complaint and three civil suits brought against him in respect of alleged sexual abuse. Those matters, however, formed no part of Robinson’s Georgia Straight article, the article on which Furlong’s lawsuit was based.)
Among my many concerns with Madam Justice Wedge’s decision is this. Notwithstanding the narrow issue at trial—Did Robinson’s attack on Furlong justify his counter-attack?—the judge remarked at length on the overall unreliability, given the many years that had passed, of the First Nations’ accounts of alleged abuse.
Geoff Plant described the judge’s decision as “careful” and “methodical”; said that it amounts to a “textbook on how not to do investigative journalism.”
However, a central conclusion of the decision was that Robinson, prior to going to Burns Lake for the first time, had “telegraphed her intentions” by causing a notice to be posted “announcing the subject of her investigation—childhood abuse—its location, its timing, and the identity of the alleged abuser.” The judge also accepted the testimony of Dr. John Yuille, the memory expert called by Furlong, who said that, by arriving an hour late in Burns Lake, Robinson gave those who were waiting the chance to “contaminate” each other’s memories.
Memory contamination is a common concern where, for example, multiple victims of sexual assault, usually strangers whose only connection was being victimized in this way, are left together to discuss what happened to them. However, the alleged victims in this case—many of whom are related—lived in close proximity on a reserve for over forty years following the conduct in issue. Can it seriously be argued that being notified ahead of time and being left alone for an hour “contaminated” their memories?
Geoff Plant further wrote that “they (the RCMP) discovered no reliable evidence to support the claims [sic] of abuse.” In fact, the RCMP looked into only one case—the criminal complaint referred to above.
After reading the Supreme Court judgment, I resolved to travel to Burns Lake myself—to hear, first-hand, the stories of the former students. Given the incendiary nature of the sexual abuse allegations, and because they were not part of Robinson’s Georgia Straight article, I chose not to explore that issue in my discussions.
In the near-two dozen interviews I conducted between October 4 and 8, I heard accounts consistent in every respect with those contained in the eight statutory declarations filed in the Furlong and Robinson aborted proceedings.
The stories of abuse I heard brought tears to my eyes.
Stories that, to this day, are deeply etched on the distraught faces of the people telling them.
Without exception, I found each of the First Nations persons with whom I spoke to be thoughtful, reflective, and believable. (I am a lawyer and have practiced for the past twenty-five years as a professional labour arbitrator.)
From their telling, the pain flowed not only from the abuse itself, but also from the fact that, apart from Robinson, no one cared enough to listen (Canadaland’s Jesse Brown has just posted affidavits on his website).
When told about the judgment, they were shocked. How was it possible, they asked, that the judge could reach such a decision without ever hearing from them? No-one in the media asked for their reaction. It felt, to them, as though they did not exist.
Plant wrote that Robinson’s announcement that she would not be appealing the decision was “both graceless and unrepentant.”
On October 19, Robinson announced that, although she had received legal advice supporting an appeal, “Appealing the decision will not accomplish my original goal of sharing the stories of Indigenous people.” What she said was true. When Furlong discontinued, in March 2015, his action against Robinson, he removed the opportunity for her to tell those very stories; to give their version in response to Furlong’s blanket denial.
Was Furlong’s decision to discontinue his action any less “graceless and unrepentant” than Robinson’s decision not to proceed with an appeal?
More significantly, Plant stated that Robinson caused “brutal harm” to “those former students who were victimized by her zealotry.”
After reading the article, I contacted the First Nations people to ask for their comments. Without exception, they said that Robinson was there to “help them talk about their stories;” that, finally, they had “someone who cared enough about us to want to hear our stories.”
Hereditary chief Richard Perry said he appreciated that Robinson was prepared to listen. Hereditary chief Ronnie Alec said that, though his people have always tried to avoid talking about their abuse at the hands of the Oblates, seeing Furlong on TV (before the Olympics) “stirred up bad memories, gave us flashbacks about what he did to us… Laura didn’t feed us information, and she didn’t make us feel worse. She just listened, and we told her the truth.” Cathy Woodgate described her as “caring, willing to listen, and very sensitive.”
Indeed, the members of the Lake Babine Nations were so grateful for Robinson’s efforts that, when she returned to Burns Lake a third time, they congratulated her on her story.
It is obvious that Plant has never spoken to, let alone met, any of Furlong’s former students. If he had wished to speak for the First Nations claimants, he should have talked to them first.
Indeed, anyone wishing to speak in the future on their behalf would be well-advised to do likewise.
[This article by Joan McEwan first appeared in National Observer (link: http://bit.ly/21iC9Ly . Republished with permission from the author.]