Jian Ghomeshi, former Canadian pop star and national radio celebrity, is currently on trial in Toronto, Canada for sexual assault and choking with intent to overcome resistance. The accusations are at odds with Ghomeshi’s public image as a Canadian arts media icon: safe, friendly, likeable and, above all, a left-wing feminist.
Ghomeshi was an ideal candidate for Canadian celebrity—on paper. Born in 1967 in London, England to Iranian parents, but brought up in Thornhill, Ontario, he was as Canadian as the bilingual label on a box of corn flakes. He attended Thornlea Secondary School and started rock bands with friends, including, in 1989, Moxy Früvous. Moxy Früvous caught the attention of the state-funded Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), who commissioned the boys to write politically-conscious songs for a radio show. In 1993, the band released an album with Warner Music Canada which contained several hits already known to Toronto indie audiences—a by no means trivial success in a country obsessed with producing its own art in the face of the American cultural behemoth.
In the 1990s, every Canadian radio listener knew the hits of Bargainville, either loving them for their funny, Canadian-content lyrics, or loathing them for their goofy ‘a cappela’ sound. Personally, I adored the shout-outs to Canadian literature in “My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors”, the quirkiness of “King of Spain” and the gallows humor of “Darlington Darling”, to which my brother and I would sing along as we drove past Darlington’s nuclear power plant: “Half a mile from the cooling towers, I sure hope she’s okay.”
A political science, history and women’s studies student at Toronto’s York University, Ghomeshi ran a feminist campaign in 1990 to be elected president of the Council of the York Federation of Students and won, defeating the sole female candidate. He became a high-profile abortion rights supporter, leading pro-abortion marches and performing with Moxy Früvous at a benefit for Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics in 1992.
Moxy Früvous disbanded in 2000, and in 2002 Ghomeshi began an indifferent stint as a television presenter on CBC Newsworld. His awkward, puppyish on-screen presence didn’t work in his favor, but his rich baritone made him an excellent candidate for radio. In 2004, he became an arts interviewer for CBC Radio One, and in 2007 he became the host of “Q”, a national arts radio show he co-founded. Q was broadcast by some stations in the USA.
The supreme cultural status of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Canada can be compared only with that of the BBC in Britain or the National Endowment for the Arts in the USA. Nevertheless, the Mother Corp was nervous about its ability to attract younger radio audiences. Ghomeshi’s “Nice Guy” popularity made him indispensable to the Corporation. He charmed artists, writers and musicians—with the notable exception in 2009 of Billy Bob Thornton, who was booed by his Canadian audience the next day—and read thoughtful opinion pieces listeners took for his own. He represented the CBC at countless parties, openings and happenings. He was visibly well-read, and he promoted the work of up-and-coming Canadian artists. He was rumored to hit on—and perhaps even hit—much younger women, but either these rumours did not reach the ears of his employers or they did not care. Staffers like Kathryn Borel who complained about Ghomeshi’s comportment at work were advised to put up with it. A photo of Ghomeshi’s face, blown up to giant size, was glued to the wall of CBC headquarters alongside those of other stars. Then in October 2014, he was suddenly fired. Canada blinked.
Ghomeshi immediately went on the offensive. In a long Facebook post, he claimed that he was a victim of the small-mindedness of the CBC, who had prudishly objected to revelations that he was a devotee of consensual sadomasochistic practices. He was, he said, the victim of a disgruntled ex-girlfriend and an ambitious freelance journalist. His Facebook popularity jumped.
And then it began, slowly but inexorably, to drop. In response to Ghomeshi’s post, journalists chose to go public with allegations of Ghomeshi hitting women on dates, stories they had long worked on but didn’t feel they could, on hearsay, publish. Other women came forward, albeit anonymously, to tell their own stories of violence at Ghomeshi’s hands, and social media overflowed with stories of Ghomeshi’s womanizing and sexist behaviour. Lucy DeCourtere, both a captain in the Royal Canadian Air Force and an actor on the CBC’s popular Trailer Park Boys television series, and Reva Seth, a Toronto businesswoman, numbered themselves among the alleged victims. The CBC revealed that Ghomeshi had shown his superiors photographs of injuries he had inflicted on a woman while claiming they were consensual. On November 26, after a month-long police investigation, Ghomeshi was charged.
The Ghomeshi scandal has Canadians asking if Jian Ghomeshi used his liberal credentials as a front to abuse women. In 1992, an underwhelmed Naomi Klein, then a student writer for the University of Toronto’s The Varsity, described Ghomeshi thusly:
A pet cause is the pro-choice movement. Ghomeshi sports an OCAC [Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics] t-shirt and boasts that they played a rally and a benefit. I know, I was there. At the benefit in question, the crowd separated into two factions: those who thought these cheesy white boys should get the hell off stage and those who thought these sensitive young men should be commended for bringing the cause to the mainstream — and for having great hair. There’s the Toronto left for you.
In Klein’s interview with the band members, Ghomeshi described them as “symbols of progressive young males.”
The case has assumed “trial of the century” proportions in Canada, with pundits intoning that not only Ghomeshi but the Canadian legal system vis-à-vis sexual assault is on trial. Also before the metaphorical dock is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation although, so far, no one seems to have explored how the very culture of celebrity, especially—in Canada—of the almost religious reverence for stars who remain in Canada instead of “making it big in the States”, puts women at risk. Neither has anyone made the connection between supporting abortion clinics and the sexual desire—however consensual or non-consensual—to hurt and humiliate women.