Earlier this month, late into the evening at around 11 p.m., Radio-Canada journalist Antoine Trépanier received a rather unusual phone call. On the other end of the line was a police officer in Gatineau, Que. The officer was calling to inform Trépanier that he was under arrest and should report to the police station. Trépanier complied with the officer’s directive and arrived at the police station. He signed a promise to appear in court at a later date in June.
What exactly had the French language CBC journalist done to merit his arrest? He committed journalism.
Trépanier was working on a story about the executive director of a local chapter for Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Yvonne Dubé. The investigation involved an Ontario Superior Court judgment that stated Dubé had falsely presented herself as a lawyer between September 2011 and March 2012.
Trépanier sought out Dubé for comment. They spoke on the phone once, he called her twice subsequent to the initial phone conversation, and sent her one email. A couple of missed calls and an email were apparently too much for Dubé to handle, as that is what prompted her to file a criminal harassment complaint against Trépanier.
The bar for criminal harassment in this country is one in which the person alleging the harassment has to have reasonable grounds to fear for their safety based on the conduct of the alleged harasser. Usually, this involves someone feeling unsafe because of repeated and incessant conduct, being continuously followed or watched, or engaging in threats.
WATCH ABOVE: Radio-Canada reporter arrested for harassment after requesting interview
It is difficult to ascertain how Trépanier’s due diligence as a journalist would have left Dubé feeling as though her safety was in jeopardy, or how a few calls and an email could be considered enough for the police to arrest Trépanier. It is still possible for reason to prevail in this situation, as Trépanier has yet to be formally charged with a crime.
In an interview with the National Observer, Crown spokesperson Jean Pascal Boucher confirmed that no decision has been made to proceed with charges, stating simply that an objective evaluation of the evidence must be made before any charges are laid and that at this time it is too soon to come to a conclusion.
Except, it’s not really too soon to come to a conclusion once one considers the facts at hand.
Given that journalists have a Supreme Court-mandated duty – in addition to their ethical duty – to reach out to a subject so that they can provide a comment and respond to the allegations being made against them, Trépanier acted within the standards of normal journalistic practice.
According to the Gatineau Police, first in a press release and then later in a press conference, they believe that the accusation of criminal harassment was credible. That is bizarre in and of itself considering at no point did the police conduct an investigation or obtain a formal statement from Trépanier, however, the bizarreness was exponentially compounded when Gatineau Police chief Mario Harel seemingly invoked the #MeToo movement to justify his department’s actions, referring to “all the movements involving women who lodge complaints.”
Considering that roughly 20 per cent of all sexual assault allegations are dismissed by police as unfounded in this country, it’s clear that the police undeniably need to do a better job of how they deal with female complainants. But conflating this instance with the #MeToo movement is as lazy as it is disingenuous, and has the potential to set a very troubling precedent of silencing reporters who are merely doing their jobs.
You don’t have to like the media in order to recognize the vital role it plays in holding our institutions and powerful people to account. After all, it’s not exactly a coincidence that some of the most despotic places on the planet view journalism as a scourge instead of the public good that it is.
An independent, free press is the bedrock of any healthy democracy, which is precisely why freedom of the press is enshrined in our Charter. The actions of the police in Gatineau serve only to chip away at our free press, and we should all be concerned about that.