Toronto, Canada – The trial of Jian Ghomeshi, the former Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio star, began on Monday in a Toronto courtroom. Ghomeshi faces four charges of sexual assault and one of choking to overcome resistance, to which he pleaded not guilty at a pre-trial hearing in October.
Justice William Horkins heard testimony from the first of three complainants, none of whom can be named, who said that on two occasions when she was kissing Ghomeshi, he suddenly “switched” from being a “nice” and “charming” guy. On both occasions, he pulled her hair back very hard from behind, she said. On the second occasion, she claimed, he also hit her in the head “multiple times”.
The allegations against Ghomeshi date back to 2002 and 2003, but the details surrounding them only came to light in the autumn of 2014, after the CBC announced that it had severed ties with its most prominent radio host. In response to his dismissal, Ghomeshi published a Facebook post giving his version of why the CBC let him go.
On the same night, the Toronto Star published a story detailing allegations from three women, who claimed that Ghomeshi “struck them with a closed fist or open hand; bit them; choked them until they almost passed out; covered their nose so they had difficulty breathing; and that they were verbally abused during work or after sex”.
Story goes viral
The story immediately dominated headlines and the hashtag #beenrapedneverreported trended worldwide. But while the Ghomeshi case jumped to the international front pages, the issue of sexual harassment and assault was already a familiar one in Canada.
Five months after the Ghomeshi allegations became public, the Ontario government launched a campaign called “It’s Never OK”, an action plan to put an end to sexual harassment and violence. Last autumn, that plan became part of proposed legislation that aims to, among other things, “enhance requirements for sexual harassment prevention programmes” in workplaces, including making sure incidents are properly investigated.
“It will have a fundamental impact on workplace relations, on expectations placed both on the employer and on employees on how they treat each other,” said Blaine Donais, the president and founder of the Workplace Fairness Institute.
But Donais emphasises that this is not a new problem. In fact, other changes in workplace health and safety regulations over the previous five years in Ontario and across the country had worked to increase “the kind of sensitisation of people to these issues,” he said.
Ghomeshi’s was not the first instance of alleged harassment familiar to Canadians by the time it became national news fodder. In the months before his dismissal from the CBC, there were high-profile stories of sexual harassment and assault on Canadian campuses, within its military and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, as well as an ongoing debate over whether to hold a federal inquiry into the thousands of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. These were stories that, on their own, had already prompted a level of national soul-searching.
“I don’t think it was a coincidence that all of this stuff was coming forward at the same time. I think it was that people had reached a point and were fed up, and we were starting to connect the dots,” said Julie Lalonde, a public educator on sexual violence in Ottawa.
Though earlier stories had involved national institutions and prompted discussion individually, the accused in those cases were largely unknown. Ghomeshi, on the other hand, is someone Canadians know. He was the kind of success story Canadians love: a homegrown talent who remained in Canada while breaking through to the US market. Not only that, Ghomeshi was synonymous with the CBC, the nation’s wholesome public broadcaster. In that dual role, he was effectively an extension of the country itself. Ghomeshi’s case was therefore less a catalyst than it was a tipping point.
“It said to people, this could be anyone. It could be your workplace. It could be that nagging feeling that something is happening in your workplace that is making you very uncomfortable, that may not have happened to you, but it could very well be real,” said Barbara Byers, a secretary treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress.
And it is due to this that Lalonde thinks the conversation that began piecemeal is no longer fleeting.
“Every sexual assault centre in the province … saw a dramatic increase in calls to their support lines, post-Jian. People were coming out of the woodwork to talk about assaults that had happened decades prior,” said Lalonde.
“It really, truly, reached average people outside of the bubble, and I think that’s what sustained it … average, everyday women and men were forced to talk about this issue because it was everywhere. And that, to me, is what is encouraging about it. We finally reached out of the bubble.”
The trial continues.