Jury decision in 2017 rape lawsuit reignites push to rename London’s Paul Haggis Park

Paul Haggis poses in front of the Paul Haggis Park sign Jan. 20, 2017.
Paul Haggis poses in front of the Paul Haggis Park sign Jan. 20, 2017.

With a new city council comes a renewed push to rename Paul Haggis Park.

Two London, Ont., women’s groups say they hope that council members, set to be sworn in on Tuesday, will take up the matter again after a U.S. jury last week ordered the London-born film director to pay at least US$7.5 million in compensatory damages to a woman who accused him of rape.

On Monday, Haggis, 69, was ordered to pay an additional US$2.5 million in punitive damages, for a total of US$10 million, or about C$13.3 million.

“Council needs to be adding this to their agenda right away and have it dealt with,” said Jennifer Dunn, executive director of the London Abused Women’s Centre.

“The city, at the end of the day, needs to make sure that women and girls know that they’re not alone and that the city is going to support them, so now is the time to make that happen.”

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Read more: Filmmaker Paul Haggis ordered to pay additional $2.5M in rape suit

The allegations against Haggis, known for his films “Crash” and “Million Dollar Baby,” first emerged in 2017 when Haleigh Breest, 36, sued the filmmaker, alleging he subjected her to unwanted advances at his New York apartment in January 2013, compelled her to perform oral sex and raped her despite her entreaties to stop.

The two had met previously while working at movie premieres in the early 2010s. Breest told the jury he had offered her a lift home following a screening after-party and invited her for a drink at his apartment.

Haggis testified that Breest was flirtatious and, while sometimes seeming “conflicted,” initiated kisses and oral sex in an interaction that was consensual. The jury ultimately sided with Breest. Haggis was not criminally charged.

Four other women also testified that they experienced forceful, unwelcome passes — and in one case, rape — by Haggis in separate encounters going back to 1996. None of the four took legal action. Haggis denied the allegations.

The jury’s decision comes months after Haggis was placed under house arrest for 10 days in Italy as authorities investigated allegations he sexually assaulted a woman there. In August, a judge in Italy ruled there were no grounds to continue investigating the allegations.

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Read more: Filmmaker Paul Haggis ordered to pay $7.5M to rape accuser in N.Y. trial

Should the matter of renaming the park land on the upcoming council agenda, it will be the second time that city politicians will have debated the issue.

In early 2018, shortly after the allegations against Haggis became public, Ward 3 Coun. Mo Salih tabled a motion calling for the director’s name to be scrubbed from the park, named after him in 2011.

Members of the community and protective services committee chose to receive Salih’s motion but take no action, while full council rejected the motion with a vote of 10-2 roughly a week later.

Reflecting on that decision on Tuesday, AnnaLise Trudell, manager of prevention education with Anova, said that a lot had changed since then when it came to public education around sexual violence, noting that in early 2018, the #MeToo movement had only just emerged months earlier.

“In the last few months, we’ve had a national conversation about Hockey Canada and sports and sexual violence and accountability. So I think there’s a different sensibility at this point than there was in 2018… There’s a sense that, in a lot of ways, our court systems are failing, our accountability systems are failing,” Trudell said.

Read more: Paul Haggis sexual assault case dismissed by Italian court

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Trudell says last week’s jury ruling against Haggis should prompt further reflection on the policies surrounding the naming of municipal buildings and parks after individuals.

Those policies came under scrutiny earlier this year after council voted to remove Trooper Mark Wilson’s name from a park and street after the London Free Press revealed Wilson had been convicted in 2004 of assaulting a woman while the two were recruits in a military training program.

Wilson died two years later at the age of 39 after his armoured vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan’s Panjwaii district.

“The last many years, and much beyond the scope of London, we’ve seen the danger of naming things after individuals, and I don’t know that we’re necessarily as a collective ready to stop doing that,” Trudell said.

“I do think we need to have a process in place that is, sort of, triggered by automated moments where we know there’s harm that’s been committed, to review the naming of those places,” she continued.

“That it doesn’t require community activists and advocates… to say, ‘hey, wait, I think you should reflect on this, this is deeply connected to your strategic priority goal around women and girls and the Safe Cities Initiative.'”

Read more: Former Hockey Canada executive Bob Nicholson to testify before parliamentary committee

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Dunn agrees, and believes the overall approach should be to stop naming things after people in general.

“Look at the Paul Haggis situation that’s going on, and I mean, it’s difficult because how far are you going to go with it?” Dunn said.

“So you’re going to name something after someone, and then if something comes up, you’re going to change it? It’s just a very long process to go through, when you at the end of the day, you could just be like, ‘okay, we’re not naming things after specific people anymore.'”

The city is conducting a review of its commemorative naming process regarding city assets, a review which was spurred by Lyla Wheeler’s push to have Plantation Road renamed. A progress report from the review is expected before the civic works committee next month.

Dunn says the city approached LAWC earlier this year to see if the agency would be willing to take part in some focus groups to gather feedback from women with lived experience about commemorative naming and what that would mean for them.

“We were able to work with the city and do some of that work, and I know with their plan and how that’s moving along, that information is going to be put together and included in part of the work that they’re doing,” she said.

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Global News contacted Ward 12 Coun. Elizabeth Peloza for comment, but did not receive a response by publishing time. Peloza told the London Free Press last week that she planned to follow up with city staff about the matter.

— With files from The Associated Press

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