Get it out of the way first. I do believe those women who came forward to accuse former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi of sexually assaulting them. And I salute their courage in doing so.
That said, I don’t agree with those who want to silence Ghomeshi’s lawyer, Marie Henein, for the crime of having done her own very important job in the criminal justice system so successfully.
Some context. Four Canadian liberal arts universities — Bishop’s, Mount Allison, Acadia and St. Francis Xavier — recently banded together under the umbrella of something called the Maple League of Universities to promote themselves by — among other initiatives — staging public lectures, live at one university and live-streamed at the others. Speakers include former Prime Minister Paul Martin, novelist Joseph Boyden, Nobel-prize-winning scientist Art McDonald, Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner-Senator Murray Sinclair and… lawyer Marie Henein.
Choosing Henein — ironically, the only woman among the listed speakers — has aroused the ire of some women’s advocates, including especially at St. F.X.
“You might remember Henein from last winter’s Jian Ghomeshi trial,” women and gender studies major Jasmine Cormier wrote in a November 17 column for the Xaverian Weekly. “Henein tore apart Ghomeshi’s victims/accusers using victim blaming and manipulative tactics in order to allow Ghomeshi to walk free.”
While acknowledging “universities are an important place to have conversations,” Cormier was quick to add they shouldn’t include Henein. “In all fairness to everyone at this university, the safety of students at this school comes first and foremost, and is more important than hosting a woman who has spent her career contesting women who are possible victims of sexual assault.”
The danger in having conversations about sexual assault and how it should be dealt with in the criminal justice system without someone like Henein involved is that such a discussion becomes insular and circular, and gets us nowhere.
Marie Henein is a smart, ambitious, tough woman. She decided to be a criminal lawyer while she was still in junior high school. She not only became that lawyer but also made herself into a brilliant courtroom tactician and performer. Another of her high-profile clients and someone who should know, the former attorney general of Ontario, has called her “the best criminal lawyer in the country.” She is routinely lauded by other women in her profession as a mentor and role model for young female lawyers. And she is a compassionate — as well as passionate — advocate, helping create an Ontario organization that provides pro bono legal assistance to prisoners who’ve run out of legal options, including many “aboriginal people or those battling mental health issues.”
That she is also now best known as the much vilified lawyer of the even more vilified Ghomeshi only shows that none of us is just one, uncomplicated person.
It is not Henein’s fault the Ghomeshi case didn’t turn out the way many of us believed it should.
Given that the specific allegations of sexual assault against Ghomeshi were not reported to police immediately — understandable — and that the case therefore inevitably came down to she said/he didn’t, it was clear questions about the women’s interactions with Ghomeshi before and after those alleged assaults would become relevant to determining credibility.
We know sexual abuse victims do sometimes continue to be in contact — and even make nice — with their abusers. If Ghomeshi’s accusers’ subsequent “friendly” contacts with him had been brought out by the crown and explained during the women’s initial direct testimony instead of through Henein’s out-of-nowhere disclosure followed by her withering cross examination, the legal result might have been different.
But that’s not Henein’s fault.
Did the crown not ask the women about any contacts they’d had with Ghomeshi after their assaults, including through easily traceable emails and social media? Did they ask, and the women not tell them? We don’t know the answers to those questions, but we do know that, by raising them first and then skillfully employing them to create a counter-narrative, Henein was simply doing her job on behalf of her client. And doing it well.
That said, the Ghomeshi case does raise important, difficult larger questions. How can the rights of accusers and those accused in sexual assault cases be best protected in the courtroom? Is our currently constructed legal system the fairest — or only way — to handle allegations of sexual assault? What better ways are there?
Those are questions that require honest, open conversations. Including, perhaps especially, with people like Marie Henein.