Saturday, March 26, 2016

Hard lessons from the Ghomeshi trial

     As news of the Jian Ghomeshi verdict started coming out this week, I felt like a human version of those three monkeys who see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil - all stopped up so I wouldn't have to hear what was coming.
     I'd had a bad feeling about where things were going from the moment that the first witness was eviscerated by the defence lawyer about her behaviour after the alleged assault.
     The witnesses, like me, didn't remember things they'd done 13 years earlier, and clearly weren't prepared to have those things flung back at them in detail by the defence lawyer with the worst light possible shining on them.
     I don't know why they weren't warned in advance that unlike other crimes, a sexual assault allegation means everybody's going to be scrutinizing your behaviours before and after, looking for evidence that you're a lying slut. But the trial has certainly been a good reminder of that. We like our victims of sexual assault to be snow white, and immune to the complex feelings that come when you're assaulted by someone that you thought liked you.
    They also weren't prepared to go up against a man who obviously knew there might be a day in the distant future when the women he assaulted would disagree with his version of events, and so kept every email, every note, every easily misinterpreted thing that people say in the oh-so-complicated circumstances of being struck in the face or choked by celebrities they'd been attracted to.
     "I’ve never felt so bad about being myself than I do now," witness Lucy DeCoutere told Chatelaine magazine this week. Could there be a sadder statement than that about how well our court system serves victims of sexual assault?
     Read this post-verdict piece from Witness No. 1 and weep. The things this woman wishes she'd known before bringing her allegations are things that virtually none of us know. Most of us would come to the court system with nothing more but a few episodes of Law and Order to prepare us, and perhaps naively thinking that being a victim gives you some sort of protection from the violence of a criminal trial.
     Why is that? Why do we wring our hands about doing something about sexual assault - the vast majority of which happens at the hands of people we have invited to come closer, who we've initially given consent to, thus making things complicated and unclear from the outset  - yet still talk so little about what awaits people when they dare to bring charges?
     Ah, but now we're all quite a bit clearer about that last point. The Ghomeshi verdict hasn't brought any sense of resolution, but it did bring a crystal-clear focus on how inadequate our justice system is in handling complex cases of intimacy gone off the rails, especially when the accused is so very, very aware of masking his violent behaviours through the artifice of consent.
     The only good thing to come out of this is the web site that one of the witnesses has now launched, comingforward.ca. She told Chatelaine she hopes the site will help survivors of sexual assault "find some guidance before going to police and taking the stand.
     "Right now, there’s nowhere to look all of that up, and no one to talk to," she said in the interview. "I wish I’d known all of that from the minute I walked into the police station. But I still think — as horrible as the system is — more people have to come forward. If everyone stays quiet, it’s never going to change."
 
Find Canadian sexual assault statistics here.
     

Thursday, March 03, 2016

When all the smoke clears and you see

The median family, before the little girl on the right broke her leg
     I’m just back in Nicaragua after a couple of weeks in Canada hanging out with my family, and going through one of those re-entry things where I’m suddenly reawakened to the many sad stories in Managua.
      Mostly, people cope down here, and with a smile on their face. But when you re-enter after two weeks of happy family time with all your healthy, well-fed and extremely well-tended grandchildren and their many friends, there can be this brief period where you see the place as it compares to where you just came from. And that can really get you down.
     First thing I saw after I hailed a cab near the airport Wednesday night was a motorcycle accident in which the stunned driver sitting on the roadside appeared to have his lower leg nearly severed. He sat bleeding and in shock as a huge crowd of people tried to wave down people with trucks and vans who could take him to hospital.
     The ambulance will come, my taxi driver assured me. But all I could think of was the legion of first responders who would have been all over that guy back in my land. And what will happen to him once the ambulance comes? There are good hospitals in Nicaragua, and the people tell me there are decent public ones. But the life of a young Nicaraguan with a serious leg injury and a long recovery ahead of him will be difficult well after the hospital work is done.
     And how will he work? Because if he can’t, there’s nothing for him other than to depend on his family to help him. There’s a form of social security here for people of a certain age who have had many years of steady employment in the right kind of jobs, but other than that there is very little for anyone who can’t pay their own way. No worker’s comp, no unemployment insurance, no income assistance, no special help for people with disabilities. I suspect we sometimes forget that ending global poverty isn’t just about wages and access to work, it’s about state-managed social support and a sense of responsibility for the welfare of all citizens.
     So that leads me to my next sad story, of a four-year-old girl with a broken leg who begs with her mother in the median near one of the malls not far from our house. I met the family when I took their photo playing Monopoly on the street, and now that I know where they hang out, I am finding them in my view much more often.
      I brought some Value Village toys back for the kids from Canada. There are four of them, and they look to me to be roughly ages 13, 11, 8 and 4. They live near the bus station down the road. I think the oldest three go to school, but the mom is always on the median until about 5 p.m. with the youngest one, who broke her leg in some accident while under her aunt’s watch, the mother tells me. The mother has the girl on her knee and an empty paper coffee cup in her hand, hoping the motorists will toss a few c√≥rdobas her way.
     The girl is on her third full-leg cast. I feel like it’s taking really long, and today she looked quite listless and jaundiced. But unless it’s someone like me who steps up – and what exactly am I even proposing to do? – a family like that will just have to go along and see where it all ends up. They will accept the care they’re given and get by as they can, even if the next generation of median beggar is being born right at this moment, inside a little four-year-old girl who at this moment has a broken leg that just won’t heal.
     OK, so now imagine that whole scene again if they lived in Canada. And there’s the sad moment right there. It wouldn’t happen that way in Canada. But it does in Nicaragua and around the world, and sometimes it just gets me to see such a blatant statement of how unfair life can be.
     A good Canadian can end up paralyzed by Western guilt and pity at moments like that. But really, a better reaction would be to take the hit of sadness, think about how a society even begins to change some of that stuff, and then point a little well-aimed wealth from richer countries toward getting all of that happening in countries that are struggling.
     As for you and me, I guess our role is to elect governments that feel the same way while opening our eyes to the quixotic and cruel ways of the world, and doing what we can when we see a problem unfolding in front of us. Act locally, think globally.
          Because if all we do is fix our own country, we leave a whole lot of people behind solely because they were born in the wrong time, wrong country. What with all of us dependent on the other in so many ways in this modern world, that’s got to change. “Somebody has to do something about that, and it’s incredibly pathetic that it has to be us,” as Jerry Garcia once said.
     Anyway. Go hug a happy child – yours or someone else’s – and thank your lucky stars you are a Canadian in 2016. Then maybe just let the sadness come for a few hours and see what it tells you to do. That's what I'm going to do.