DIVA: Lesbian Life & Style
Jane Doe: Unmasking a heroine
CHRIS BEARCHELL uncovers the stories behind Canada's Jane Doe website, a labour of love honouring women who fought abuse by the Toronto police and won
Fiona Stewart was attractive, articulate and witty a daring, committed woman. One could even say she was driven. I knew her, so I don't pretend that this is an unbiased assessment.
Fiona was many-faceted, as are we all: a well-mannered daughter of the middle class, a mischievous prankster, a dedicated housing rights advocate, a fun-loving party girl, a capable administrator and formidable organizer, a lesbian and a committed feminist and a (very discreet) part-time prostitute. On 19 October, 1996, she died by misadventure, at the age of 34. By then she had also become a "Jane Doe" a reluctant, semi-anonymous hero in the struggle by Canadian prostitutes to expose police abuse. (In North America, the name Jane Doe represents unidentified women in police work and fiction.)
Her powerful story is painstakingly presented on The Jane Doe website, a tribute to a number of women "who had to remain anonymous while they sought justice for abuses perpetrated upon them by members of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Force". Nestled within the larger Jane Doe site is a Fiona Stewart memorial website, a tribute from her many friends, and especially from Konnie Reich, the lover who survived her. I can't pretend to be unbiased about the websites or their main creators, either. They are among a series of sites housed in the walnet.org domain, virtual home to a bunch of far-flung kindred spirits, known as the Walnuts, of whom I am one. But credit for the long hours of hard work that went into this project belongs to walnet.org's dedicated and talented webmaster, Andrew Sorfleet, and to Konnie.
"The bad trick from hell"
Fiona hadn't needed to turn a trick for a while when she hit the street-corner one night in November 1989. She was there to solve a minor crisis of cash flow and self-confidence (she once told me that she never felt so "in control" as when she was doing a date). But that night she had the misfortune to get picked up by the bad trick from hell a drunken, off-duty cop named Brian Whitehead. He forced her to take him back to her place, where he raped her at gunpoint. She might have written it off as a bad experience, except that he had her address and phone number and kept coming back. In desperation, she called a lawyer, who persuaded her to let him contact the Internal Affairs division of the police. The cops appeared to take the situation seriously and drew her into a plan to catch him at her place, which they had no trouble doing. Just as Fiona thought that her faith in the justice system might be restored, the real trouble began.
Because the police had had her co-operation in setting up Whitehead, they claimed that they couldn't lay criminal charges (the tape of the "sting" operation made it seem that she had acquiesced to his demands). They proceeded to charge him under the Police Act, with "corrupt practice and deceit", instead. Whitehead wasn't even sacked, just demoted back to constable from his rank of sergeant. In the midst of all this, Fiona's lawyer received an anonymous tip that the Chief of Police was preparing to release a statement to the press revealing her full name; only a hurriedly obtained court injunction stopped him.
Meanwhile, another Toronto prostitute who had a complaint against the police force went to the press with her story. Roma Langford and police constable Gordon Junger had been running an escort agency together. Internal Affairs sent him packing after catching him in a sting in late 1989 with a letter of reference. They promised to destroy the evidence against him in exchange for his quiet resignation. (The evidence that they had agreed to destroy included tape recordings made by Langford, which she wanted to use in a paternity suit against Junger.) The subsequent media uproar about internal affairs making a "sweetheart" deal with "the cop who ran an escort agency" prompted a provincial government inquiry into misconduct in the Toronto police force's internal affairs department.
Fiona couldn't resist. She had a lawyer apply for, and receive, the right to appear at the inquiry on her behalf. What began as the Junger Inquiry quickly became the Junger-Whitehead Inquiry. Fiona was an impressive witness and her testimony helped produce important recommendations. But the rape by Whitehead, the abuse by Internal Affairs and the experience of testifying at the inquiry itself only sketch the broad outlines of an ordeal that included death threats, violent attacks and stints in a "witness protection" program. Fiona wrote afterward that if she had known all that would befall her, she would not have launched her challenge. By the end, any faith she'd had in the justice system had been thoroughly eroded.
Reconstructing Fiona's files
When I first met Fiona Stewart she had already begun her fight against the Toronto police. I was working as project administrator of Maggie's, the Toronto Prostitutes' Community Service Project. (If my undergraduate degree from the School of Hard Knocks was in gay liberation, then grad school was prostitutes' rights activism.) I knew the story of this particular "Jane Doe" through the media and the grapevine, but I was unprepared for the strong, savvy, competent woman who took refuge, briefly, in our house. So was my house-mate, Konnie, who was swept off her feet and up into the whirlwind that was Fiona's life at that time.
Fiona Stewart was known publicly as Jane Doe throughout the extensive Junger/ Whitehead inquiry into police misconduct, and her identity remained secret until after her death. The website's writers, Konnie and Andrew, explain why they "outed" Fiona as a Jane Doe. After her memorial service, "her chosen family realized that Fiona would have wanted her story out in the open. She always wanted to tell her whole story and fought hard for years so that someday some justice might be gained for all her pain and courage."
While she was alive, Fiona's discretion, and later her use of the pseudonym Jane Doe, protected her "official" family. As happens with so many of us on the margins of society, once she was dead, those relatives didn't want anything to do with the people who had shared her life. Nor with any of its controversial complexities. Their desire to close this painful chapter of the family's history left no room for concern about preserving the record of Fiona's courageous struggle.
The breaking point came when the family destroyed all of Fiona's thorough and carefully maintained files. For Fiona's lover, Konnie Reich, "the websites became the only way to honour Fiona's accomplishments, because the family seemed more intent on erasing her."
Konnie spent many hours in the Toronto Public Library, hunting down each of the approximately 150 newspaper clippings reporting Fiona's case and printing them out from microfilm. She then took the copies home to an antiquated computer, typed the clippings into e-mail messages and sent them to the Walnet webmaster, Andrew, across the country in Vancouver. Since she doesn't have her own net access, she keeps printouts of all the sites' pages and dutifully proofreads them, sending corrections back by e-mail.
Many of the other 50 or so documents on the two sites were recovered from original sources: lawyers' exchanges and other legal records, all twelve chapters of the report of the inquiry, and lots of other damning evidence. Konnie says, "My guide for finding stuff is Fiona herself, who told me about the articles." Fiona maintained a chronology (reproduced on the website) that helps Konnie figure out where to look; her unwavering commitment to Fiona is combined with an uncanny ability to find the relevant material. It's been labour-intensive, all right, but truly a labour of love.
The sites had several thousand visitors while they were under construction. Traffic is likely to climb dramatically now that they are completed and are being featured on the Commercial Sex Information Service site at walnet.org, which had more than 300,000 visits in 1998, according to its most recent traffic report.
The "Jane Doe" stories
The Jane Doe site is also a tribute to three other women who also experienced and challenged abuse at the hands of the Metropolitan Toronto Police force.
One woman's story began in 1986 when a rapist was targeting single women in Toronto's lesbian and gay neighbourhood. He went after them by entering apartments through second-floor balcony doors. The police opted not to issue a warning about "the balcony rapist," as he became known, for fear that women in the area "might get hysterical" at least that is what the rapist's fifth "victim" says she was told when she asked why no warning was issued.
"They were using me and all of the other women in my neighbourhood as bait in the hope of catching him in the act," the woman later told the press, explaining why, using the pseudonym "Jane Doe", she decided to sue the police force. Eventually her attacker was caught as a result of another investigation; he confessed to the rapes and was sentenced to jail. This first Jane Doe carried on her efforts to sue the Toronto police force for a further 11 years before finally winning her case. Her story is also told on the site.
Robin Gardner Voce's story also appears on the Jane Doe site. Two members of the Toronto police were convicted of raping her in their police cruiser after finding her drunk on a downtown street late one night in February 1984. She forced the cops to press charges against their fellow officers by confronting the two the next day; carrying a hidden recorder, she got their boastful admissions on tape. She died, an apparent suicide, while her case was still before the court.
Under her own name, Fiona Stewart helped launch a vigorous campaign to exert public pressure on Ontario's Chief Coroner for an official inquest into Robin's death. The campaign included organizing a media conference and a candle-lit vigil in front of police headquarters and speaking at a Take Back the Night rally. A public petition calling for an inquest was eventually signed by 3,000 people. The Chief Coroner ordered a thorough investigation into Robin's death. The conclusion was that Robin most likely took her own life in response to the intense pressure of the case and the violation she had experience at the hands of the Metro Toronto Police.
Fiona was passionately committed to improving ordinary people's access to housing, and, before her life was taken over by her own ordeal, she devoted her considerable energy to creating more and better affordable housing by developing co-ops in downtown Toronto, Canada. Over the years she was involved in various tennants' organisations and co-ops, eventually becoming the co-ordinator of Ontario's Affordable Housing Action Group, a coalition lobbying for changes in provincial legislation. Her last position, in the early 1990s, was as co-ordinator of the Inclusive Neighbourhoods Campaign. After her death, a colleague, Lorraine Katryan, described her as having "a real commitment to community development and empowering approaches and using a feminist approach" in her work.
Whatever Fiona's regrets about the way she dealt with Whitehead's assaults and her betrayal at the hands of the police force, publicly, under her real name, she continued to challenge police abuse of women, as a founding member of Women Against Police Violence Against Women. She was also the driving force behind a housing project built to honour the memory of Robin Gardner Voce.
Robin Gardner Voce Non-Profit Homes is a beautiful, 115-unit affordable housing project in Scarborough, Ontario, offering permanent shelter for women escaping all kinds of abuse. This project, more than five years in the planning, was Fiona's attempt to commemorate one of the victims of abuse by the police who came before her, to render something productive and enduring out of needless suffering and to create a permanent reminder of the reality and the danger of police misconduct.
The Jane Doe website is another such memorial one that is explicit and astonishingly detailed. Fiona Stewart's untimely death from unknown causes, probably precipitated by her epilepsy, devastated her friends and chosen family. Part archive and part scrapbook, formed of equal parts love and the desire for retribution, their memorial to her is a vehicle for ongoing vigilance, education and accountability and a fitting tribute to an amazing woman.
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Created: March 28, 2000
Last modified: October 10, 2000
Jane Doe, c/o Walnut Society
Box 3075, Vancouver, BC V6B 3X6
Tel: +1 (604) 488-0710