The RCMP pressured the Georgia Straight to hand over First Nations survivors’ personal stories of abuse shared with a journalist in legal documents, a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal heard last week.
The sworn statements that were provided to freelance journalist Laura Robinson by members of the Lake Babine Nation and Ts’il Kaz Koh First Nation formed the basis of an article published in the independent Vancouver news outlet in September 2012. The story included bombshell abuse allegations against a prominent public figure who had taught at Immaculata Elementary School in Burns Lake and Prince George College in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The article, which eventually led to a defamation lawsuit against the news outlet and a countersuit by the journalist, contained allegations of physical, verbal and mental abuse. It remains online today.
A former student, Beverly Abraham, had also taken her story of being sexually abused by the former physical education teacher to the Burns Lake RCMP detachment two months earlier, in July 2012.
The investigating officer wanted the Georgia Straight to turn over the sworn statements Robinson had collected, former editor Charlie Smith testified on Thursday.
“He kept asking for the affidavits, but he wouldn’t get a production order,” Smith said, a court order that required the Straight to turn them over. “There are concerns when the media are seen as an agency of law enforcement.”
The Georgia Straight eventually gave the affidavits to the RCMP.
The police investigation concluded 18 months later without recommending charges. The investigation and whether the RCMP discriminated against First Nations survivors of abuse at the two northern B.C. schools is the subject of the human rights complaint currently being heard by the tribunal.
Despite being widely reported over the past decade, the former teacher’s identity is now protected by a confidentiality order that was issued by the tribunal in September. He is referred to in tribunal documents as A.B.
In opening statements, the complainants’ lawyer, Karen Bellehumeur, told the tribunal that police dismissed the abuse allegations because they believed Robinson had “manipulated the Indigenous complainants for her own purpose.” The RCMP appeared to discount the former students’ stories because they had spoken to the journalist, she said.
Whitney Dunn, a lawyer with Canada’s Department of Justice who is representing the RCMP, said the RCMP investigation included interviews with 37 witnesses. He said that the fact that the investigation did not result in charges did not constitute discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act.
Hearings began May 1. Over the first three weeks, as the tribunal heard from the complainants’ witnesses, much of the RCMP’s cross-examinations focused on Laura Robinson, with Department of Justice lawyers asking if Robinson influenced the content of their affidavits or their statements to police, and if she had helped them prepare for the current hearings.
Witnesses have consistently testified that she did not.
When Robinson first approached the Georgia Straight with the story in 2012, Smith had been working there as a journalist for almost two decades and had held the editor position since 2005, he told the tribunal. He said he asked Robinson to get affidavits from her sources because, while not a “guarantee of accuracy,” he believed there would be more thought given to a legal document.
“I never expected Laura Robinson to get the affidavits, actually. I thought that was too big of an ask,” he testified. But she returned from Burns Lake with eight affidavits, which had been sworn at a Burns Lake law office in May 2012.
“She said, ‘I can get more,’” Smith testified, adding that he believed eight were sufficient.
RCMP Cpl. Quinton Mackie, a Prince George-based officer who took over the investigation from Burns Lake, first asked Robinson to turn over the affidavits in August 2012, according to emails shared with the tribunal. Robinson looped Smith into the conversation, saying her editor would be the one to make a decision.
“I am going to need those documents as part of this investigation as they may contain evidence to support the allegation brought forward,” Mackie wrote to Smith on Aug. 11, 2012.
Smith’s email responding to Mackie suggested a compromise. He asked the investigator to “obtain production orders or court orders to gain access to material in the possession of the media,” suggesting this would protect the paper’s Charter right to freedom of the press while also allowing police to continue their investigation.
“I have zero intention of violating the law or any court orders,” Smith wrote. “The people who spoke to Laura Robinson and gave her their trust did not feel they were speaking to a deputized officer of the RCMP. In my heart, I feel it should be up to them if they want to speak to the RCMP.”
But the RCMP never produced the order, Smith testified.
On Sept. 26, 2012, the story was published online and a day later in the Georgia Straight’s print edition. Given the seriousness of the allegations, the Straight had sought a media partner and found one in the Toronto Star, which agreed to work with the smaller outlet to publish the story.
The Star pulled out prior to publication, Smith said. Before they pulled out, however, and as the publication date neared, a senior editor at the Toronto Star removed the allegations of sexual abuse. It was a move Smith said he supported, adding that while the affidavits had “a certain consistency,” the sexual abuse allegation stood out as an “anomaly.”
“I was happy with that because I felt it was the right choice,” he said. “I preferred the direction we went.”
Before publishing, the Georgia Straight reached out to A.B., Smith said.
“The subject of the story was given ample opportunity to respond and elected not to, so I felt it was journalistically fair and I felt it was in the public interest,” Smith testified.
On Sept. 27, 2012, A.B. held a news conference and strongly denied the allegations, including the sexual assault allegation that had not been published by the Georgia Straight. Other outlets following the story, including CBC and CTV, included the sexual assault allegations.
Days later, on Oct. 2, 2012, Mackie reached out to Smith again by email.
“I am once again requesting information with respect to the affidavits that Laura Robinson stated she possessed,” Mackie said, adding he was “nearing the completion of the judicial authorization” and asking for the name and address of the person, a lawyer in Burns Lake, who had the affidavits.
Meanwhile, the Georgia Straight’s publisher and owner was becoming nervous that the RCMP could apply for a search warrant, Smith said. There were fears that a police raid could disrupt the paper’s publication schedule.
“He was looking at it through the prism of the family business and we were very mystified. Why couldn’t they get a production order?” Smith testified. “It was getting a little tense. The story had already come out. [A.B.] had held a news conference. It was a madhouse, when you’re in the middle of one of these media maelstroms.”
On Oct. 18, 2012, the Georgia Straight turned over the eight affidavits. “We assumed you were going to get [a court order] anyway and it seemed to be taking a long time,” Smith said in an email providing the documents.
Despite omitting the sexual assault allegations, the Georgia Straight, Smith and Robinson were sued for defamation by A.B. in November 2012. None of the other larger outlets that had reported on the story were sued.
The Straight’s lawyer travelled to Burns Lake while preparing a response to the legal claim, Smith said. He returned with more stories of abuse from the northern community, which Smith said “strengthened the argument of justification and fair comment.”
Robinson, who testified May 4, also returned to the community and said she had gathered dozens of statements alleging abuse by the time she filed a response to the claim.
A.B. dropped his lawsuit in March 2015, the tribunal heard, before the statements could be heard before the court.
A counter defamation suit, filed by Robinson in January 2014, also didn’t hear from the First Nations complainants. B.C. Supreme Court Justice Catherine Wedge dismissed the affidavits as “hearsay” and did not allow the former students to testify in Robinson’s defence, the tribunal heard.
“It really troubled me that Justice Wedge, in the B.C. Supreme Court, did not allow their voices to be heard,” Smith testified. “What’s worse is that she made this decision despite the Van der Peet ruling in the Supreme Court of Canada, which is very clear about the duties of the court to accommodate Aboriginal voices.”
The current hearings are the first time the First Nations complainants have testified about their experiences. None of the allegations against A.B. have been tested in court.
Smith stood by the integrity of the Georgia Straight’s reporting. Robinson’s work was “the finest research that I’d seen in 35 years of journalism,” he told the tribunal.
“The sexist depiction of Laura Robinson as being this woman on a vendetta and setting aside all of the statements by the Indigenous affiants was an attempt to make the messenger the story rather than the people,” he said. “I was on the receiving end of a public relations campaign, our paper was. It was relentless.”
In September 2015, Robinson lost her countersuit against A.B. In her testimony earlier this month, she said it was only then — after reviewing RCMP documents following her trial — that she learned investigating officers believed she had a “vendetta” against the former gym teacher.
She called the idea “ludicrous.”
“There was no vendetta. There wasn’t even any material evidence of a vendetta that I would have had,” she said.
Robinson told the tribunal that she declined to provide the affidavits to the RCMP because she feared it would jeopardize the independence of the media and the people who had shared their stories with her.
“I’m not collecting information for the RCMP. There’s a legal procedure that the RCMP have known about for decades. You go before a judge and get a production order,” she said. “I think that’s fundamental to a civil society.”
On several occasions earlier in the tribunal hearings, RCMP lawyers cross-examining witnesses had asked, “Did you understand that Ms. Laura Robinson would be the one to share the affidavit with the RCMP?” On at least one occasion, Bellehumeur objected to the question, calling it “misleading.”
It was after Robinson lost her countersuit in 2015, once she’d shared the B.C. Supreme Court decision with her sources in the Burns Lake area, that the complainants decided to bring their concerns to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, she testified. In 2016, six complainants from the Lake Babine Nation filed a complaint with the commission, which investigated and referred the complaint for inquiry in 2020.
In addition to an apology from the RCMP and $40,000 for each person impacted by abuse at Immaculata and Prince George College, the complainants are asking that the RCMP divest itself of abuse investigations in Indigenous communities, instead replacing them with an independent group. In lieu of counselling, they seek funds to build a healing centre in their community.
Hearings resume online Wednesday and are expected to continue until June 22, with tribunal chair Colleen Harrington hearing from RCMP witnesses, including Mackie, in the coming weeks. Harrington will decide based on the evidence presented whether the RCMP discriminated when it investigated the historic abuses.