My Niagara #MeToo

IMG_0565
Painting by Jeannette Tossounian (www.tossounianart.com)

By Jeannette Tossounian

November 6, 2018

(I originally wrote this about a year ago but did not publish it anywhere.)

On February 15, 2012, I was arrested near my burning art gallery in St. Catharines Ontario, convicted of arson and thrown in jail. I was convicted without any evidence or reason by a judge who was brought in from the Welland Courthouse, presuming just to convict me. I waited 2 long grueling years in a cold brick and metal cell so I could finally be free to get justice for this terrible wrongful conviction I was forced to endure.

After three years of probation and trying to live in society as a very publicly convicted criminal, my case was finally heard in the Ontario Court of Appeal in Toronto July 27, 2017. The Court of Appeal Judges ruled in my favour ordering a new trial, one reason being that I did not receive the majority of the disclosure prior to trial. Pointing out charter rights violations, the ruling also cited errors by the trial judge, crown attorney in their role to assist me as a self-represented accused, a lack of credible eyewitness evidence used in the decision and also that the jail limited my time with the disclosure materials and access to legal information as I was in custody leading up to the initial trial. In the appeal ruling the judges state, “I am satisfied the inadequate disclosure negatively affected the overall fairness of the appellant’s trial. The remedy for the infringement of the appellant’s right is a new trial.”

So my case was brought back to the St. Catharines Court. The court kept bringing me back desperately looking for anything to re-try me on, but they couldn’t, because there was nothing to try me on, there never was. So they grudgingly stayed the charges October 25, 2017.

Although I am happy not be dragged into court again to be re-victimized, the courts left my life in limbo. By staying the charges, I don’t get to go to trial to prove my innocence and therefore I appear to society like a guilty person who got off on a technicality. If I want to prove my innocence and get justice for myself, I am left with only one option, civil litigation.

I am a life-long professional artist and a career in the arts depends on public reputation and my reputation has been destroyed. I suffer financial loss of my income and a lifetime worth of professional art supplies and a serious art collection. I suffer emotional and mental distress being exiled to Ottawa from my home in the Niagara Region during the last several years. I am a complete pariah in the art world. Many people believe the false and slanderous tale the media has spun about me through their selective reporting of my case, most of which I was recently able to get removed off the internet, but it’s still ingrained in people’s heads.

There are two sides to every story. Everyone heard the courts side, but no one has heard mine. When have I ever had the chance to tell it? I know it’s stupid to go around trying to convince everyone I am innocent, all it does it make me sound guilty… or crazy, so its futile… but in the end, I have to if I want any peace in my future.

You see, I was raped.  I was raped by men.  I was raped by a whole community. I could have died. And I am not the only one this happened to.

I moved to the Niagara Region in 1999 to attend Niagara College and study art. The Paul Bernardo murders were still fairly fresh and everyone in my new community was obsessed with rape and murder. I didn’t think much of it and thought everyone was full of fantastic fiction stories until I started experiencing it firsthand.

During college, a creepy old man, who was until recently on the board of directors of one of the main local art organizations in Niagara, made sure to isolate and tell me I am not allowed to be an artist. He made sure to let me know and everyone else in the arts community know that my only role in the community was as a sex toy and nothing else, certainly not as an artist. He would brag about what a kind man he was by helping travelling female artists get art grants to work in the area and then making sure they were taken care of by getting these women jobs in local massage parlours and such. The arts community lovingly called him a ‘shyster’ and ‘old perv’ qualities they all seemed to admire.

Another creepy old art director, who ran his own independent gallery, would bait free-spirited opened minded female artists into fake art projects where they fell victim to old perverts who were rumored to be paying for the set up. Giving out free glasses of wine, many women told me about being in an unwilling drugged up haze glimpsing the art director with a video recorder or camera, sometimes a guy was on top of them. They all felt humiliated and just wanted it to all go away. This goes on and on, each time a different pervert I was forced to deal with and I didn’t like it; lawyers, politicians, businessmen, they all talk about the girls they could do this to, openly, publicly.

I was a young woman in control of my own sexuality and had my own rules and part of those rules was not to be forced into sex, especially during my art business. I didn’t like these predators constantly using my art to sexually bait me and I didn’t like them doing this to other women either. I finally got sick of it all. I was serious about my art career and wanted no part of being some joke, so I opened up my own art gallery.

Despite these men and their posse completely demeaning my art for years, the public took me seriously, bought my art, bought the art of those I represented and commissioned me and my artists. My defiance against those who thought they had power over my body and my business drove the misogynists insane with hate towards me… and that’s when things really started to get scary.

My experience goes beyond crude men making unwanted sexual gestures towards me, I experienced that so often it was pretty much normal to me. My experience is when certain men, men who dominate in society, men who particularly get off on power and control, realized I don’t easily submit and be put into place. I had my own power. I owned myself. I was in full control of my own world and that clashed with their worlds and thus the battle began. As an Independent artist and independent businesswoman, there are no rules of ethics and conduct. It’s a jungle out there and you have to be tough to survive. I felt strong being an independent business woman but others saw my independence was my weakness, because doing everything myself meant I was alone. So they forced the label of marginalized woman on me as part of the process to take me down. Then I was raped.

It turns out the rape culture is very real in the Niagara community and it’s not hidden either. Niagara is a hotbed for all kinds of human trafficking and it’s the local businesses that mainly run it. Not only is it a border town, but it is full of tourists. To just take a woman is way too easy so it attracts those type of characters. I am not making this up, this is a well-known fact. Shae Invidiata, founder of Free-Them, an anti-human trafficking advocacy group states, “The Golden Horseshoe of Ontario is notorious for trafficking in Canada. [Southwestern] Ontario accounts for 75 per cent of all human trafficking cases in Canada; Niagara, Stoney Creek, Grimsby, Ancaster, and Hamilton are major hot spots.” (source: The Underground World of Trafficking Humans by Tanya Hvilivitzky and Carolyn Mullin)

When I realized that this was actually a common problem in Niagara, I decided to do something about it. I started to seek out the other women who went through the same thing with the same men. Most of these women came from normal families and were physically and mentally healthy people before they were victimized.

My first art gallery downtown St. Catharines got vandalized, broken windows and finally was robbed which forced me out of business after a year. My second art gallery downtown Niagara Falls I was raped in, constantly sexually harassed and bullied by groups of people who represented the local art and business community who believed all kinds of nasty rumours spread about me, making it okay in their minds to treat me like trash. After six weeks from opening, a gang with machetes broke my windows and my landlords changed the locks on me. My tormentors worked hard to convince the public I was worthless so they could get away with completely destroying my life. But every time they knocked me down, I picked myself up and started over again. After all, I have to live.

It didn’t matter that I graduated from high school and have a post-secondary education. It didn’t matter that I was fully capable of running my own business, making my own money, paying my own bills, driving my own car. The men have spoken and they declared me less than human, declared me allowable to be raped.

Right at the point when I had gathered enough evidence and I was finally able to convince the police to take my sexual assault report, I opened up my third art gallery, again in downtown St. Catharines. My new art gallery was only open for five days when it was torched to the ground. I escaped the burning building and was arrested and thrown in jail. I had no insurance and lost everything I worked all my life to achieve. A life time of art I created and collected, boxes full of my writing yet to be published, childhood mementos, my beloved Great Dane and two cats, my social status, my art career, my whole world I created.

The reason why stuff like #MeToo is so popular is because it is easy for the general public to digest. It’s a valid common experience presented by affluent women who the public admire and will listen to. This is great, I am all for women empowerment, but it does nothing for me nor those women who are easy pickings and subjected to much worse for so long that just trying to survive the predators becomes your living. Knowing very well that the truth of what is happening to you is so complex that it’s hard enough for you to digest let alone the public and that means you’re stuck in it completely isolated. The bar has been set so high that no one will ever do anything to help you unless you can put together a campaign and convince the public that you are a worthwhile cause. Those expectations are unreasonable making it cruel to an isolated marginalized beaten down individual. And it sucks, because that is exactly what I have to do to obtain justice for the suffering I had to endure by individuals and the correctional justice system they used to damage me with.

The public doesn’t know that ten days before my gallery was torched, I emailed the Niagara Regional Police begging them to help me, explaining to them as soon as I announced the opening of my new art gallery, one of the men who have been terrorizing me was circling my new place in his car intimidating me. I still have this email but it doesn’t matter if I am unable to use it, and numerous other emails I kept as evidence because I am barred from any type of justice, unless I sue and suing does not guarantee justice. It does however guarantee more pain and suffering.

Because I was raped, it allowed the police to devalue me as nothing but a criminal. Because I was raped, it allowed the courts to throw the book at me. Because I was raped, it allowed the jail to enforce extreme power and control over me. Because I was raped, no one would believe a word I say… and I have to continue fighting this because I know there are other women going through this right now and will continue as long as it is allowed. This needs to be stopped.

Do you know what it’s like to be one of the many women who experienced full on rape, beatings, escaping attempted trafficking, escaping near death then watching other women complain about their boss making a lude pass at them and then get called hero’s for it? It doesn’t stop men from forcing unwanted sexual acts on women, it just stops them from doing it to women in their class. It pushes these men to prey on the class of women who get raped and beaten regularly anyway and will never truly qualify as human beings because they are labelled a ‘crack-whore’ a category women are forced in whether or not they have actually used crack or sold their bodies for sex.

The #MeToo women still got their careers, still got their families, still got their bills paid and all the support around them. I am told I never had a career and any attempts to advance my career as an artist with merit is horrifically mistaken as a desperate woman looking for attention. That despite me making a living and paying my bills of my art sales all my life, I am publicly slandered as an unsuccessful artist. I never had a chance to fail on my own, everything was forcefully taken from me.

After I got out of jail and dealt with some of the trauma from being incarcerated, I contacted the Niagara Regional Police and they agree to re-open what I attempted to report right before my wrongful arrest. I tried to get a rape conviction on one of the men, the one with the most evidence of doing harm to me that survived the fire. Around this time a pilot program through the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General started, giving away vouchers for free legal advice for sexual assault victims thinking about charging their assaulters.

I met with a sexual assault lawyer who was mentioned in the Robyn Doolittle’s ‘Unfounded’ series for the Globe and Mail. Half way through the session, the lawyer said I wasn’t like the other women he met with and it was apparent to me that he meant I wasn’t the class the woman that sexual assault is a valid thing to. I was considered marginalized and therefore not worthy enough to deserve rights.

The police presented the evidence I gave them to the crown and the crown rejected it. Rejected in the same court that wrongfully convicted me, the same court the wife of the man I tried to convict works for. Three months later I won my arson appeal in Toronto with the judge’s ruling that said the St. Catharines Couthouse was unfair towards me and violated my human rights. So what did the St. Catharines Courthouse do? They kept dragging me back to the courthouse, threatening to arrest me if I didn’t keep coming from Ottawa to Niagara saying they didn’t want my case to “fall through the cracks.”

I sit here knowing the true reason why my gallery was burnt down. I know it is because I refused to play the victim and was fighting back. It was because I was finding the other victims and empowering them so they too didn’t have to be victims anymore, so we didn’t have to be alone and we could fight together. They had to burn down my gallery and throw me in jail to stop me, but I have not given up. How can I give up when I know that these men who have attempted to ruin me and others are still roaming around free to prey on anyone they feel is marginalized enough to make their victim.

Why Doesn’t The Justice System Help Abused Women – by Jeannette Tossounian

My entirety of my brief criminal record is the result of men trying to overpower me and dominate me and I keep resisting. They did this to me because I stood up against them. I had a voice and wasn’t afraid to use it. I wouldn’t give up. I wouldn’t let them keep me down. I wouldn’t just allow them to rape me and take my business away from me without a fight. It was because I kept on fighting that they burnt down my gallery and drove me out of town.

Then I was thrown in jail. It’s not like I had anywhere to go, my home and business and everything I ever had just burnt down before my eyes and I had no insurance, no money and no family. My suffering is very real. My ongoing battles are real. I have been fighting for years. Like everyone else who has gone through this, it’s left up to me to fight this alone. It’s up to me to find my own justice.

I don’t seek sympathy or pity or attention, don’t feel sorry for me. This is my life and I accept my reality. I don’t ever expect people to truly understand what I been through nor do I want them to as to truly know what I have been through a person has to go through the same twisted maze I was forced to go through and I would never wish that upon anyone. Ignorance is bliss.

I don’t feel like a victim. I feel like a warrior with battle wounds knowing there are still more battles ahead.


Enjoying the content? Support independent journalism by donating to the JLT-TV Production Fund. Thanks and keep coming back for more great stories!

Advertisements

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s