A little more than 20 years ago, David Fletcher, a teacher at Beechwood Elementary School in Pierrefonds, was accused of sexually molesting a pupil, an 8-year-old girl. The accusation was “without merit,” according to the school principal, the school board’s legal counsel, the investigating police officer and the Crown prosecutor’s office. There were witnesses — a pupil and another teacher — to the “event” who said nothing improper occurred.
But the father of the girl spent years pursuing Fletcher, seeking, according to a Superior Court judgment, “revenge against a teacher who had dared to discipline his daughter.”
Three days after Fletcher told the child she should not have touched another pupil’s hair when her hands had glue on them, the father boasted to another parent that he was going to take Fletcher “to the cleaners.”
But it was the father who ended up having to pay — $70,000 in moral and punitive damages in a defamation suit brought by Fletcher and upheld by the Quebec Court of Appeal in 2005.
David Fletcher, 72 and retired from teaching, has never recovered from the ordeal. “I don’t think anybody can really appreciate just how devastating (such an accusation) is,” he said. In the days after the allegation was made, said Fletcher, “I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t drink, I just sat in one place and I just ran through this in my head over and over like an endless loop. I lost over 20 pounds during that time. I was a wreck.” (That same year, 1992, was the year Fletcher was awarded a special Governor General’s medal struck to celebrate Canada’s 125th birthday. Fletcher was recognized for his ecological work in his West Island community and incorporating ecological and environmental education into his teaching.)
“Your life comes potentially to an end at that point,” he said. “It’s like getting a diagnosis of terminal cancer or something of that sort. You go through these scenarios where you’ll spend the rest of your life in prison. You’ll be a dangerous offender.
“The effects linger with me to this day,” said Fletcher, a vice-president of the Montreal-based Green Coalition. “I still remember that time with dread. You begin to start pushing it out of your mind and every once in a while it comes back and you relive it. It’s just traumatic.”
The nightmare is triggered for Fletcher whenever there’s a story about sexual abuse by clergy or a professional in the news. “What it brings to mind is that I could have been counted among their numbers. I am compelled to read those stories.”
Fletcher was one of the first in his increasingly beleaguered profession to push back at groundless accusations through the courts. He said his union, the Montreal Teachers Association, asked if he would go through with a suit. “The union wanted jurisprudence. The people at the MTA wanted to make it very clear that there would be repercussions if (accusations) were done spuriously. … Difficult as it was, I knew I had some sort of moral responsibility to see that there was a holding to account.”
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Defamation is an ugly business, one made worse in the age of the Internet when anyone can set up a website and publish anything, no matter how removed from the truth. In 2004, Vancouver lawyer Howard Mickelson represented a group of 11 people — nine teachers, a retired school trustee and a parent — in a defamation suit against parent and school advisory council volunteer Susan Halstead, a woman described by Supreme Court of British Columbia Justice Jacqueline Dorgan as “entirely without credibility.”
In her 2006 ruling, Dorgan ordered Halstead to pay damages of more than $650,000 for her “tireless” online campaign of defamation, including allegations of sexually inappropriate statements, assaults against students, drunkenness at school events and threats against special-needs students. Writing about Halstead’s allegations, Dorgan used phrases such as “entirely fictitious,” “manifestly fictitious” and “shockingly vicious.”
“I think the situation (with web-based defamation) has probably become worse now,” said Mickelson. “There are all these sites now and these kinds of campaigns. Typically, you get one person who goes on a mission. You get someone and a switch goes off in their mind, and often they’re probably not well and they become obsessed with this campaign and it defines their life.
“A lot of people just find it’s not worth the time, money and effort to go after them,” Mickelson said, explaining that “damages in Canada are still pretty low and the costs typically exceed recovery.
“So either you have to have a lot of money and have an issue of pride and dignity, or the effect of a defamation has been to injure you in a very serious way, and even then people have to consider whether fighting back creates more harm than good.
“I think if it goes to the core of what you do in a way that’s going to credibly impact the way you carry out your duties, you have to push back, and that’s why the teachers pushed back and why other professionals push back.”
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In Quebec, three teachers have headed to court in the past few years to clear their names. All have won. One case is under appeal.
In 2007, Ariane Gagnon, a grade-school teacher in Shawinigan, launched a defamation suit against the parents of one of her pupils, a 9-year-old boy whose behaviour was described as “unruly” and whom teachers from kindergarten on had suggested to his mother was in need of specialized instruction. The boy’s mother, Louise Sinotte, and stepfather, Jacques Turenne, had given interviews to television, radio and print media denouncing Gagnon’s use of a “timeout space” for their son, accusing her of keeping the boy in a “cage” for 35 hours a week. The school was inundated with critical phone messages and emails, some threatening.
According to court testimony, the space was created with a trellis, with the goal of helping the boy concentrate on his individual work away from the distraction of other children for a maximum of 60 non-continuous minutes a day; the boy was free to leave the space to ask his teacher questions. This strategy, described as a “last resort,” was suggested by the school’s special-education teacher. In 2012, Superior Court Judge Pierre Ouellet ordered the parents to pay Gagnon $35,000 and an additional $35,000 to her lawyers. The judgment is currently under appeal by the parents.
In 2008, Mary Kanavaros, a Montreal elementary-school teacher, sued Kathryn Rosenstein and Hagop Artinian, the parents of one of her pupils, for defamation after they walked straight out of a courtroom where they had agreed to a confidential settlement, with no admission of fault, to where a group of reporters had gathered, and made comments that suggested they had won their case against Kanavaros. The dispute dated back to 2004, over the question of whether Kanavaros embarrassed the pupil by telling him that he, rather than his mother, should do his homework.
Superior Court Judge Danielle Richer described the parents’ post-settlement action, when they spoke to reporters, as “intentional, malicious and in bad faith.” She accused the parents of taking the law into their own hands, further stating that this behaviour was of a piece with the father’s history of defying court rulings, citing his refusal to pay court-ordered child support to his children from an earlier relationship. She also criticized the parents over their “disproportionate” reaction to the homework incident, suggesting they may have failed in their parental duty to inculcate a sense of responsibility in their son. In 2010, Richer ordered the parents to pay Kanavaros more than $234,000 in damages plus costs. The parents appealed to the Quebec Court of Appeal and after losing there, appealed for leave to be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada. That appeal was rejected last year. Kanavaros, on sick leave since 2008, told The Gazette at the time, “I’ve waited a long, long time for justice.”
“We are very concerned about the extent to which people can destroy a teacher’s reputation,” said Ruth Rosenfield, president of the Montreal Teachers Association. The importance of reputation cannot be overstated, she said, pointing to Richer’s 2010 ruling in which the judge wrote that a teacher’s professional future and her ability to inspire confidence in her pupils, their parents and her colleagues depended in large part on her reputation.
François Lukawecki is the latest Quebec teacher to win a defamation suit. An elementary-school teacher in downtown Montreal, Lukawecki was awarded $10,000 last fall in damages arising from what Quebec Court Judge Michel Pinsonnault called a “smear campaign” against him. The campaign was carried out, the judge wrote, by Joanne Bayly, mother of a pupil of Lukawecki, and a CBC employee whose “selective use” of her work email account was “obviously intended to exert additional undue pressure on the recipients of her emails.” The recipients included two regional directors of the English Montreal School Board. (The CBC provided its policy on email use: “Employees are provided with access to CBC/Radio-Canada IT Assets for business use and for the purpose of performing job-related activities. Although some limited personal use will be tolerated, it is subject to this Policy and must not interfere with or detract from employees’ assigned tasks.” It would not comment on internal disciplinary measures.)
Pinsonnault wrote that Bayly, a radio news reader in Montreal, “was in an even better position than the average person to appreciate the consequences of publicly disseminating false and defamatory statements about a third party. The use of the Emails and Internet compounded the severity of the consequences.”
Pinsonnault wrote: “The Court realizes that during the year preceding (an incident in which Lukawecki would not allow Bayly to take photographs of pupils trying out for a talent show) and afterwards, there were significant disagreements between Mrs. Bayly’s husband (current EMSB commissioner Julien) Feldman and Mr. Lukawecki both as (school) governing board members and that the disagreements continued in different forms after Mr. Feldman’s election (to the EMSB governing board). But, such disagreements did not authorize or justify Mrs. Bayly to conduct such a smear campaign.”
Lukawecki said he was happy his five-year ordeal was over and happy to have won. He said, “I feel the judgment is a warning to parents. When a parent is willing to cross that line of respect that I think is due to us, I feel relieved that there is a consequence. This verdict has established that there is a measurable value to a teacher’s reputation.”
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The increase in these “simultaneously frivolous and devastating cases” reflects an assault on the teaching profession, said Joel Westheimer, university research chair and professor at the University of Ottawa’s faculty of education. In such a climate, parents and students feel entitled to treat teachers as people with no status or standing in society, he said.
An extreme focus on money as the only measure of success has taken hold in North America, said Westheimer, and one result is that education, which has always been at risk of being a low-status profession in North America, unlike in Scandinavian countries, is under attack, along with most public-service professions.
What we have now, said Westheimer, is a corporatist view of education.
“It’s a move away from the historic purpose of public schools, which was to educate a democratic citizenry.” School boards, which should protect teachers, “just want to wash their hands (of lawsuits). But that doesn’t work. It’s not only morally bankrupt, but strategically wrong … and yet another example of why we need unions,” said Westheimer.
David Fletcher said he would think twice about going into the profession if he had to do it again. “The only advice I could give would be equivalent to what I’d give to someone going out to Afghanistan or Iraq: Watch where you put your feet.”