Award-winning writer and broadcaster Stephen Kimber is a professor of journalism at University of King's College in Halifax. He writes about issues facing Halifax and Nova Scotia every Monday for Metro.
The Nicole Ryan case is about more than gender politics
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“You obviously have something against Nicole Ryan,” declared a reader of my column last week. In it, I’d questioned the Supreme Court’s decision not to retry Ryan on charges she’d hired a hitman to kill her husband. “I’m not sure what it is,” the reader continued, “but it was extremely distressing to deal with the fact that you’re now on the side of the abusers.”
That reader certainly wasn’t alone in extrapolating wildly from what I wrote.
I shouldn’t have been surprised.
The case raises complex, emotionally charged issues about spousal abuse and the ways in which the courts deal with men and women in relationships who are accused of crimes against one another.
While some women’s advocates saw my merely asking why the courts had branded Michael Ryan “violent, abusive and controlling” without ever having heard his version of events as tantamount to supporting abusive men, men’s rights crusaders bulled past my caveats (“I don’t know whether to believe Michael Ryan’s counter-claims…”) and declared all men “victims of abuse as they endure false allegations by disgruntled exes and a gender-biased judicial system.”
While those arguments are worth having, this specific case raises specific questions requiring specific answers.
There is, for example, the question the court itself raised: How did the RCMP respond — and not respond — to Nicole Ryan’s pleas for protection from her husband? Provincial Justice Minister Ross Landry is wrong to insist the RCMP be allowed to investigate itself. We have too much history of police protecting their own to have faith in an internal review.
Then there is the question the decision itself raised: How can the court conclude the trial judge shouldn’t have allowed Ryan’s lawyer to claim “duress,” but then decide not to order a retrial?
The answer seems related to my initial question: How could the courts have branded Michael Ryan violent, abusive and controlling without having heard his testimony?
Senior Crown attorney Peter Craig is right, of course. It isn’t the Crown’s responsibility to protect the reputation of non-accused individuals — even intended victims — caught up in criminal cases.
But when the courts themselves draw damning conclusions based on that lack of testimony, we need to ask: Is it just?