Demonstrators show support for survivors of sexual assault.
Demonstrators show support for survivors of sexual assault.

News | McGill students, Montrealers debate and protest Ghomeshi verdict

Demonstrators decry lack of support for survivors of sexual assault

In response to the March 24 verdict where former CBC radio broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi was acquitted of four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking, several groups at McGill and in the broader Montreal community organized events to discuss and protest the verdict.

Ethics in criminal sexual assault trials

On March 29, McGill Law students Anna Goldfinch and Nazampal Jaswal hosted a panel called “Beyond Ghomeshi: Creating Ethical Practices in Criminal Sexual Assault Trials.” The panel featured crown prosecutor Sara Henningsson, criminal defence lawyer Suzanne Costom, Constance Backhouse, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, and Toronto-based community activist, support worker, and artist Chenthoori Malankov. The panel was moderated by Alana Klein, a criminal law professor at the McGill Faculty of Law.

Henningsson said that “the [Ghomeshi] trial received so much attention that it is difficult to plow through and prosecute the case.”

In the verdict, Justice William Horkins questioned the three complainants’ credibility and said they were “less than full, frank and forthcoming” in their version of events. At the panel, Costom argued that “complainants, if caught in a lie, throw their whole testimony into doubt, even if it is about something as small as the weather.”

“We still search for the ‘worthy victim,’ but it is now masked in the language of credibility.”

Backhouse, a legal historian, suggested that the scrutiny of the complainants’ credibility was motivated by sexist norms of disbelief towards survivors of sexual assault. “We still search for the ‘worthy victim,’ but it is now masked in the language of credibility,” she said. “Our deeply sexist culture is reaching back into history.”

While discussions of the fairness of the verdict have been polarizing, Goldfinch told The Daily that “there aren’t actually ‘sides’ to this issue per se, but rather complex societal issues and a criminal justice system that is not always equipped to acknowledge and address these issues. Law can be overly clinical sometimes, and it can forget to address historical context, or issues of systemic discrimination, and trauma.”

She continued, “This is why in addition to bringing in lawyers who practice criminal law, we also brought a legal historian and a community activist and support worker to humanize the discussion.”

Jaswal told The Daily in an interview, “It was important for me to come into the space wanting to learn. While the panel discussions were going on, I was confronted with points of view and information about the realities of the court process that I hadn’t considered. Hearing a range of perspectives, I now feel better equipped to enter into this discussion myself.”

Demonstration at McGill

On March 31, the Sexual Assault Centre of McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS), as part of its annual Sexual Assault Awareness Week, organized a demonstration in support of survivors as a response to the Ghomeshi trial. Held in Community Square, the demonstration aimed to create a space to discuss the failure of the criminal justice system and the McGill administration to support survivors of sexual assault.

On the Facebook event page for the demonstration, the organizers wrote, “In the wake of the Ghomeshi trial, we are reminded that our criminal justice system, and our society at large, do not support survivors. We are reminded that our own university does not have institutionalized mechanisms to deal with sexual violence, nor has committed to the pro-survivor, intersectional support we need.”

Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) VP University Affairs Chloe Rourke spoke about the University’s lack of cooperation with regard to the Sexual Violence Policy, formerly known as the Sexual Assault Policy.

“No matter how many articles are written, no matter how many student leaders speak up, no matter how much research we show them, it seems that they still refuse to listen, and that is so incredibly frustrating to me.”

“No matter how many articles are written, no matter how many student leaders speak up, no matter how much research we show them, it seems that they still refuse to listen, and that is so incredibly frustrating to me,” Rourke said.

She continued, “We shouldn’t need a public scandal to happen [for survivors] to be listened to. And we don’t want change that comes from harm. We want change and we want it now.”

Sara Sebti, an Iranian McGill student who attended the demo, noted that Ghomeshi is Iranian, but that the Iranian community has been silent on Ghomeshi’s actions. In an email to The

Daily Sebti spoke of grappling with the fact that “the men of colour in my life […] who were beacons of hope for a generation, simultaneously harmed those they loved behind closed doors.”

Sebti wrote, “Where do we start, what is the goal, how do I have these conversations with my family? I am afraid and at times I feel bitterly alone.”

“Cry-in” to voice grief for survivors

The same day as the demonstration, a “cry-in” was held in Phillips Square for people to voice their grief for the four women who testified against Ghomeshi and all survivors of sexual assault. The event was inspired by a similar cry-in organized in New York in March 2015, in honour of Ana Mendieta, a Cuban-American artist. Mendieta was allegedly killed by her husband, who was acquitted based on grounds of “reasonable doubt.”

Tessa Liem, an organizer of the event, explained to The Daily in an email that the goal of the event was to reclaim crying, typically seen as a sign of feminine weakness, as an act of protest and healing. “Our sadness is meant to be a form of resistance. It is also meant to acknowledge the very real pain of survivors and allies,” wrote Liem.

Around 15 people sat in a semicircle facing the sidewalk at Phillips Square with signs explaining their action. “We were received positively for the most part,” noted Liem. “Passersby shared their own stories with us, two young men sat with us for a few minutes, another man said, ‘it’s not easy what you’re doing’ and congratulated us.”

“I realized I didn’t want to cry, I wanted to scream with rage,” Cherie, another organizer of the event, told The Daily in an interview. “For me this was the most epic part, and the part that felt the best for me, in terms of getting out my feelings that were bottled up in me. So I just started screaming, like rage power hardcore screaming and then everybody was letting loose, and it was ricocheting off the skyscrapers.”

“So often we are told that we should be composed, ‘keep it together,’ and many of us do compose: we write essays, stories, poems,” said Liem. “But really the event was about asking people to acknowledge that these traumas are devastating.”

An earlier version of this article misspelled Constance Backhouse’s name as “Blackhouse” in one instance. The Daily regrets the error.