Interview on CKLN
October 12, 1997
Nora Currie and
Fiona Stewart was the kind of woman you might meet at a community meeting, a university course or any number of social activist organizations. She worked for years as a housing activist and was the founder of the Robin Gardner-Voce non-profit homes, a permanent housing project that gives priority to woman leaving abusive relationships. Fiona sometimes worked as a sex worker. In 1989 she picked up and was sexually assaulted and terrorized over a period of time by Sergeant Brian Whitehead of the Metropolitan Toronto police force. Fiona called the cops on him and became the "Jane Doe" in the Junger/Whitehead inquiry which rocked the city and nearly brought down then-police chief William MacCormack. Her courage and intelligence were rewarded with recommendations for change by the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services. Changes that would support future targets of police crimes, changes which held no benefit for Fiona. Next Sunday marks the first anniversary of Fiona Stewart's untimely death at the age of 34. Joining us right now is Lorraine Katryan. It was during Lorrain's time as a housing activist that she met her friend Fiona Stewart.
Nora: Hi Lorraine and welcome to REF
Lorraine: How are you.
Nora: Lorraine can you maybe begin by telling our listeners about how you first met and came to know Fiona.
Lorraine: We met through our housing work. She was the coordinator of the Affordable Housing Action Group which was a provincial coalition of groups lobbying for a lot of housing changes. I was coordinating a local group at the time, working on some of those changes as well. Though we met through our work, shortly after that, she called me up and asked if I would be interested in being involved on a board of directors to build a new housing project and she kind of conned me. She told me that it would be only for a few months and I would chair the board, but that would only be for a few months too. Lo and behold, five and a half years later, we -- because of her inspiration and her vision -- had built Robin Gardner-Voce non-profit homes, which as you mentioned, is a housing project with 115 apartments in Scarborough, which gives priority to assaulted women.
Nora: Perhaps you should talk a bit about Robin. Robin's and Fiona's lives mirrored each other in many ways.
Lorraine: Very much so. Robin was a young woman who had been picked up by two police officers back in the eighties, who instead of taking her to the station, where they told her they would be taking her, they took her to an underground parking garage and raped her. She was really the first woman who came forward in Metro to bring charges against police and to go through the judicial process to try and find justice. Unfortunately Robin died, she committed suicide shortly after giving her testimony. Five years later, five grueling years later where she was harassed, followed, beat up made to feel like she was crazy by the police and by mysterious unknown persons. So she committed suicide shortly after giving her testimony and didn't see the outcome whereby they were found guilty of discreditable conduct and thrown off of the force. Fiona was very moved by her story and really, personally, very touched by it. She kept thinking there must be a way that we can remember her courage and what this woman had to go through -- all that and the cost that it meant to her.
Shortly after that, then, Fiona herself was assaulted by Brian Whitehead, a police sergeant, and went through a very similar experience as Robin: harassed, beaten up, made to feel she was crazy. The whole system really conspired against both women to make it virtually impossible -- almost impossible -- to go forward with their complaints. Robin was really the inspiration for Fiona to keep going through some of her most difficult and trying moments. Unfortunately Fiona went through the process, she testified at the Junger/Whitehead inquiry there were some good recommendations brought forward that would bring change to the whole system when women wanted to bring forward complaints against cops. You think of the police as someone to protect you, but when they are in fact your terrorist, then who do you go to. The cops are like the brotherhood, you know, which Fiona and Robin found out only too well. And in the end, we lost Fiona too, because it was just too horrific to go through and she never really healed from it. So here are these two incredible, courageous, wonderful women who fought the system and they didn't fight it for themselves, they fought it on behalf of all other women, so that no one else would have to go through what they went through and we lost them both.
Nora: And we did lose them and yet they both left us wonderful legacies to work with. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about the Robin Gardner-Voce housing project and specifically about women leaving abusive relationships.
Lorraine: Fiona had a lot of experience in non-profit housing and she had a real commitment to community development and empowering approaches and using a feminist approach. There were other projects that had some of the people living in them coming from abusive relationships but they wouldn't necessarily be paying attention to their needs. They would maybe be looking at it from a charity model and Fiona always thought that was not the way to go and we needed to be including women who had left abusive relationships right from the beginning, we needed to create a community were there was some solidarity and were women would work together to address the issues in their lives. There were a lot of women for example who wouldn't qualify as a woman leaving a abusive relationship and we wanted to fill some of the gaps. So for example if there was a lesbian leaving an abusive situation where she was abused by another lesbian, or transgendered person or a refuge who experienced sexual violence in her home country that kind of thing. This were the kind of situations that we would also include and she was very dedicated to the board of directors and the committees really reflecting the community of the people who lived there. So by the time we opened in June of 1995 50% of the women on the board were women of color, 50% were tenants, we had disabled women, lesbians a lot of ethnic diversity a number of women who were survivors of violence themselves. She really tried to put her principles into practice.
Nora: She certainly succeeded in that. Tell me a little bit about the specifics for women who are at Robin Gardner-Voce, you talked about computerized keys and how that works.
Lorraine: We tried to look at designing the project in a way that would create safety for women who have known violence in their lives. For example one thing that we have is computer programmable keys. Lets say a woman was in the building and she gives her boyfriend a key to the door and then he starts abusing her, all the office has to do is deprogram his key, we don't even have to get it back from him, we just deprogram it and he can't get back in the building.
Nora: There is also underground parking.
Lorraine: Paying a lot of attention to the parking garage and to the grounds, even looking at the size of the shrubbery around the place and even just looking at designing the building from a women's point of view. We had battles with the architects over how the units should be designed, the kitchen should be a little bit bigger then a closet.
Nora: And with the windows so that women can see what the kids are doing and where the kids are.
Lorraine: Windows going from the kitchen into the living room so that she can watch her children that kind of thing.
Nora: It's amazing that Fiona who was so let down and failed by our system was able to give back so much.
Lorraine: She was really an extraordinary woman, I haven't met anyone like her. She was incredible: intelligent, witty and courageous. She had a really sharp tongue and could always come back with some kind of come-back to someone -- a real gift of the gab -- but she used all of her skills and abilities and her privileges to really work and fight for social justice, and the rights of other women in particular. She talked about how she was able to come forward in the Junger/Whitehead inquiry because she had a lot of privileges. She was white, she was educated, she was very articulated, she had connections in the legal system and with other people who could help her. She always talked about how much more difficult and impossible it would be for other women to come forward; she really put her life on the line for what she believed in, and persisted through the most horrible times, and that's because of her dedication to social justice. She often would advise other women not to report to the police because the system is still too awful -- it's not worth making yourself into a sacrificial lamb for the sake of the system. And yet that's what she did.
Nora: And again that's advise that we need to hear and look at given her experience. Fiona never recovered from her experience as Jane Doe and in fact it was one of the contributing factors to her death.
Lorraine: Absolutely, it traumatized her to no end in ways that we really can't begin to understand.
Nora: Next Sunday at the Robin Gardner-Voce housing co-op there will be a memorial for Fiona. You want to talk about it.
Lorraine: This will be a year from her death and it will take place at 6 p.m. It's a pot-luck, those who knew her and would like to come together and remember her or just somebody who is particularly inspired by her is welcome to come and we'll eat and chat and we'll talk about our memories, anybody who wants to say anything can talk who she was, what she meant to them.
Nora: Women who would want more information could perhaps call at 438-8331.
Lorraine: Thats's the number for the Robin Gardner-Voce non-profit housing project.
Nora: Thanks so much Lorraine for joining us today.
Lorraine: Your welcome it was my pleasure.
Nora: I'm looking forward to see you next Sunday. To learn more about Fiona Stewart her life and her accomplishments you can visit her website. Just in closing I did want to say that Brian Whitehead, the officer who raped and terrorized Fiona Stewart, was found guilty under the Police Act of and I quote "a totally despicable abuse of police power and authority." He was demoted to the rank of first class constable and he continues to serve and protect. He is soon eligible for a full retirement pension.