Last week, Patrick Brown resigned his post as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario (PCPO) after two anonymous accusations of “sexual misconduct” became public. Within hours of the accusations surfacing, his staff resigned, and members of the PCPO caucus rushed to express their disgust and to distance themselves from the leader. There is now a scramble to elect a new leader before the June 7 Ontario election. It is all very disturbing, but the accusations being levelled at Brown do not square with the man we have come to know and have worked with on LGBT issues for almost three years.
We first met Patrick Brown in 2015 when he marched with us in the Toronto Pride parade, the first leader of a Conservative party to do so. Since then, he has marched with us at Pride festivals three times, in Toronto and Ottawa. We have provided him with support and advice on LGBT issues and have always found him to be receptive to our outreach. He has gone out of his way, at some personal cost to his support within the PCPO, to marginalize the voices of homophobia that unfortunately still exist in the party as a small but vocal minority. No other Conservative leader has done more to advocate for LGBT acceptance than Patrick Brown. We have always found him to be an honourable man; in fact, we gave him a well-deserved LGBT Outreach award in 2016.
This is why we are troubled that he has been so quickly removed as leader and abandoned by his caucus and party based on anonymous accusations that he has not been given the opportunity to refute. No one knows the truth about Brown’s interactions with the two women in question except the people involved, and perhaps more details will emerge, but he was tried in the media and immediately dismissed by his own party without being given any opportunity to properly answer the accusations. His hasty defenestration raises a number of concerns.
Sexual harassment of women by men in authority is undoubtedly a problem both in politics and in Canadian society in general. However, there is some debate about whether Brown’s alleged conduct rises above the level of boorishness to outright harassment or assault, and he has been punished without an opportunity to defend himself or to answer his anonymous accusers. His trial took place in the media, and his punishment has been the complete ruin of his life and career.
The fact that serious politicians are suggesting that Brown does not deserve the presumption of innocence until proven guilty is particularly worrisome. When asked about the Brown case, Jagmeet Singh, leader of the federal NDP, said that presumption of innocence was strictly a legal nicety that should not be given any weight by Canadians when women come forward with accusations of sexual harassment. “If you are asking me when I was a lawyer in a legal lens, there is a discussion or presumption of innocence — but that is strictly about the procedures in court,” he said.
Andrea Horwath, leader of the Ontario NDP, said that Brown certainly deserved his day in court, but “I really have two words about the justice system: Jian Ghomeshi. Let’s face it, the justice system is failing women. It is. And that’s the reality – that’s why lots of women don’t come forward, especially when it relates to workplace issues, so let’s not pretend that we have a justice system that’s actually protecting women and making sure that women see justice.”
This is very troubling. The leaders of two Canadian political parties are condoning the extra-legal punishment of men in cases where the alleged victims are women, and suggesting that the foundations of our legal system – due process, the right to a fair trial, the right to confront one’s accusers and to defend oneself against serious accusations – are mere procedural trivialities that get in the way of the broader goal of “justice”. Are we to replace the legal process that is designed to protect the rights of both the accused and the victim with vigilante justice egged on by the media? Are men to be held to a different standard of proof than women? If even Jian Gomeshi and Paul Bernardo were afforded the presumption of innocence and given a trial before any guilt was determined or punishment meted out, doesn’t Patrick Brown deserves the same consideration?
In a broader sense, the accusations against Brown raise questions about the standards of conduct that society demands of people in public life. Who among us can look back on our lives, particularly when we were young, and say that we are completely innocent of any activities that, in the wrong context, would disqualify us from political office in today’s climate? Every young gay man thinking of running for office should be thinking now of every clumsy encounter in a gay bar, or every Grindr chat that got a little heated and resulted in the exchange of pictures. Does this behaviour rise to the level of “sexual misconduct”, the overly-broad term that has replaced the more precise offences of sexual assault or harassment? What kind of people will seek careers in politics under these circumstances?
Sexual assault and sexual harassment of women is a serious problem in Canada, and in Canadian politics. It must be dealt with, but in a way that protects the rights of the accused as well as the accuser, and doesn’t subject men who may well be innocent to a trial by ordeal in the public square. We have a legal system that protects these rights precisely to weed out frivolous accusations that can ruin lives and careers. Patrick Brown may be guilty of the transgressions he has been accused of, but he deserves to be presumed innocent until that guilt is established.
The party that Patrick Brown helped to build by bringing in record numbers of members, raising millions of dollars, and reaching out to hitherto-ignored communities in Ontario, behaved dishonourably in its haste to throw him overboard. If the party leadership and caucus did so merely to rid themselves of a leader they disliked, regardless of his innocence or guilt, then that is despicable, even by the low standards of politics.
We believe Patrick Brown is a good man. No other Conservative party leader has done more for the LGBT community than him, and we are grateful for what he has done to lead the PCPO in a direction of tolerance and inclusion for LGBT people. He deserves our thanks and not the disgraceful rush to judgement to which he has been subjected.