John Furlong, the iconic figure behind Vancouver’s 2010 successful Winter Olympics, is suing Laura Robinson and the Georgia Straight for writing and publishing a supposedly defamatory article about him. The article alleges that in 1969 and 1970, as a volunteer Frontier Apostle brought over from Ireland by the order of Mary Immaculate (Immaculata School) in Burns Lake, BC, he employed physical brutality and racist taunts against First Nations children in his role as a teacher of physical education. The allegations of past abuse would never have surfaced were it not for the release of his self-serving autobiography, Patriot Hearts, in which he claimed to have immigrated to Canada from Ireland in 1972 and not 1969, which records clearly demonstrate. His former students concluded, rightly or wrongly, that when Furlong failed to include his earlier stint in Burns Lake, he was essentially denying their history. While the Prime Minister may have issued apologies for past treatment of First Nations people, Furlong’s lacuna and subsequent denial (‘It never happened”) reminded them of the continuing problem of individuals in the dominant culture failing to take responsibility for past sins against them.
The question now in this case is whether Furlong has suffered a grievous injustice (as a National Post editorial and his lawsuit claim) or whether the children (now adults) of the First Nations community in Burns Lake suffered unjustly from his presence at the school. No doubt his lawyers will try to divide and conquer, looking for the inevitable inconsistencies in testimony that would arise after forty years. However, he will have to deal with sworn affidavits from abuse victims and finding motivation for Robinson’s supposed slanderous article and the Straight’s willingness to publish it. Robinson herself, it should be pointed out, has a long history of muckraking in the upper echelons of the sporting community, advocacy for First Nations people, and fostering the arts in native communities by enabling them to tell their stories.
Perhaps a greater problem for Furlong might be his life and character in the decades since his return to Canada. When confronted with the Robinson’s article, assuming the facts in it were verifiable, Furlong might have said that as a young man he had entered a culture where harsh physical discipline was the norm. He might then have issued an apology for what some would perceive as errors, and the scandal would likely have blown over. However, his outright denial and his minimizing the missing part of his autobiography (“nothing of interest” happened during that time) may be indicative of a large amount of hubris in his psychological profile. It may also indicate that he has other things to hide. Does Furlong’s life since Burns Lake indicate that he has grown out of such behaviour or does he continue to have problematical personal relationships, albeit relationships invisible to the outside world? For instance, how is he viewed by his former wives or partners or by those who have worked under him? No question that he has had great support from people who were part of the Olympic project and even from some people in Burns Lake and Prince George. Has he, as a public figure, successfully covered up his dark side?
Then again is the whole story about his years in Burns Lake fabricated or hyped to bring him down from his lofty pedestal? Would those (eight and counting) native people be making up these stories and lying because they have some personal vendetta against him? We have a hint about his legal strategy from his public comments about Robinson. He claimed that she has a problem with male authority figures. Even Robinson admits she has a problem with male authority figures in the sporting (especially hockey) world who, through unbalanced power relationships and incentives, take advantage of their young charges. As a journalist and writer, Robinson did much to unveil the behind-the-scenes activities of the culture that produced Graham James and his young victims, including hockey stars Sheldon Kennedy and Theo Fleury. Since it might be argued that someone who verbally abuses, kicks and beats children is as culpable as someone who sexually abuses them (and does just as much damage to their psyches), Furlong has no choice but to sue. Otherwise, if the public comes to believe the allegations, his life becomes a titanic lie and he will no longer be able to make a living on the public speaking circuit. Therefore, he will come at Robinson and the Straight with all the legal forces he can muster.
Whatever the actual outcome of the lawsuit, justice is at issue here. Any person severely slandered in this way needs justice to restore his tarnished image. On the other hand, the First Nations people cannot escape their existential predicament in one or two generations. They are dogged by the massive injustice of Residential Schools, fostered by religious orders and, in turn, supported by successive governments, that came into existence to purge them of their pagan pasts and bring them into the fold of the dominant Canadian (i.e. Christian) culture. Any attempt to deny this past reality is felt as a profound injustice and a denial of their reality.
Finally, was the Straight justified in publishing this article even if the allegations were true? Had Furlong not written the autobiography, would past transgressions needed to have been revealed, especially if he had completely turned his life around? Or was his offense criminal in nature and needing to be exposed under any circumstances? It’s a complex case that will have a ripple effect on future attempts in Canada to expose people’s past behaviour. It will also be a test of Canada’s relatively new and more relaxed libel laws.