Toronto Sun

February 27, 1999

A word from Nellie might help

By JEAN SONMOR -- Toronto Sun

Nellie McClung must be spinning in her grave.

The revered western suffragette left her name on public buildings all over the country, all proud legacies to her memory. She also left it with her grandson, John McClung. But the legacy with the Alberta Court of Appeal Justice is much more problematic.

McClung's the judge who last year upheld the acquittal of Steve Ewanchuk on charges of sexual assault. The case turned on the question of when does no mean no. McClung ruled Ewanchuk's advances were "less criminal than hormonal" when he ignored three no's from the 17-year-old girl who had come to his trailer to ask for a job.

That was his view last year, when Ewanchuk's other rape and sex assault convictions were not allowed into the record, and when he wasn't being watched by a whole country nervous about what he'd say next.

Okay so the guy blundered. His mistake was patently obvious to the Supreme Court which ruled 9-0 to convict Ewanchuk Thursday without the usual formality of sending the case back to the province for another trial.

Faced with such a public rebuke, you'd think even a headstrong grandson of Nellie McClung might show some humility, accept his was not the final word.

Nope. McClung went ballistic. He especially resented the neat excoriation of his remarks offered by the resident feminist on the court, Claire L' Heureux-Dube. In a separate opinion commenting on the quality of mercy shown in McClung's original judgement, L'Heureux-Dube argued that the judgement was based on "archaic myths and stereotypes" and that "complainants should be able to rely on judiciary whose impartiality is not compromised by these biased assumptions."

Whoops. Writing a fierce letter to The National Post, McClung ranted about the judge's "graceless slide into personal invective." Now until this point you can pretty much predict the positions. The feminist judge certainly won't like the "asking for it" implication embedded in McClung's remark that the girl was wearing shorts and a T-shirt and "did not present herself in a bonnet and crinolines."

Nor will she like the implication that to be considered authentic the no has to backed up with physical violence. The victim was half the age and half the size of her attacker but McClung ruled that she could have ended the assault with "a slap in the face" or "a well-directed knee."

Even if you can understand McClung's nostalgia for "less litigious age" you know he's on microscopically thin ice here. But, astonishingly, this guy still doesn't get it. He went to demonstrate how graceless -- and random -- the slide into personal invective can be by saying the "judge's personal convictions" could offer a plausible reason "for the disparate (and growing) number of male suicides in Quebec"

So what is he really saying? Feminism is driving Quebec men to suicide? Or is it just the tart and telling arguments of the adroit Dube? Is she alone responsible for a high rate of self destruction among Quebec men?

Now it might be possible to dismiss McClung's lunatic ravings if they weren't so familiar.

Only days ago I heard the selfsame arguments in another context from another apparently intelligent educated man. My caller had tracked the skyrocketing suicide rates in young Canadian men since the '60s and deduced the culprit was what he called "social engineering." Employment equity legislation, and an "institutional bias against boys" in the public education system were creating a generation of dysfunctional males. And a disproportionate number of them were unhappy enough with the status quo to take their own lives. Undo some of the "social engineering," put the women back into their defined roles as mothers and homemakers and lives -- especially adolescent male lives -- would be saved.

Wow! I always think of the antagonism between the sexes as basically covert. In polite circles nothing too accusatory is ever said. But these accusations are not only explicit, they sound desperate. Just as the rhetoric of feminism did for far too long, the focus is on victims. Only now they're dead boys not anorexic girls.

Isn't it about time we all stood down a little? Ewanchuk made a bad mistake. He'll pay. So did McClung. He's already paying.

But maybe it's time for feminists to understand this sword cuts both ways. Leave off the exultation, the in-your-face invective, the "gotcha" arguments. It's time to remember that social change has to be gradual and in those tiny incremental steps guys like McClung have to be swept along.

Somebody said yesterday: "Judges have no lock on wisdom." Obviously not. But surely if we aspire to a civil and just society they, especially, need to keep learning.

Nellie could you have a word with your grandson?

Read Jean Sonmor Saturday and Monday

Copyright © 1999, Canoe Limited Partnership.