Verdict without end

More than 20 years after former Nova Scotia premier Gerald Regan was acquitted of sexually assaulting multiple women, other women are still coming forward with still more stories of what he did to them, still needing finally “to be heard.” ‘Catherine’ is one of them.

Maclean’s, December 28, 1998.

This column originally appeared in theHalifax ExaminerApril 15, 2019.

I shouldn’t be surprised. Not after Me-too. But I am. Still. It happens more often than you might suppose. I’ll be attending a public event, and someone will come up to me. “Aren’t you the guy who wrote that book, the one about…?” Yes, I am, but it was published 20 years ago.

“My sister… My mother… I…” And then they will tell me a story about an unhappy encounter they had 30, 40, even 50 or more years ago with Gerald Regan, the former premier of Nova Scotia.

In the late 1990s, you may recall, Regan was accused of sexually assaulting 35 different women, was tried for the rape and attempted rape of three of them and, in the end, was convicted of nothing. In 1999, I wrote a book about Regan, his 1998 trial and acquittal.

The women who approach me are — or are somehow connected to — one of Gerald Regan’s seeming legion of other unofficial, unrecorded, unacknowledged victims.

Sometimes, I’ll get an email. “I am a Los Angeles-based writer and psychologist and I am currently writing an inter-generational memoir,” one woman began. She’d discovered her late mother — a “hottie” in her youth — had attended Mount Saint Vincent’s legal secretarial school in the late 1940s. Later, she’d mysteriously disappeared from Nova Scotia, spent several months in Toronto and then returned to Halifax wearing “an ankle-length mink coat.” The LA woman had only recently discovered she had a brother who had been born during her mother’s unaccounted-for time in Toronto and then put up for adoption. She’d finally met him at a family reunion, she wrote, and couldn’t get over his resemblance to pictures she’d seen of Gerald Regan’s family. Was he, she wondered? Could he have been?

I don’t know.

Catherine contacted me more recently. Before we met for coffee earlier this month, she’d already talked with her doctor, been directed to the RCMP who suggested she either go to a police station to record a statement or talk with counselors at the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre “who could help me in deciding how best to pursue my decision to relate my experience.” That eventually led her to the Crown prosecutor’s office, which had handled the original Regan case, where someone suggested my name to her.

Catherine is not her real name. And while her story in its particulars is her own, her account is also, in its general outlines, distressingly familiar.

Born in Ontario, Catherine moved to Nova Scotia with her family when was still in her teens. She studied briefly at Dalhousie University where she excelled in French. But in September 1970, before the start of her second year — and, coincidentally, just a month before a man she didn’t know named Gerald Regan became premier of Nova Scotia — she and her sister flew to Paris to begin what would become a multi-year adventure-odyssey, traveling and working around France and England.

John Shaffner, lieutenant governor

In July 1973, after she’d returned to London from Nice, Catherine’s father suggested she apply for a job with John Shaffner, Nova Scotia’s soon-to-be agent general in London.

Becoming an agent general — a fancy title for a UK-based official representative of (and chief salesman for) a Canadian province or Australian state — had become a popular patronage plum back among backroom political operatives in the 1960s and ’70s. Sometime in the spring or summer of 1973, Gerald Regan had announced the appointment of Shaffner, a well-connected, prominent Annapolis Valley Liberal businessman-bagman as agent general.

Two quick asides:

  • In 1978, Shaffner would go on to snag an even bigger patronage plum, a six-year stint as the lieutenant governor, the Queen’s representative in Nova Scotia.
  • Perhaps more germane to this story, Shaffner may have inadvertently knocked over the first domino in the long falling chain that would ultimately lead to the RCMP investigation that led to the charges against Gerald Regan. It’s too long and complex a tale to tell here, but the Cliff’s Notes version: In 1970, shortly after Regan was elected premier, Shaffner managed to insult Donald Ripley, a stockbroker and Tory bagman who’d come to curry favour with the new premier. Ripley never forgave nor forgot, and he blamed Regan for the slight. More than 20 years later, he took his long-nursed grudge, along with a “modest dog’s breakfast of facts, fiction and frustration,” to the RCMP and demanded they look into Regan’s dealings with women… But I digress.

Catherine, who was just 22, knew nothing of Nova Scotia political intrigue and not much more about her new boss, a rather quiet and distant, business-like older man who “smoked Rothman’s constantly.”

Her own tasks included handling routine office work, responding to requests for information about immigration and tourism, occasionally making tea for Shaffner. Until the office hired its own chauffeur — “a man named Geoffrey” — that task also fell to Catherine too, and she remembers Shaffner also “suggested I entertain his wife Nell as she was unfamiliar with London.”

She’d barely settled into her job when Regan, whom she didn’t know and had never met, flew into London with a number of other men she also didn’t know but guessed were somehow connected with his government. They arrived with boxloads of lobster. She recalls they’d come to London for a trade mission. She remembers the group spent a few days in London and that there was some sort of official reception and what she recalled as a lobster dinner.

Catherine, who was both young and attractive, attended the official reception, which took place in the A-G’s headquarters, a suite of offices located in Pall Mall, “an area of fashionable executive suites and exclusive men’s clubs.” At some point, she distinctly remembers Regan giving “a knowing look and nod to John Shaffner, telling him in front of me that I was to come along after the lobster event. I wasn’t asked.  It was expected I would go.”

At the time, Catherine had no idea of Regan’s already notorious reputation with young women. She remembers going to the fashionable Dorchester Hotel, which was popular at the time with rock bands and movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; remembers being directed, surprisingly, to a private suite rather than a public reception room; remembers the long, ornate corridors; remembers entering the suite; remembers noticing there were other people — all men?  — in the suite; remembers seeing a large bed in the room; remembers being handed a drink.

“Shortly thereafter, the men started leaving, as if on cue.”

Leaving Catherine alone with Gerald Regan.

“I was dessert,” she says simply.

There were no preliminaries. She says Regan threw her down on the bed, climbed on top of her. She remembers “an enormous weight on top of me pinning me down. I remember struggling to free myself with the smell of alcohol and frantic sexual advances.” She struggled to free herself, eventually escaped and ran out of the room and fled from the hotel across Knightsbridge.

She says she has blotted out the specifics of what transpired before she escaped — “for obvious reasons.

She believes — but can’t prove — that Shaffner, who died in 2001, was aware of what was going to happen, as were, probably, at least some of the men in that hotel suite, who understood Regan’s reputation far better than she did. When she returned to work, the incident was never mentioned. The only person she told at the time was her sister.

Although Catherine went on with her life, the events of that day continued to haunt her. She believes they affected her future relationships with men.

In the summer of 1998, while still based in France, she visited her parents in Nova Scotia with her two young boys. The charges against Regan were playing out in news headlines at the time, she says. “If I had lived here at the time, I might have come forward and told my story, but to whom? How would I go about it?  I certainly would not have wanted publicity.”

In 2003, she returned to Canada for good with her children “after years of a very difficult domestic situation.” She says still thought about what happened in that hotel room in London in 1973, and what she could or should do about it, but it wasn’t until after the emergence of the Me-too movement that “I decided I should stand with other women and add my name to theirs in support.”

Legally, of course, there is not much to be done. Regan himself is now 91 and unwell. Nova Scotia’s Public Prosecution Service took what it believed was its best shot against Regan back in 1998 — those rape and attempted rape charges — and failed to win a conviction. Even if Nova Scotia prosecutors had the stomach for another court battle, they couldn’t charge him in connection with Catherine’s allegations. Because the offence took place in London, she would have to bring her information to the police there.

But Catherine says she never wanted — and still doesn’t want — to pursue charges. “I just wanted to put this to rest after so many years, to be heard, to tell someone who would listen and respect my story, that maybe it could be documented in the right place somewhere. Above all, I wanted to do justice to all the other women who were violated by this man.”

Did what she says happened really happen?

It’s impossible to say for legally certain, of course, but there is no question the incident Catherine describes fits the pattern of Regan’s alleged behaviour with 35 other, unrelated-to-each-other women who did come forward to police in the 1990s, describing incidents that had happened to them over the course of more than four decades. It also rings true to the dozen or more other stories various women have shared with me over the years.

And there is something else. After I talked with Catherine, I tracked down a Canadian Press report from London, datelined Wednesday, October 31, 1973.

“Premier Gerald Regan officially opened Nova Scotia’s new London headquarters Tuesday night at a reception in the suite of offices in Pall Mall,” it began. The story mentioned the reception’s host was the province’s new agent general, Shaffner.

The story ended with a reference to the lobster event. “To help promote the new undertaking, Regan will be host today at a Nova Scotia lobster luncheon for British dignitaries.”

There was no mention of dessert.

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