On Oct. 5, 2017, the New York Times ran the first explosive story in which a parade of women, many famous, came forward to report being sexually assaulted or harassed by film producer Harvey Weinstein and described the devastating toll it exacted. That date, predictably, is pegged as the start of the #MeToo movement, which would see a barrage of household names—shapers of culture, beloved celebrities, sports figures, lawmakers—accused of sexual violence and harassment.
Yet those on the front lines of sexual violence education and advocacy in Canada date this country’s #MeToo anniversary back four years. “#MeToo felt like déjà vu in my sector,” says Ottawa-based public educator Julie Lalonde. “The autumn of 2014 and then 2015 was our big moment,” she says, rhyming off headline-making cases, foremost among them the allegations of sexual assault and harassment made against star CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi. His 2016 criminal trial, which ended in acquittal and Ghomeshi issuing an apology for workplace harassment, summoned demands for reform in how courts deal with sexual assault cases and saw #IBelieveWomen and #RapedNeverReported trending. Cases spanned sectors: two members of the University of Ottawa men’s varsity hockey team were charged with assaulting a woman during a drunken debauch after a big win in 2014 (they were acquitted in June); two Liberal MPs were exiled for sexual misconduct; a misogynistic “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen” Facebook page at Dalhousie University stoked national furor; and a report by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps revealed entrenched sexual abuse and harassment in the RCMP and military. “#MeToo is just the rest of North America catching up to us,” Lalonde says.
Even the unifying #MeToo hashtag, often credited to actress Alyssa Milano, predates the movement by more than 10 years. It was coined in 2005 by sexual violence counsellor Tarana Burke, who works with sexual assault survivors in Brooklyn, N.Y., as the name of her activist group.
#MeToo exists in tradition longer than that, taking in the Women’s March on Versailles in October 1789, the suffragette marches of the 19th century and the Take Back the Night marches of the 1970s. It isn’t surprising, then, that dispatches from the front lines of #MeToo reveal a work in progress, a movement that’s a threat to some, weaponized by others and already an agent of structural change.
Twelve days after the New York Times Weinstein exposé, Leanne Nicolle was the first Canadian woman publicly say she’d been sexually harassed by a high-profile man. The story had made headlines two years earlier when Marcel Aubut, president of the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), stepped down for harassment deemed by a third-party investigation to include bullying, improper touching and inappropriate remarks. Nicolle was then executive director of the Canadian Olympic Foundation, the COC’s fundraising arm. At the time, she chose to remain an anonymous complainant, but #MeToo women speaking out against Weinstein inspired her. “I thought, ‘If not now when?’ ” Nicolle, now president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Toronto, tells Maclean’s. As a counsellor to hundreds of young people, it gave her an opportunity to respond to a big moment in time with solid advice for victims of harassment or anyone in any abuse-of-power situation, she says. That advice includes keeping meticulous records—notes, emails, recordings—and finding an ally, someone who will have your back.
The allegations made by several women against Aubut aren’t comparable to the behaviour ascribed to Weinstein, who has been indicted on criminal charges. Yet like many men named in #MeToo, the two men share traits rewarded in the culture and in business: aggressive confidence seen as charisma, and celebrated skill as a rainmaker—and they were reflexively protected by colleagues and institutions. Aubut, a corporate lawyer and former CEO of the Quebec Nordiques, was an officer of the Order of Canada inducted to Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. His vulgar, inappropriate behaviour toward women was no secret. “He has zero manners,” a 2014 profile in L’actualité reported. Nicolle became a target when she started working with him in 2013. “Thirty per cent was sexual harassment-—inappropriate touching,” she says. “That’s what got picked up in the media.” When she first went to HR, they waved her off. “They said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s just Marcel. Don’t take it personally.’ ” The COC was complicit, Nicolle says. “Nobody—the board, nobody—held him accountable.”
Going public or suing didn’t interest her. “I just wanted him out of my life,” Nicolle says. “I didn’t want him to do it to anyone else. I wanted to move forward; I loved my job.” But she didn’t come forward in 2015 for another reason that reveals the toll of harassment: “I was a broken human being,” she says. “I didn’t have the emotional capacity to articulate and present in a way that would have been productive. I could barely get off my couch. I couldn’t sleep unmedicated. I wasn’t a good mom and I wasn’t a good wife and I wasn’t a good employee.” She credits her recovery to the support of her husband, therapy, yoga and “doing the things I needed to do.”
In a public statement made in tandem with his October 2015 resignation, Aubut said, “I offer my unreserved apologies.” The statement continued in part: “Although I assume full responsibility for my effusive and demonstrative personality, I would like to reiterate that I never intended to offend or upset anyone with my remarks or my behaviour.” He resigned from his law firm and said he’d seek “professional help.”
A review by employment law firm Rubin Thomlinson made public in January 2016 revealed a culture of widespread bullying and fear at the country’s most elite sports organization. “A majority of COC staff interviewed reported experiencing or witnessing harassment (both sexual and personal) during the president’s tenure, both inside and outside of the COC’s offices,” the summary states.
Nicolle returned to work after the report was public, which is unusual in harassment cases. She wanted to hold management accountable. “I [thought], ‘I’m going to make you all look me in the eye every day,’ ” she says. “And I’m going to help young people hurt by this man heal a little bit.”
The COC complied with the report’s recommendations, which included instituting a duty to report harassment, and workplace behaviour training, Nicolle says, but the changes weren’t substantive enough for her to stay. Three COC staff were fired, but the executive and board remained intact. Moreover, she says, “They didn’t have interest in putting a social lens on problems in sport. Sport is 20 years behind the rest of society,” says Nicolle, who sits on the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity. (The COC declined Maclean’s interview request; an email statement from newly named CEO Robin Brudner cited Nicolle for her bravery in coming forward and states in part: “We can’t go back and change history. What we can do—and what we have done exceptionally well—is create change within our organization that we believe alleviates the possibility of such an occurrence taking place again.”)
Nicolle, now an advocate for education around sexual harassment, speaks primarily to youth and men: “I don’t have a lot of interest in speaking to women my own age because they all get it. They’ve all been there.”
Toronto lawyer David Butt, an advocate for sexual assault complainants, likens #MeToo to a dam long under pressure finally bursting. It’s an apt metaphor that captures the unexpected power of shared stories, as well as the shock at their ubiquity. When dams break, it’s scary, threatening and uncertain; ecosystems are ruined.
#MeToo has emboldened many who were previously afraid to speak. Writer and comedian Megan Koester recalls trying to confirm off-the-record reports that comedian Louis C.K. was masturbating in front of women three years ago. No one would talk on the record, Koester tells Maclean’s. She tried to question people on the red carpet at the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal in 2015; management told her that Louis C.K. was “part of the family,” and said she should leave unless she switched to a more pleasant line of questioning. “I’m a comedian, so alienating myself from the biggest comedy-related organization in the world is not the best career move,” she says. Two years later, Just for Laughs founder Gilbert Rozon was accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct, claims he denies; Rozon subsequently sold his stake in the company. He was given the go-ahead in August by Quebec’s top court to challenge a $10-million class action suit that claims he abused at least 20 women between 1982 and 2016.
#MeToo put harassing and abusive behaviour on a spectrum, spanning discomfiting creepiness to rape, and included stalking, telling crude jokes and unwanted touching. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—who told the UN, “As women speak up, it is our responsibility to listen, and more importantly, to believe”—was put in the firing line with the revival of a charge made by a female journalist in 2000 that he’d groped her. In response, the PM said he didn’t feel he’d “acted inappropriately in any way,” adding: “But I respect the fact that someone else might have experienced that differently.”
Elsewhere, behaviour once tolerated suddenly wasn’t. Blue Jays catcher turned sportscaster Gregg Zaun, a.k.a. “the Manalyst,” whose professional brand was rooted in macho posturing, was fired from Sportsnet (which is owned by Rogers, which also owns Maclean’s) for “inappropriate behaviour and comments” in late 2017. Zaun’s behaviour existed within a workplace culture in which women could be objectified, unnamed female Sportsnet employees told the CBC that year. An emailed statement from Rick Brace, president of Rogers Media, highlighted “diversity and inclusion” as paramount corporate values: “We have a zero-tolerance policy and believe in a professional workplace in which all employees feel comfortable and respected,” it read in part.
Quelling speech, even vulgar speech, was seen by #MeToo critics as paving the way to Soviet-style repression. Talk show host Bill Maher, who said he supported the movement, described those who don’t draw a line between an assault in a van and a back rub at the water cooler as #MeCarthyism. Matt Damon was attacked for stating concern that serious charges, like rape, would be conflated with the sort of groping charge that led to U.S. Sen. Al Franken resigning. He apologized a week later.
Critics also raised concerns that #MeToo would put a fatwa on flirting, sometimes conflating consensual sex with non-consensual sexual violence. The French were particularly vocal; a group of 100 women, including Catherine Deneuve, signed an open letter in Le Monde defending men’s “freedom to pester” women and expressing worry about a new “puritanism.” Director Roman Polanski, convicted of raping a 13-year-old girl, weighed in from his French exile, calling #MeToo a “mass hysteria.”
The fact that #MeToo played out in media and online, not in the courts, raised concern that due process would be abandoned, with the innocent falsely convicted in the court of public opinion. Margaret Atwood saw her feminist bona fides questioned when she wrote of a possible rise in vigilante justice—“guilty because accused,” as seen in the structure of the Salem witch trials and “the ‘Terror and Virtue’ phase of revolutions,” in which “the usual rules of evidence are bypassed.” The vivid, genocidal imagery, which lumped sexual assault survivors in with Joseph Stalin, did recognize that a seismic revolution could be under way.
And that came in part from the perceived failure of legal due process. “Every second woman you know has had some kind of sexual-violence experience that probably isn’t capable of being handled by the current system,” says Butt. Courts are equipped to deal with sexual assault cases involving strangers, accompanied by DNA evidence, but in most cases the accuser and accused know one another, he says. “As soon as we introduce pre-existing relationship dynamics, it becomes far more nuanced, and that’s where criminal courts don’t have the tools.”
The necessarily high threshold of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt means a complainant can be believed and a defendant acquitted. Most sexual assaults never end up in the legal system, says Lalonde: “At best we’re talking 10 per cent of people who report,” she says, referring to research.
Toronto lawyer Marie Henein, who represented Ghomeshi, called #MeToo “a necessary social awakening” during a public discussion of how women are treated in the law profession. She also called for coverage to “stop being salacious” and for media to focus on blue-collar workers, not celebrities. Certainly, media’s preoccupation with the high end—actresses wearing black at award ceremonies to support #MeToo and #TimesUp—exists at a glaring disconnect from why Burke founded Me Too: to empower women in the margins. “I want women of colour and native women to know their voices are heard,” she has said.
Writing in Canadian Lawyer, Toronto lawyer William Trudell called the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns “dangerously fad-like.” He wrote: “Allegations, once out there, become gospel. Reputations are carpet-bombed.”
A year into #MeToo, however, organizational investigations of misconduct claims indicate that correctives do occur: in some cases, there’s exoneration, in others not. Steve Paikin, a host with public broadcaster TVO who was accused of harassment in an online post, was cleared in an internal investigation; Jamie Baillie, president of the PC Party of Nova Scotia, stepped down after an internal review into a claim of workplace harassment.
Maclean’s inquiry into the whereabouts of men sidelined by #MeToo found many in retreat, not answering calls or emails. Others have returned to work. Patrick Brown is running for mayor of Brampton, Ont. Baillie is working in the private sector. Zaun is running the Gregg Zaun Baseball Academy, a training camp. But there is also evidence of #MeToo being weaponized. Questions surround the ouster of Michael Harris, the two-term Progressive Conservative MPP for Kitchener-Conestoga on April 7, 2018, hours after media inquiries into texts he exchanged in 2012 with a woman employed under a party internship program. PC caucus chair Lisa Thompson issued a statement that said the texts were “of a sexual nature,” a discussion about potential part-time employment and a request from him for her to send photos. The unidentified woman didn’t register any complaint at the time. The texts came to light in 2013, when they were used as leverage in a grievance over a government job the woman was passed over for.
They were dug up years later from the party’s “red file”—potentially damaging information political parties keep about their own MPPs. The issue was raised the day after political newcomer Mike Harris Jr., son of former Ontario premier Mike Harris (no relation to Michael Harris), lost the PC nomination in neighbouring Waterloo. MPP Harris, who chaired Christine Elliott’s leadership bid, wasn’t given an opportunity to defend himself, nor was he told the issue was being raised until he got an email saying he was being dropped as a candidate. Within weeks, Doug Ford appointed Mike Harris Jr. in Harris’s old riding, scuttling the riding association’s plans for a nomination meeting that would have allowed members to pick their own candidate.
The Tory party line that the provincial nomination committee “unanimously decided to disqualify” Harris as a candidate was countered by Haldimand-Norfolk MPP Toby Barrett, who told media the nomination committee did not agree that Harris’s texts were a firing offence; the decision to dismiss him came from the party’s leadership, he said. “We have a zero-tolerance policy for any kind of misconduct in our party,” Melanie Paradis, press secretary for the Ford campaign, said at the time. Harris declined Maclean’s interview request: “At this time, my family and I are trying to put this behind us and move on after a difficult past few months,” he said in an email.
The headlines resulting from a harassment complaint against Ghomeshi at the CBC in 2014 were seen as a wake-up call for Canadian organizations, says lawyer Christine Thomlinson, whose firm Rubin Thomlinson has become the go-to in investigating high-profile cases, including those involving the CBC, the Canadian Olympic Committee and MP Kent Hehr. “We thought that would shift things,” she says. But it wasn’t until Weinstein that corporations recognized the cost of enabling harassment. “They started to see not just senior harassers falling from grace—that’s the first headline. The second headline is: ‘Did this organization know about this, and are we going to hold them accountable for doing nothing?’ And the answer is ‘Yes we are.’ ”
Those working in employment law report that the past year has seen increased vigilance and more investigations. “Our employer clients are on higher alert,” says Toronto lawyer Angela Khoury. “There’s higher concern about liability—not only internally, but because of the public nature of the #MeToo movement.” Younger women feel more empowered and less hesitant, she says. “Still, there’s always trepidation about coming forward.”
Human rights tribunals are setting new award records. Until 2016, when Ontario passed legislation ordering employers to investigate complaints of sexual harassment, there was an unofficial $40,000 cap for damages in sexual harassment cases, Khoury says. In a shocking 2018 case, A.B. v. Joe Singer Shoes Limited, an unprecedented $200,000 was awarded to a woman who was the tenant of her employer. “She was an immigrant, had no place to turn, and was a single mom,” she notes.
There’s less concern now about investigating or taking steps against higher-level employees. “They’re the ones who attract higher liability,” says Khoury. “It’s not purely punitive to do that,” says Toronto employment lawyer Jennifer Mathers McHenry. “If you’re going to take a woman out of a lucrative industry [or job] and cut her compensation by a third as a result of your behaviour, we have to put people on the hook for that. And if we do that, that rainmaker becomes very dangerous to have around on a pure dollar basis.” Systems need correcting, she says, pointing to the problem that occurs when the accused is represented by the same union as the accuser, a situation seen at the CBC in the Ghomeshi case.
Systemic change is happening, says Lalonde, but it’s largely due to seeds planted before #MeToo. “It’s not from women telling their sob stories on social media; it’s from people lobbying for a long time finally getting a bit of spotlight.” She credits the Globe and Mail’s “Unfounded” investigation—which revealed that police designated one in five sexual assault cases “unfounded,” or baseless—with spurring police to reopen hundreds of “unfounded” files.
#MeToo also fast-tracked the federal government’s fast-tracking of Bill C-65, legislation offering sexual harassment protections to federally regulated workers. Butt sees promising anecdotal indicators that courts are moving toward needed change. There’s a lessening of the shame that complainants have traditionally felt, which inhibits disclosure, he says. Crown attorneys are ensuring that the rights of complainants are respected. And defence lawyers are less inclined to conduct abusive cross-examinations, he says: “Scholarly research shows it may lose the sympathy of the tribunal deciding the case.” The #MeToo movement has played a stealth role, Butt believes. “Justice players are quick to tell you that they’re independent and driven by law, not social whim, and certainly not by mob mentality,” he says. “At the same time, everybody reads the same media. And #MeToo is nothing if not a media phenomenon—with serious substance behind it.” Judges will also say the justice system accomplishes its objectives only to the extent that it has the confidence of the public, he says: “Nobody will say, ‘Because of #MeToo we are doing X,’ but I think you can to a significant extent connect some of those dots.” Butt points to a three-year pilot project, Due Justice for All, a collaboration between legal groups working in sexual violence funded by Status of Women Canada: “It’s focused on alternative responses to sexual misconduct and sexual violence apart from relentlessly prosecuting everything.”
One area everyone agrees harbours huge untapped potential to counter sexual violence and harassment is training bystanders to act. Changing culture can’t just be about harassers and victims, says Thomlinson. “A workplace is an organism; if you take a situation where somebody can’t complain about horrible harassment—I’m an immigrant, I support my extended family, I can’t afford to lose my job—people can say, ‘I work on your team and I see it, I can report it or do various things to support you.’ ”
Education is also needed to help people respond to disclosure of sexual violence in a safe way, says Lalonde, who notes such training is taking place on some campuses. Teaching young girls how to support other young girls who come forward is a big part of the work she does: “How the first person responds to someone holding on to their story dictates whether they tell anyone else.”
Bystander education is a key way to involve men, those in the field note. “The number one reason women don’t tell the men in their lives is because they’re afraid their response will be ‘I’m going to go kick his ass’ or fear he’s going to blame them or question them,” Lalonde says. There’s no absence of men wanting to help, says Nicolle: “It’s an absence of men having the tools to know what to do.” Men often approach her after speaking engagements to say “On behalf of my daughter, thank you so much,” she says. “What I say is ‘It better be on behalf of your son too. Your daughter is witnessing and experiencing it, but your son is going to be the one who is changing behaviour.’ ” Empathy is at root of this, Nicolle says. “If we can’t mobilize empathy from men, we’ll never win.”
Men don’t typically identify their primary emotions—they identify secondary ones, like anger, she says. “They don’t say, ‘I’m angry and that’s caused by frustration, disappointment, whatever.’ They go straight to anger. If boys are educated at a younger age to identify their primary emotions so that when they’re angry they’ll understand why, their anger won’t lead to violence.”
Thomlinson points to greater gender equity and diversity as a solution. “Diverse organizations we encounter—I won’t say they don’t have problems—but they have the fewest serious problems. These are organizations where women tend be viewed in a positive light; they’re given tracks to advancement, they’re not facing the same barriers women face in other organizations,” she says. “People surrounded by people exactly like themselves play shortcuts, which cause problems.”
Lalonde’s focus is also on systemic change: “My end goal is not more women calling the police,” she says. “It’s sexual violence prevention.” A true conversation around prevention hasn’t happened due to the fundamental belief that sexual assault can’t be prevented, she says: “The vast majority of people believe it’s a mental illness; that these men are perverts, freaks and terrible people. They’re not seen as part of the system, or regular people like you and me. The cure is to tell women to report and lock these people up and we can wipe our hands of it.” A vital cog is the consent education recently shelved by the Doug Ford government in Ontario. “We know it works best at elementary and early high school levels. It’s not just ‘don’t touch people without their consent,’ ” Lalonde says, “but normalizing asking for permission—from don’t post pictures of your kids online without asking for their permission to realizing that a picture of you is part of bodily autonomy to crediting people when you post their art online. It’s fostering a culture of respect.”
Diametrically mixed messages about the #MeToo movement played out theatrically in September as #MeToo’s first anniversary neared. U.S. McDonald’s workers staged a one-day strike in 10 cities to pressure management to take stronger steps against sexual harassment. Bill Cosby was sentenced to three to 10 years in a state prison and declared a “dangerous sexual predator.” A less noted yet significant ruling occurred in an Ottawa courtroom. A 19-year-old unfounded case was reopened and tried, with 46-year-old Brian Lance sentenced to five years for sexual interference. In 1998, police didn’t believe a 13-year-old pregnant girl who reported she’d been raped since she was 12. “That’s huge,” Lalonde says of the verdict, praising the complainant’s lawyer, Blair Crew, a leading voice on the unfounded issue.
Cosby judge Steven O’Neill said complainant Andrea Constand’s powerful victim impact statement influenced his sentencing decision. Two days later, Christine Blasey Ford testified at a Senate judiciary hearing that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her 36 years ago. The judge’s indignant denial, buttressed by Republican lawmakers, exposed the privileged bro culture and its systemic protection that in part gave rise to #MeToo. U.S. President Donald Trump pointed to Kavanaugh, and men generally, as #MeToo victims, even though Ford’s accusations didn’t immediately derail his appointment: “This is a very scary time for young men in America when you can be guilty of something that you may not be guilty of,” he said. He’d go on to mock Ford at a rally, as his followers chanted, “Lock her up!”
Ford’s testimony had its own dramatic ripple effect, compelling one woman to report she’d been raped in 2007 by a man who was now a Republican senator. One pivotal scene took place in an elevator, a familiar setting for sexual harassment. In a turning of the tables, sexual assault survivors Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher ambushed Republican Sen. Jeff Flake at the U.S. Capitol after he announced he’d be endorsing Kavanaugh. “Don’t look away from me,” an angry Archila instructed Flake through tears. “Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me.” Such challenge of power underlines #MeToo, a year-old social movement decades in the making. Whether it affects the outcome of the U.S. mid-terms is its next test. The fact that the outcome remains uncertain is a reminder of how far #MeToo has yet to go.
MORE ABOUT #METOO:
- Bill Cosby goes to jail, but Andrea Constand has already done the time
- Jian Ghomeshi’s #MeToo moment: It’s all about him
- On the case of Erin Weir, Jagmeet Singh has done everything right
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