Laura Robinson doesn’t doubt the honesty of former First Nations students of John Furlong who claimed that they were racially taunted and physically abused by their ex-teacher.
“I believe the students were telling the truth,” Robinson said in B.C. Supreme Court today (June 17) during cross-examination by Furlong’s lawyer, John Hunter.
It was the freelance journalist’s second day on the stand in the three-day-old trial of her defamation suit against the former CEO of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.
“I was convinced that what people told me was what they believed deeply happened to them,” Robinson said.
Hunter repeatedly probed Robinson’s intentions in writing the story about Furlong’s early years in Canada, which the prominent figure omitted in his post-Olympics memoir Patriot Hearts.
The article, which was published on September 27, 2012, by the Georgia Straight, included claims that Furlong had verbally and physically abused Native students at the Immaculata Elementary School in Burns Lake, B.C.
The alleged abuses supposedly happened from 1969 to 1970. In his autobiographical book, Furlong said that he came to Canada in 1974.
Hunter began cross-examination of Robinson on Wednesday morning after the writer’s lawyer, Bryan Baynham, finished his own questions.
Earlier in the day, Baynham steered Robinson through the steps she took to research her article about Furlong.
One instance was her discovery of newspaper clippings in Ireland between February and March 1975 indicating that Furlong was in his native country. He was coaching that country’s women’s national basketball team and he was a basketball player himself in the men’s team at that time.
In his cross-examination, Hunter claimed that Robinson wanted to bring down Furlong, who the lawyer said represented an example of a male authority figure that the writer dislikes.
“That’s incorrect,” Robinson replied.
Hunter also questioned the manner in which Robinson drafted a flyer inviting people to come the Burns Lake Band office in Burns Lake, where she interviewed former students of Furlong in April 2012.
Hunter noted that the flyer identified Furlong as the person the journalist was looking into, and invited people to come to share their experiences.
“Isn’t that the most unfair way that you could begin to conduct an investigation that is imaginable?” Hunter asked.
Robinson replied that she was interested in stories about Furlong because she was doing a story about Furlong’s claims about his history in Canada in Patriot Hearts.
“This was a story that was based on Mr. Furlong’s book,” she said.
Hunter also recalled that Furlong’s lawyer at the time, Marvin Storrow, denied through email that Furlong abused children.
Hunter suggested that it was possible that no abuse actually happened.
Robinson countered that she received no satisfactory answer to her questions about Furlong’s being in Canada in 1969 when some of the abuses allegedly occurred.
She also said that based on information given to her by the former students, the alleged abuses were “very frequent things”.
“It’s not like, you know, did I cross the road 40 years ago?” Robinson said, responding to Hunter.
Furlong’s lawyer spent much of the afternoon grilling Robinson about the issue of an accusation of sexual molestation against Furlong by one of his former students.
Hunter recalled that the matter was part of the draft submitted by the journalist to the Straight and the Toronto Star.
The Star edited out said portion of the article but decided not to print the story anyway.
The allegation of sexual abuse was not included in the Straight story that was published in 2012.
As it turned out, it was Beverly Abraham who went to the RCMP to allege that she was molested by Furlong when she was a student at Immaculata Elementary School.
Hunter was suggesting that Robinson encouraged Abraham to file a complaint so she could include it in her story, which the journalist denied.
Robinson maintained that it was perfectly fine with her if the story that got published didn’t contain the allegation.
“Editors know what they’re doing,” Robinson said.
(A First Nations paper in Ontario, the Anishinabek News, published an abridged version of Robinson’s story that featured a woman called “Anne”, who had gone to the RCMP and claimed that Furlong sexually abused her. “Anne” was the pseudonym given by Robinson to Abraham.)
Furlong raised the issue of sexual abuse when he released a statement on the day the Straight published Robinson’s story.
At the time, Furlong stated: “As you are aware I have been accused of physical abuse and apparently within the last hour, sexual abuse. I want you to know I categorically deny absolutely ANY wrongdoing and I believe that the RCMP in looking into this matter will discredit the complaint entirely because it JUST did not happen.”
Abraham eventually dropped her lawsuit against Furlong. Two other complaints of sexual abuse filed by a couple of different individuals were later dismissed in court.
In cross-examining Robinson, Hunter noted a number of times that the journalist included allegations of verbal and physical abuse against Furlong in her inquiries sent to individuals she wanted to interview for her piece.
These included Dan Doyle, then chair of B.C. Hydro and member of the Vancouver organizing committee for the 2010 Olympics; Mayor Gregor Robertson of Vancouver, host city of the Games; Richard Pound of the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC); and Dimitri Soudas, then with the COC.
Hunter questioned the inclusion of the “scurrilous material” in communications made by Robinson to these individuals.
“Are you doing this as a journalist?” Hunter asked.
Robinson explained that she wanted to give these people background information as part of her inquiries into the due diligence involved in the hiring of Furlong as chief of the Vancouver Olympics.
Furlong sued Robinson and the Straight following the publication of the article. However, he discontinued the lawsuits.
In his opening statement on June 15, Baynham said that Furlong had abandoned his right to clear his name when he dropped the lawsuits. He told the court: “By dropping the suit, Mr. Furlong conceded that Ms. Robinson’s original story was true.”
Robinson filed a counter-suit against Furlong, claiming that he defamed her through various news releases and media statements that impugned her credibility as a journalist.