The February lecture for the Hart House Speaker series featured Canadian criminal lawyer Marie Henein. The defender, who is famous for defending former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi and former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant, recalled how after a friend told her about the event being sold out, she thought, “U of T sure misses me.” As the high-profile lawyer discovered that Hart House had been advertising the event as being a discussion about the #MeToo movement, she commented, “Well played, Hart House debate committee.”
Henein revealed that she had been avoiding the discussion on the #MeToo movement due to the way some opinions and voices are not heard. She noted the importance of patience and taking a pause before voicing opinions. Henein questioned the role based on which she was invited as a speaker. Was she, Marie Henein, the defence lawyer? The business-person? The feminist? In her mind, they are consistent and reconcilable. For Henein, this role division is part of the problem. “We women are never quite right, never quite whole. Some aspect of us needs explaining,” she stated. So is the #MeToo movement a good thing or a bad thing, she asked. “That’s a simplistic question,” she said, but the one question that everyone wishes to talk about. Henein highlighted how there will be stories that we accept, and stories that we will not accept as true. “None of that undermines the purpose of this movement,” she added.
Henein acknowledged the controversies surrounding herself, specifically after the Jian Ghomeshi trial. Ghomeshi was initially charged with four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking, and was later, in March 2016, acquitted of all charges. She therefore acknowledges many people thought that she would be opposed to the #MeToo movement. Henein said that these people could not be more wrong. According to her, these opinions arise from a basic misunderstanding of the role of the lawyer in the criminal justice system. “A lawyer defends a client. They do not defend a crime,” she said. She firmly stated that defending a client charged with sexual assault does not make her a supporter or proponent of sexual assault. “The #MeToo movement is, in my opinion, a necessary social awakening,” she stated. She compared it to Black Lives Matter, and how these movements can reveal an ugly reality about society.
She related the #MeToo movement to broader issues of gender inequality, such as the United States presidential election and the criticisms of Hilary Clinton based on her being a woman.
Everything from her clothing to her tone of voice was relentlessly judged. “She may not have shattered the glass ceiling, but she certainly shone a light on it. We couldn’t ignore it,” Henein mentioned. The lawyer pointed out that here in Canada too there has never been a female Prime Minister for a whole term. She voiced her indignation saying, “I just wish rather than telling us how in touch they were with their feminist side, they would step aside.”
Turning her focus to the criticisms of the #MeToo movement, Henein stated that the main concern was that allegations could destroy a man’s reputation and deny him due process. Henein dismisses these criticisms saying that due process is something that belongs in criminal court, not among people’s opinions. “There is no such thing as a court of public opinion.” While allegations may ruin a person’s image, there are no real stakes in public opinion because there is no real deprivation of liberty. So, what is the real complaint here? She asked, answering that it has to do with the reactions to the allegations. “The reaction is immediate and swift on social media,” she said. Henein remarked that the problem is the “digital mob mentality” that we have. We need to pause and take a breath before we form an opinion. “We need to figure out what this new means of communication is and how we can harness it productively,” she explained.
Shifting back to #MeToo and Hollywood, Henein said that firing the actors or directors is not the solution. Instead, we need to ask the question, how is this behaviour allowed to persist? Most large studios and casting agencies have been silent on the issue of how new practices can be implemented and where to go from here. Henein therefore emphasized that getting rid of the offenders must be accompanied by meaningful inquiry and change.