WARNING: This article contains details about abuse
Leslie McMillan still remembers the night she dragged her intoxicated boyfriend, Ali, out of their high school music teacher’s hotel room.
“She’s on his bed, on her back, completely passed out, pants off,” McMillan recalled. “I knew in my gut what had happened.”
It was May 1987 and they were on a school trip to Montreal. Ali was in class 11 and the teacher was almost middle-aged, married with children.
What happened that night went unnoticed until last autumn when Ali, now 53, went to York Regional Police to report what she claimed was sexual exploitation and assault.
“He was 39,” Ali told CBC. “I can’t imagine getting sexually involved with a 17-year-old.”
Breaking: has agreed to withhold her last name as she continues to pursue justice.
In November, a detective videotaped an interview with Ali and recorded the names of potential witnesses — 35 years after the band tour.
While there is no statute of limitations for sex crimes in Canada, no one would ask McMillan, or anyone else, to testify to what she and others saw as teenagers.
The detective even told Ali that there would be no case.
“What he did was not illegal,” Ali said, explaining what the officer had told her. “There was no law on the books then.”
A defendant can only be prosecuted for offenses listed in Canada’s Criminal Code at the time of the alleged offence. Sexual exploitation – a charge often used against teachers and other people in positions of authority for crimes against anyone under the age of 18 – became law in January 1988.
That was seven months after Ali’s hotel incident.
No laws apply
A new CBC investigative podcast reveals that since 1998, three women have independently reported to Ontario police alleging that the same music teacher – William Douglas Walker – groomed, manipulated and sexually assaulted them in the 1970s and 1980s.
In all three cases, the authorities came to the same conclusion: no laws apply.
To date, Walker has never been convicted of any crime. He has long maintained that the sexual encounters were consensual – a claim a judge agreed with in one of the three cases.
But legal observers say if the complainants were boys it might be a different story.
“People who were boy victims fare better in the process than people who were girls at the time of the attack,” said Blair Crew, director of legal aid at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
“One of the reasons for that is looking back into the laws.”
In particular, police have been able to more easily track down and charge men and convicted teachers, coaches and others in positions of authority for crimes they committed against boys in the 1970s and 1980s.
Survivors and advocates who spoke to CBC say the difference in treatment based on gender creates a systematic double standard that still hinders women from seeking justice decades later. They say the discriminatory application of Canadian laws allows some predators to go unpunished.
‘Based on gender’
Anne-Marie Robinson, 62, was one of three women to report Walker to the police. She said the law is not applied equally.
“Gender equality is a huge policy problem that exists and governments need to solve it,” said Robinson.
Crew, who has provided independent legal advice to survivors of sexual assault for years, says outdated laws, such as gross indecency, were more often applied to crimes against boys in the 1970s and 1980s than girls.
Gross indecency is defined in the Penal Code as anyone who willfully commits an indecent act in a public place in the presence of one or more persons, or in any other place with the intent to offend or offend any person.
Their innocence and their trust were abused so rudely.– Janine Benedet, UBC Professor of Law
“In the 1980s, the laws were still very, very homophobic in their orientation, and most of the laws, let’s face it, were written by men. It was an instant crime,” Crew said.
He notes that the idea of a man having sex with a girl may be seen as less offensive by some authorities.
“Women have always faced the whole idea of the rape myth that women are available for consent. So there is always the question in the mind of a crown attorney as to whether or not they will be able to prove lack of consent,” said Crew.
“Men who were boys at the time of the attack never seemed to face the same level of scrutiny.”
Changes in the law
The charge of gross indecency has also been used to criminalize sex between consenting men, said Janine Benedet, a law professor at the University of British Columbia.
“It’s been used in discriminatory ways, but it’s actually tailor-made for this kind of factual scenario,” Benedet said, referring to the alleged crimes against female students by their teacher in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Their innocence and their trust was so brutally abused.”
The Canadian Penal Code was significantly amended 40 years ago.
Several laws were repealed and new offenses introduced, including sexual exploitation – the inappropriate sexual acts of a person having custody of a young person under the age of 18.
The law did not receive royal assent until January 1, 1988, and police cannot file the charges retroactively. To Ali’s knowledge, the authorities have not considered the allegation of gross indecency.
Jeanie McKay, the third woman to report Walker to the police, told York Regional Police in 1998 about the grooming and sexual abuse from the early 1980s. She also reported that there had been other casualties at her school.
No charges were filed, and Walker remained in the class until 2000. A year later, the Ontario College of Teachers banned him from teaching after investigating allegations of abuse.
A 2019 CBC podcast examined the abuse of boys by male teachers in the 1970s and 1980s. A teacher was convicted of 10 crimes, including gross indecency and indecent assault.
‘Wrong then, wrong now’
University of Ottawa law professor Constance Backhouse says the discrepancy raises questions.
“The historical applications of the law were wrong then and remain wrong now,” says Backhouse, author of Carnal Crimes: Sexual Assault Law in Canada.
“There were always charges that could have been brought even then… It was the restrictive and sexist interpretation that police, prosecutors and judges placed on those words that was the problem.”
The CBC podcast research found 15 girls claiming they were harassed, represented or sexually assaulted by Walker. Between 1974 and 2000, he taught at seven different schools in the Toronto area.
“I think it really calls on the federal Attorney General to … give much better policy guidance in terms of how their laws are applied,” Robinson said.
In an email to CBC, the Justice Department said eradicating sexual assault is a top priority, but did not acknowledge the issues raised by Robinson.
The department referred to the provinces, which “exercise justice”, while the Ontario government shifted to the police. The police forces involved did not comment.
“There could be a human rights complaint there,” Crew said. Survivors say they will consider that option.
There is support for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. This gives you access to crisis lines and local emergency services Canadian government website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. If you are in immediate danger or have concerns for your safety or that of others around you, call 911.