-LONDON, ONTARIO – Seven years ago we named a newly developed South London park after Paul Haggis, the London-born Hollywood kingpin who picked up Oscars for writing back-to-back Best Picture winners Million Dollar Baby (2005) and Crash (2006) – which he also directed. Naming parks, streets, highways, bridges or schools after people who are still alive and therefore capable of getting themselves into trouble, can be a risky business. Folks used to have a better understanding that the time for honouring accomplished people in this way was after those citizens had died.
The reasons for striving to take a longer view when handing out such civic honorifics are twofold. You want to make sure that your subject lives out the entirety of their life with some semblance of dignity; that they won’t tarnish their escutcheon with any late-breaking acts of gross malfeasance. And you also want to ensure that the accomplishments you’ve chosen to honour will still seem praiseworthy a decade or two down the line – or even next week. I remember back in 2004 when the CBC was running their Greatest Canadian contest (aping the BBC’s Great Britons contest of the year before) and among the names being put forward by large numbers of people as worthy contenders for this crown was Avril Lavigne. I took that as my cue to nominate my dog but in the final heat – we wuz robbed! - Badger lost out to Tommy Douglas.
As you’ve probably heard, more recently Paul Haggis has been slapped with a civil lawsuit from four American women for sexual misconduct. Back in December only one woman was suing Haggis and he swiftly reacted with a counterclaim, citing a documented physical condition that would have made any such assault as was being claimed impossible. Earlier this month that original accuser was joined by three others with allegations of sexual harassment and assault that are said to have occurred over a nearly 20-year period between 1996 and 2015. Their lawsuit against the writer/director is just one more chilly ice pellet in a veritable blizzard of such actions that – starting with Harvey Weinstein – has been cascading over the last few months upon hundreds of men in the Hollywood and media establishments and given rise to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.
Significantly all the lawsuits flying about in this most recent flurry are ‘civil’, not ‘criminal’. Howard Levitt, the senior partner in the firm that is representing the four women suing Albert Schultz and Soulpepper Theatre, wrote a column cum business flyer for The Financial Post this week entitled, Civil lawsuits are the way to go for sex assault cases. “It is dramatically easier to win. [Civil litigants] need merely convince a judge, or jury if they choose, that it is more likely than not that they were harassed or assaulted in the manner they claim. The accused does not get off merely because there is a reasonable doubt. The judge or jury decides whose version is more believable and that party wins.”
Not only is the burden of proof substantially lessened in such cases, Levitt also points out that the money to be made at civil trials has never been better: “A successful criminal verdict results in nothing for the accusers beyond vindication. A successful [civil] lawsuit for sexual harassment can result in an award of hundreds of thousands of dollars. If the court decides that this is insufficient punishment, punitive damages can also be awarded, which also go to the victim. There are legal fees but contingency arrangements can usually be worked out.”
It’s a little known fact that I owe my acting career to Paul Haggis and in the unlikely event that I am called upon to act as a character witness regarding his very earliest period as an entertainment impresario, I am prepared to categorically state that there was no hanky-panky that I could detect in July of 1972 when he directed me as part of the in-house troupe in the very first season of his family-run Gallery Theatre on York Street at the foot of Wortley Road. The only harassment or assault that I saw go down that summer was perpetrated by one Doug Bale, then in his guise as London Free Press drama critic, when he wrote a career-killing pan of my debut performance as the King in the Gallery’s production of A.A. Milne’s children’s classic, The Ugly Duckling:
“The King (Goodden) had only one dimension and that was a wrong one: He was loud, something Milne characters never are. His threats to the Chancellor would have been equally intimidating and more in character if they had been delivered with a grim humour instead of an aimless rage. When Mr. Goodden was not raging, however, he was nothing at all, for he could scarcely be heard even in the intimate 100 seat auditorium of the Gallery. It was a fatal combination of poor voice projection and bad diction.”
It didn’t occur to me to sue my assailant because, in my heart of hearts, I was inclined to agree that I wasn’t any great shakes as an actor. However, I expect Paul Haggis will not submit so meekly to his accusers. As we saw in his courageous battle in extricating himself from and then denouncing the notoriously litigious Church of Scientology which had blighted his life for decades, Haggis can be one wily adversary.
In 2011 American journalist Lawrence Wright wrote an epic profile of Haggis for The New Yorker recounting the whole saga of how he had been lured into L. Ron Hubbard’s manipulative empire when he was just a young man walking down Dundas Street minding his own business, how he bought into the whole elaborate racket for nearly three and a half decades and then how he finally broke free.
The final paragraph of Wright’s The Apostate: Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology makes sobering reading today: “I once asked Haggis about the future of his relationship with Scientology. ‘These people have long memories,’ he told me. ‘My bet is that, within two years, you’re going to read something about me in a scandal that looks like it has nothing to do with the church.’ He thought for a moment, then said, ‘I was in a cult for thirty-four years. Everyone else could see it. I don’t know why I couldn’t.’”
It would be nice to think that the folks back home would at least extend to Haggis the presumption of innocence as we wait for the courts to determine the truth of these charges one way or the other. But, alas, at least as far as City Hall goes, that would be wishful thinking. Once the accusations were made public, Ward 3 Councillor Mo Salih wasted no time in calling on City Council and City staff to yank Paul Haggis’ name off the park. “It’s a privilege, not a right, to have a park named after you,” said Salih. “It’s the city’s right to change the name at any time and, me personally, I don’t think it’s right to keep the name when a lot of serious questions and accusations are being put out there.”
Recently celebrated in the press as our most social media-savvy Councillor, Salih’s weak-kneed capitulation in this matter accords perfectly with my own low regard for Google, Facebook and Twitter and that whole intellectually impoverished, 280-character universe where nobody has the time or inclination to cogently argue or prove a point but a rumour, a notice or a shabby smear can dismantle a reputation in an instant. It is worrisome indeed to see our courts of law being increasingly used in a way which trades in its traditions of precision and rigour in service of the truth for a far less exacting model of justice which will settle for whichever side appears to be the more believable.