LONDON, ONTARIO – Almost five years and two City Councils since we first examined this issue in one of the first essays posted to the Hermaneutics blog, our civic leaders are once again agonizing over whether or not to strip the name of a London filmmaker from a South London park that was designated in his honour. The post below (the third to appear on this site) gives my take on how the situation stood on January 16, 2018. I will follow up this re-posting with a few observations about the latest developments in this squalid battle and speculate on how things will likely proceed in the continuing campaign to stuff the name of Paul Haggis down the municipal memory hole.
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 in 2005 (Million Dollar Baby) and 2006 (Crash, 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 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 seriously put forward by a large number of people as a worthy contender 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, Haleigh Breest, 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 (all anonymous) 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 descending 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’. This week Howard Levitt, the senior partner in a law firm that is representing four women suing Albert Schultz and Soulpepper Theatre in another show biz sex case, wrote a column cum business flyer for The Financial Post 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. In July of 1972 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. 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 going on that I could detect. The only harassment or assault that went 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 those many years ago 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 (which he then spun off into a book) recounting the whole saga of how Haggis had first 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 at this wobbly moment in social history to be the more believable.
The biggest difference in Haggis’ situation now is that a little more than a week ago, the ruling finally came down in that New York civil case. And it was a doozy. The twice-divorced Haggis' second wife testified that although her ex-husband was constitutionally incapable of sexual fidelity, she had never known him to be abusive in any way. And two other defectors from the Scientology cult told the court about the lengths that church will go to to disrupt the lives of leavers - particularly those with a high profile who subsequently denounce the organization.
But none of these arguments carried the day and the jury ordered Haggis to pay $7.5 million to his original accuser. And four days later, that same jury awarded Haleigh Breest an additional $2.5 million in punitive damages; rounding up the total hit to an even ten million. Whether Breest will ever see a penny of it is an interesting question.
As Haggis explained to a scrum of reporters outside the courthouse last Monday: “Today the jury learned what the opposing counsel has known for years, which is that I’ve spent all the money I have at my disposal. I’ve gutted my pension plan. I’ve lived on loans in order to pay for this case in a very naíve belief in justice. Well, now we’ll see what the appeals court will say. Because we will absolutely appeal. I can’t live with lies like this; I will die clearing my name.”
Haggis’ reputation had been further muddied in June this year when he was placed in custody for two weeks in Ostuni, Italy while authorities investigated yet another rape allegation from a young actress who had shacked up with him for a few days while he was preparing to teach a series of master classes at a film confab called Allora Fest. Very little work has been falling Haggis’ way these last five years and his participation in that festival was scrubbed as soon as that story broke.
The Italian allegations, of course, made headlines around the world. But only a fraction of that attention was paid a couple weeks later when a three-judge panel dismissed all of the charges as totally unfounded; concluding that there was an "absence of constrictive violent behaviour" by Haggis and that the woman's decision to be with Haggis in his lodgings was "spontaneous.". Quite typically, in last Thursday’s Free Press account of our latest crop of councillors’ agitations about whether or not to strip Haggis’ name from the park, mention was made of his Italian troubles but not a word about his exoneration.
I have not spoken with Paul Haggis in more than fifty years and would not be surprised if he doesn’t remember me at all. While I acknowledge the talent and drive which carried him so far in one of the most ruthlessly competitive artistic fields in the world, I really don’t care much for anything he’s created since his early comic TV series about a displaced Mountie, Due South. And I regard his career capstone of Crash with its overarching message that all white people are slathering racists as a particularly risible monument to shallow identitarian propaganda at its most hysterical.
All of which is to say, I don't have a dog in this fight. And when City Council elects to un-name that London park - which I think they finally will - I will see it as a vindication of the wisdom of waiting a generation or two before going ahead with these sort of civic honorifics. But as a matter of principle, I will continue to lament the shabbiness of the lax, quasi-legal machinations which have definitively proven nothing in this hearsay-driven case and are recklessly running a London artist's life and reputation through a shredder right now.
The rough shabbiness of it all is almost enough to make me look into the possibility of buying one of those memorial plaques you can have installed on a park bench with a person's name on it. And in designating the 'Paul Haggis Bench' in some riverside stretch of London parkland, I could set aside a place for men to sit and ponder the wickedly stacked damage that some spurned or calculating entity can direct at any of us through the crude machinery of civil litigation.
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