Gerald Regan and the legacy of our #MeToo moment

It isn’t the jury’s verdict from 1998 we should be remembering, but the fact the RCMP and prosecutors finally chose to believe women over one of the country’s most powerful political men. And, more important, that women — lots of them — stood up for other women, and said ‘me too’ before #MeToo.

Maclean’s, December 28, 1998.

This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner December 17, 2018.

“Members of the jury, have you agreed upon your verdicts?”

The court clerk asked her rote question with a wavering, tell-me-don’t-tell-me tone that seemed to capture perfectly the nervous, nerve-wracked mood among the more than three dozen men and women sitting in the Halifax Law Court’s Courtroom 3-1 on the blustery afternoon of December 18, 1998.

Everyone in the sterile, high-ceiling, red-bricked courtroom — Gerald Regan, his wife Carole, their six grown children, their spouses, RCMP Sgt. Jerry Pretty, defence lawyer Eddie Greenspan, Crown prosecutor Adrian Reid, their respective legal associates and support staff, the rows of suddenly no-longer-bored-been-there-done-that reporters, the clutch of curious between-hearings lawyers and the gaggle of faithful courtroom regulars, Greenspan groupies and Regan haters, many of whom had sat through every hour of every day of this six-week trial — craned to look at the six women and four men in the jury box, trying to read the tea leaves of their faces for some sign of the outcome, waiting with a kind of desperate unease for the pregnant pause between the clerk’s question and the jury forewoman’s answer to finally end.

The moment only seemed to last forever.

“We have,” the jury forewoman said…

From Aphrodisiac: Sex, Politics, Power and Gerald Regan

Twenty years ago tomorrow (December 18, 1998), we had our own not/almost/actually-yes Nova Scotia #MeToo moment in the case of the Queen versus Gerald Augustine Regan.

I spent close to five years covering that case while researching a nonfiction book about the avalanche of remarkably similar sexual assault allegations made by close to three dozen girls and women concerning incidents that had happened to them over the course of 40 years before, during and after the eight years Gerald Regan spent as Nova Scotia’s 19th premier from 1970-78.

The book began life in my head as Aphrodisiac: Sex, Politics, Power and Gerald Regan, an attempt to weave the memories of those women’s encounters with a biographical account of Regan’s private life and public career.

By the time the book was ready to be published, of course, Regan had been found not guilty on the most serious charges against him and my publisher — and my publisher’s lawyer — thought better of the title. It eventually became “NOT GUILTY”: The Trial of Gerald Regan.

In late 2016, in the light of Donald Trump ‘s Access Hollywood tapes and Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi — and in the inevitable foreshadow of Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo and the rest — I re-released it as an e-book under its original title and with many of the bits that had been lawyered out restored.

In the light of all that has happened in the last few years, I am often asked — and ask myself — about the significance now of that 20-year-old trial? Was there any?

First a quick recap.

The 1993 RCMP investigation into Regan’s behaviour with women was triggered, not by one of the women Regan had assaulted — who probably knew better than to assume anything would come of a single and perhaps singular complaint against such a powerful man — but by one of Regan’s embittered political rivals seeking to embarrass him.

Perhaps surprisingly — for the times and for Nova Scotia in particular — the Mounties assigned to the file took the allegations, which had been floating in the political ether in Nova Scotia for at least 20 years, seriously, and they doggedly pursued them.

When Frank magazine and the CBC first broke the story about the RCMP’s investigation in late October 1993, Regan himself went on national television to denounce the allegations as “nonsense.”

His airy dismissal — and what became ongoing public attacks on the women and their allegations by Regan, as well as his high-powered, higher-priced Toronto lawyer, Eddie Greenspan — ultimately became Regan’s undoing.

More women came forward in response. And then more still. Many had long since come to terms with their own encounters with Regan and moved on. But they wanted the world to know the allegations weren’t nonsense, and that the women who’d complained were telling the truth and deserved to be believed.

In 1995, the Mounties filed their first criminal charges against Regan: 17 sexual assault allegations involving 13 different women. By the time a rancorous 67-day preliminary hearing ended abruptly in 1996 after the Crown decided to proceed directly to trial, the number of women making formal complaints against Regan had risen to 35.

In the end, prosecutors decided to try Regan only on a cluster of eight of the most serious charges, including rape, attempted rape and forcible confinement involving three different women.

Over the course of six weeks in a Halifax courtroom in the fall of 1998, Greenspan blustered and badgered and browbeat, attacking the women’s memory of long-lost details (like the site of the gravel pit where one said Regan had raped her 42 years before), or turning another woman’s totally unrelated teenager fib (she had told school officials the lie to ensure she’d be in a class with students her own age) into incontrovertible evidence she was a liar about everything who could never be believed about anything, including whether Regan had tried to rape her.

The outcome was — and was not — a surprise.

Given what we’ve seen in many more recent trials, it’s as likely Gerald Regan would be acquitted in 2018 as he was in 1998.

But that doesn’t make what happened in Courtroom 3-1 in the fall of 1998 meaningless.

For significant starters, the RCMP and the prosecutors had taken the women’s allegations of sexual misconduct by a powerful Nova Scotia politician seriously and followed the evidence where it led — to charges and to a trial.

That they did so was probably the result of something even more significant — the fact so many women, with nothing to gain and everything to lose, came forward to say they too had been sexually assaulted by Gerald Regan. (I still occasionally hear from, or run into some of those women — in the street, at social events, at other people’s memorial services — and I don’t sense they regret their decision, despite the outcome.) Their solidarity became critical, not only in ensuring Regan was finally held to account in a public trial but also in what followed.

Although details of their allegations had been the subject to a publication ban while the trial played out in the courtroom, that all changed the moment the jury was sequestered and the ban expired.

What happened after that was that almost no one anywhere accepted the courtroom verdict as the correct — or final — judgement on the conduct of Gerald Regan.

“The headline on the front page of the Perspectives section of the next day’s Halifax Daily News was almost openly dismissive of the verdict: “Meet Our O.J.: Gerald Regan” read the headline over an opinion piece by popular local columnist David Swick. “It’s the verdict Nova Scotians expected because we don’t expect our justice system to give us justice,” Swick wrote. “We expect powerful, wealthy people to be found not guilty. Not guilty, by the divine right of kings and premiers.”

While the jury was deliberating, Rick Howe, the host of CJCH Radio’s open line program, had asked his listeners to call with their predictions on the outcome. “The phones lit up and they didn’t stop for two hours,” Howe recalled later. “To a person, they said they believed he was guilty, but that he would get off.” On his next show, Howe asked listeners what they thought of the verdict. “People called back to say, ‘We told you so.’”

Christie Blatchford, whose National Post reports on the trial — part conventional straight reportage, part very personal opinion column — had helped make many of the issues in the case more real for her readers, wrote a retrospective column after the verdict in which she told her readers she’d begun her coverage of the trial with an open mind, but had come away at the end believing the stories of the three women who said Gerald Regan had raped or attempted to rape them.

The Toronto Sun, while endorsing the verdict — “[Regan] has been found not guilty by a jury of his peers of any criminal wrongdoing and that is good enough for us” — was quick to add: “But we also do not intend to abandon all common sense.… Many people also know that in both provincial and federal politics, Regan had a reputation as someone women were well advised not to be alone with in a room.” In the editorial, The Sun, which had been generally sympathetic to Regan in its trial coverage, added: “We believe that when more than twenty women — many of whom were teenagers at the time — all come forward with stories of inappropriate conduct by one man — a powerful figure in Canadian politics to boot — then that is something the public should note.”

An Edmonton Journal editorial went even further: “It is more than reasonable to conclude,” it argued, “that Gerald Regan reached the high office of Canadian premier despite a lifetime of disgusting behaviour toward many young girls and women.””

From Aphrodisiac: Sex, Politics, Power and Gerald Regan

There is still more about the verdict’s aftermath in this excerpt from the Prologue to Aphrodisiac, and in this story I wrote for The Coast after the Crown had decided to drop all its legal proceedings against Regan in April 2002.

Ultimately, what is important about the case of Gerald Regan — and what remains important to this day — is that it marked a psychological turning point. We knew Gerald Regan had been found not guilty of rape and attempted rape in a court of law, but we also knew we didn’t have to accept that as the final word, that we could choose to believe the women, we could choose common sense. And it was those women, standing up for other women, saying #MeToo, who made that possible.

Thanks to them, Canadians could offer an “Amen” to the Ottawa man who’d confront Regan in the corridor outside the courtroom after the verdict: “I think you know every Canadian knows you’re guilty,” he yelled. “And you can take that to your grave!”

As for Gerald Regan — a politician who has thought a lot about history and long imagined his own place in it — he has to know his own legacy will never escape that verdict of common sense.

It isn’t justice but it is something.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner
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