Release: Feminist coalition responds to verdict in Wagar retrial for sexual assault

A coalition of feminist organizations committed to ending violence against women offers support to the complainant at the conclusion of the retrial of sexual assault charges against the accused, Alexander Wagar. Mr. Wagar’s criminal case came to international attention due to the conduct of the first judge who heard the case, Justice Robin Camp. Mr. Wagar’s retrial resulted in an acquittal.

The Coalition stands with the complainant in the Wagar case. Regardless of the outcome in a sexual assault trial every complainant is entitled to a legal process that respects her dignity, and her right to a judicial process that is free from discrimination, flawed stereotypes and debunked rape myths.

On January 31, 2017, Justice LeGrandeur found Mr. Wagar not guilty, in a retrial of sexual assault charges stemming from events in 2011, after his first acquittal in 2014.  The judge in the first trial, Justice Robin Camp, gained notoriety for his comments directed at the complainant and his conduct of the trial. The Alberta Court of Appeal ruled that Justice Camp’s decision could not stand because it may have been based on long-discredited sexual stereotypes and myths about survivors of sexual assault.

Among Justice Camp’s comments to the 19-year-old Indigenous complainant was the egregious remark, “Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?”

Alberta’s Attorney General complained to the Canadian Judicial Council (CJC) about Justice Camp’s conduct over the first trial, calling for his removal from the bench. On November 30, 2016, the Inquiry Panel convened by the CJC recommended that Justice Camp should be relieved of his duties as a judge. The Inquiry concluded that: “Justice Camp’s conduct is so manifestly and profoundly destructive of the concept of the impartiality, integrity and independence of the judicial role that public confidence is sufficiently undermined to render the Judge incapable of executing the judicial office.”

“The verdict in Wagar and the Inquiry into Justice Camp’s conduct are distinct and should not be confused. The question before the Inquiry had nothing to do with the legal guilt or innocence of Mr. Wagar. The Inquiry was directed at whether the public could have confidence in the judiciary when a judge relies on discriminatory and sexist myths about women during a sexual assault trial,” says Tamar Witelson, Legal Director of METRAC, a member of the Coalition of six organizations from across Canada that intervened at the Inquiry into the Justice Camp’s conduct.

The Inquiry recommended that Justice Camp be removed from the bench because his conduct had “caused significant harm to public confidence in the judicial role, in an area of the law in which the courts and Parliament have made concerted efforts to enhance public confidence over the past four decades.”

Justice Camp has been suspended from his current duties as a Justice of the Federal Court of Canada.  The CJC has not yet announced whether it will follow the decision of the Inquiry and recommend to the Minister of Justice that Justice Camp should be removed from his position as a judge.

The Coalition intervened in the Inquiry to explain that Justice Camp’s behaviour would contribute to the many reasons why sexual assault complainants are reluctant to report. Further, distrust of the justice system is magnified for individuals who experience multiple and intersecting disadvantages arising from characteristics including gender, poverty, race, Indigeneity, sexual orientation, age and/or disability.

It took extraordinary courage and tenacity for the complainant in this case to proceed through a second trial when she was subjected to discriminatory and demeaning treatment by the presiding judge in the first trial. The Coalition extends its support and solidarity to the complainant.

Many elements of the criminal justice process fail to adequately reflect the personal and traumatic experience of sexual violence. There is still much work to do to ensure that women who report sexual violence do not experience further individual harm and systemic disadvantage arising from their role as unrepresented and often vulnerable participants in the trial process. The Coalition remains committed to the important work of finding better legal and social responses to support survivors, and to ending violence against women.

The Coalition includes Avalon Sexual Assault Centre (Avalon), Ending Violence Association of British Columbia (EVA BC), the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women (IAAW), the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC), the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), and West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (West Coast LEAF).