A flawed trial found Canadian women guilty. We’ve had enough

Nation by Sonia Stanger


“He’ll be going on a celebratory choking spree tonight!” The three men laughed. At the next table over, my heart pounded. The speaker was sitting 10 feet away, but he was talking plenty loud enough for anyone nearby to hear.

I’d been trying to ignore Jian Ghomeshi’s face on the TV behind the bar, but I couldn’t unhear this. I was frozen, unsure of what to do. I wish I had gotten up from my lunch and tapped him on the shoulder, told him that his comment wasn’t funny; he was joking about violence that would now go unpunished. He was laughing at very real pain.

I wish I had asked him if he would make that joke to a room full of women, knowing that most of them were survivors of some form of sexual violence. I wish I had told him that he might as well have, because survivors are everywhere.

And we’re listening.

That’s why, the morning I heard that Jian Ghomeshi had been acquitted, I felt rage and despair. Not just for the three complainants, who I knew would be shouldered with the blame in addition to the trauma of the trial process. I despaired, because that verdict will ring across the country in the ears of every woman, every person who has been the victim of assault.

And the message it sends is not a happy one.

In his verdict, Justice William Horkin determined that the inconsistencies in the three complainants’ stories, as well as their failure to disclose continued contact with Ghomeshi following the alleged attacks, undermined their reliability and credibility and made room for reasonable doubt. But while it may be true that reasonable doubt exists, I find the tone of Horkin’s verdict to be telling. His doubt as to the complainants’ “reliability and sincerity” and frequently repeated use of words like “deceptive and manipulative” weaves a powerful story about the character of these women. Namely, that they are manipulative, colluding, scheming liars.

Horkin’s message that the process “is really quite simple: tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” erases the murky reality of what those women have been through and firmly places the blame on them.

Horkin made much of the fact that the complainants’ post-incident contact with Ghomeshi “seems out of harmony with the assaultive behaviour ascribed to him.” The world of trauma is not one of neat categories. Neither is the world of memory. Sometimes the way we act after a traumatic event doesn’t make sense, can’t be explained. And whatever occurred in the days and months and years since the alleged incidents should have exactly zero bearing on the validity of the accusations.

That Justice Horkin found these women’s post-incident behaviour so baffling tells us that he has an insufficient base of knowledge on the psychology of sexual assault. Any analysis that condemns a survivor of abuse who retains contact with her abuser fundamentally misunderstands how victimization and trauma play out.

But he doesn’t stand alone in that lack of understanding. His verdict reveals that our system has inexcusable gaps that mean women will continue to be denied justice. If only the verdict was the last of it.

A case as high-profile as this will inevitably spark public feedback. Arguably, this was the most public sexual assault case in Canadian history, but I wasn’t prepared for the reaction I saw from many. Everywhere I looked on Thursday, I saw men unhesitatingly judging those three complainants: an old professor’s indignant and victim-blaming Facebook post; a guy at work lecturing me about legal process; columns in every paper blaming the women. Gee, thanks. The verdict, while not unexpected, was painful for many of us. And every time I had to read or listen to a man tell me how this acquittal is the women’s own fault, it felt like another slap in the face.

The Crown had the task of proving that these violent acts occurred with nothing more than the victims’ word as evidence, and they failed. They failed spectacularly. The narrative that the acquittal comes down to the failings of the complainants is a reductive and oversimplified one. A system that fails to prepare complainants for the process of trial is a broken one. A system that allows witnesses to be blindsided by cross examination and revictimizes them in the process does not serve everyone equally.

If you question why these women didn’t tell “the whole truth,” consider the reaction when the truth came out. Consider that even the judge presiding over the case saw fit to shame these women for their behaviour. Why do we judge the contact the women had with Ghomeshi after the alleged incidents, but not the fact that he kept meticulous record of decades-old personal communication with sexual partners, almost as though insuring against a potential lawsuit?

I question how the rigour of our suspicion differs from male defendant to female complainant. I question how perfectly an accuser would have the fit the role of victim, how perfectly she would have to remember, how perfectly she would have to present trauma to be believed.

I wish the men in my world could understand why a woman might be filled with rage and sadness at this verdict, and make space for that. I wish they could understand that to immediately and loudly condemn these women is violence in and of itself. I wish, sometimes, that men could just be quiet for a goddamn minute and listen.

The Ghomeshi trial is not unique. It’s not significant because it’s a new story. It’s not a shocking revelation that our justice system fails women. This trial matters because of the message it sends: stay silent. Don’t report, unless what you want for your trouble is to be dragged through the mud and deemed a liar.

Canada’s women deserve better. We deserve a system that enables a genuine telling of the whole truth with no fear of shame. We deserve to feel safe in seeking justice.

And frankly, we deserve respite from your shitty opinions.