During his lifetime, Donald Sobey did his best to bury the truth of his 1991 sexual assault conviction with dismissive public statements, non-disclosure agreements, a federal pardon, philanthropy and many, many good deeds. None of that made the life of the young man he’d assaulted any easier. Now Derek Power is telling his story, finally claiming his own justice.
There are legitimate questions.
And — more significantly — why now?
On Wednesday, August 24, 2022, the Globe and Mail published “Donald Sobey’s Sexual Assault of a Young Man was an Open Secret. Now his Victim is Finally Telling his Story,” a feature I co-reported and wrote with Globe business reporter Joe Castaldo. You can read it here.
One focus of the story was an historic sexual assault committed by Donald Sobey, a scion of the Sobeys.
In August 1991, Sobey, then 56 and the chair of Empire Company Ltd., the Sobey family holding company, pled guilty to a summary offence of sexual assault against a 20-year-old male student and paid a $750 fine. As soon as he was eligible, Sobey applied for and was granted a federal pardon, meaning the police and court records are no longer available. A year later, Sobey launched his family foundation, which has since donated millions of dollars to education, the arts and various environmental causes. He was eventually named to the Order of Canada and awarded eight university honorary degrees.
When he died on March 24, 2021, Sobey was lauded not only as “an astute businessman who helped the grocery store business his father founded in rural Nova Scotia expand into a multi-billion-dollar national company,” but also and “equally, as a philanthropist who championed Canadian visual art and post-secondary education.”
Which again raises those niggling questions. Why publish this story at all and, especially, why now — 31 years after his sexual assault conviction, nearly a year-and-a-half after his death?
The short answer is because this is not just Donald Sobey’s story. It is also the story of Derek Power, the then-20-year-old university student who was the victim of Sobey’s assault.
Because famed criminal lawyer Joel Pink quietly pled guilty on behalf of his not-present-in-the courtroom client in the middle of a news “dead zone” on a Friday afternoon on the eve of a long weekend in August 1991, Derek never had the opportunity to tell his story in court.
Because everyone who was in the court that day — Pink, the Crown, even the judge — did their best to minimize what had actually happened, no one knew this was not just a minor one-time, one-off indiscretion as it had been portrayed, but that Sobey had been, in fact, a family friend, a mentor who took advantage of a young man’s hopes and dreams. And not for the first time.
Later that same year, Derek applied to the then-recently formed Nova Scotia Criminal Injuries Compensation Board for compensation for his lost university year and a summer of tree planting.
But his application somehow — the records no longer exist to explain what happened — got shunted off to a Sobey lawyer to be dealt with privately, quietly. There is almost certainly a very Nova Scotia story buried somewhere deep inside what transpired there, but let’s leave that for another day.
The lawyer, Rob Dexter, pre-emptively compensated Derek while buying his silence with a cash settlement that came with the handcuffs of a non-disclosure agreement.
Despite that, Derek — whose life was indelibly marked by what happened to him at the hands of Sobey — did attempt from time to time over the past 30 years to tell his story, if only to counter the Donald-Sobey-as-iconic-do-gooder narrative.
His efforts inevitably came to nothing.
Finally, in June 2020, Dalhousie University announced plans for a new international restorative justice lab thanks — as the news release explained — to “the generous support of the Donald R. Sobey Foundation.”
Derek Power zeroed in on the words “Sobey” and “justice” in the announcement and wondered why there had been no justice for him. “I lost my noodle,” he admits. “Restorative justice? I was like, ‘I gotta call bullshit on this.’”
On January 26, 2021, an out-of-the-blue email from someone I’d never heard of landed in my website’s inbox:
I was the kid who charged shithead Donald Sobey.
I am obviously not a kid anymore.
I would like to see if you could help with some research.
I left the Sobeys alone, since that crazy shit went down.
I was a family friend of 5 years… first time [he] raped me was when I was 15…
I am blown away to learn that their foundation has supported Dalhousie law program on restorative justice.
Holy shit!!!! This is what has finally gotten my goat. Such hypocrisy. I cannot stand for it as a father of two.
These guys gaslighted me. I was young then and I [am] much older and wiser now.
I cannot let them get that recognition.
I would like to tell the whole story.
PS I am much better on the phone.
Journalists often get these sorts of letters. Most end up in the wastebasket, dismissed, too often mistakenly, as crackpot stuff. or, sometimes, recognized as probably legitimate but way too complicated for any independent journalist to ever untangle.
I’m not exactly sure what prompted me to reply to Derek’s note. Most likely, it was because I sort of remembered the incident he was referring to — and had always been curious about how quickly and completely it had been swept under the rug.
My recollection of the story that circulated after Sobey’s Friday afternoon guilty plea was that Sobey had been drunk and encountered a young man — probably a male prostitute — in a washroom at Scotia Square. There’d been a misunderstanding and, well, the minor sexual assault charge had been the unfortunate result.
That — as you’ll realize if you read the Globe story — is as far from what happened as you can get. As important, the incident that led to the charge was not the first time Donald Sobey had attempted to take advantage of Derek Power, then a university student at Dalhousie where Donald Sobey himself sat on the board.
In the end, I did reach out to Derek and conducted a series of Zoom interviews to help me begin to understand the story behind that long-gone-and-forgotten-by-everyone-else assault. I quickly realized Derek’s was a story that needed/deserved to be told.
Coincidentally, Derek had also told his story to a Toronto neighbour who happened to be an editor at the Globe, who then reached out to me. We agreed to work on the story together.
But then, three months after we’d begun digging, Donald Creighton Rae Sobey died, touching off a heartfelt — and legitimate — starburst of tributes for his longtime support for the arts, education and various other good works.
My first thought then was that that was probably the end of any opportunity to tell Derek’s story, that it would seem unseemly to resurrect that long and deeply buried tale now. It was a crime for which Sobey had, after all, pled guilty, paid his fine, been granted a pardon and gone on to a life of public service.
Luckily, the Globe’s editors took a broader, more nuanced view of the situation, recognizing that this was also very much the story of a silenced victim who deserved finally to be allowed to tell his story.
Donald Sobey’s family’s response to the story was interesting too. As is standard in stories of this sort, we sent the Sobeys company and members of the family letters asking them detailed questions about Derek’s versions of events to give them a chance to have their say. The family chose not to respond to our questions, but they also did not contest what Derek had said.
Perhaps more significantly, they too thoughtfully acknowledged the need for victims’ voices to be heard.
We believe there is much we all can learn from the voices of victims. The family of Donald R. Sobey regrets this matter.
More than 30 years after he was silenced, Derek Power has finally had the opportunity to tell his story. I hope it brings him the peace he deserves.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner.
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