John Furlong sues journalist for claiming he abused aboriginal teens

Steve Mertl
Daily Brew

Former 2010 Winter Olympics boss John Furlong has made good on his threat to sue a journalist and Vancouver newspaper over allegations he abused aboriginal students more than 40 years ago, setting the stage for one of the highest-profile libel suits in recent Canadian history.

Furlong's lawyers officially filed his statement of claim in B.C. Supreme Court on Wednesday against Ontario freelance reporter Laura Robinson and the editors and publishers of the weekly Georgia Straight.

Furlong alleges Robinson "maliciously intended to injure the plaintiff's reputation and cause the plaintiff harm" through a series of articles beginning in 2008 and culminating in a piece published in the Georgia Straight in September.

And even after the story was published and denied by Furlong, Robinson continued to defame him in emails to his colleagues, the statement of claim alleges.

The allegations made in Furlong's claim remain unproven in court and no statements of defence have yet been filed.

Furlong, chief executive of the Vancouver 2010 Organizing Committee and now chairman of the Vancouver Whitecaps soccer club,  is claiming unspecified general, special, aggravated and punitive damages. He also wants an apology and retraction, and injunctions against further dissemination of the offending article and any other defamatory statements.

There's been no comment so far from Robinson or the Straight's editors and publisher. Furlong's lawyer said Tuesday that once the claim was filed they no longer comment.

[Related: Setting the record straight on my life and my family: John Furlong]

In her Georgia Straight story, Robinson claimed the Irish-born Furlong, in his autobiographical book "Patriot Hearts," had omitted his "secret past" as a teenage Catholic missionary working as a sports coach and instructor at a Catholic school in Burns Lake, B.C., in 1969-70 before emigrating permanently to Canada a few years later. Furlong countered that his early stay in Canada was brief and unimportant.

Robinson claimed in her article that during his tenure as a volunteer teacher, Furlong abused aboriginal students physically and verbally. Her accusation was based on a series of affidavits (statutory declarations) collected from former students alleging Furlong subjected students to abuse, bullying and racial taunts.

Furlong says all these allegations are untrue, according to the statement of claim, and that Robinson knew or ought to have known they were unreliable before her Georgia Straight piece was published.

The court filing also alleges that last May, Robinson sent copies of the statutory declarations to some of Furlong's friends and colleagues "under the guise of seeking comment for the Georgia Straight article but with the intent of discrediting the plaintiff."

According to the claim, Robinson pressed on despite a letter from Furlong's lawyer last July vigorously denying any wrongdoing and warning of legal action if the allegations were published.

Not only that, Furlong's claim alleges, Robinson filed a report with the RCMP making further allegations of abuse of one student. The Mounties investigated that report and advised Straight editor Charlie Smith that there were inconsistencies between Robinson's account and that of the student she identified.

On the eve of the article's Sept. 27 publication, Furlong's lawyer sent Smith another letter warning the allegations were "incorrect and defamatory," and would trigger legal action if published.

Smith and Straight's editor and publisher Dan McLeod are named in the suit, both having reviewed Robinson's piece and approving it for publication, the claim states.

The Straight has an estimated readership of more than 800,000, and Robinson's story was republished in print and on the Internet, spreading her allegations around the world, the court document claims.

An angry Furlong called a news conference denouncing the article shortly after it was published.

[ More Daily Brew: Edmonton's mayor miffed at Toronto for weighing in on Lucy the Elephant ]

But Robinson apparently opted to double down. On Nov. 8, Furlong's claim states, she sent an email to Chris Dornan, media consultant for Own the Podium, which Furlong chairs. It claimed that since the story was published more former students have come forward "wanting to give statements about very serious abuse and racist behaviour." Non-aboriginal students have also corroborated the allegations against Furlong, Robinson says in the email to Dornan.

"There is a great deal of confirmation that Mr. Furlong was violent and a racist," the email says, according to the court filing.

As late as Nov. 25, the claim says, Robinson sent another email to the organization's chief executive officer alleging "former students of John Furlong's have made very serious allegations recently in signed documents about his violence against women and children."

The claim alleges Robinson's allegations brought Furlong "into public scandal and contempt, and suffered, and will continue to suffer, grave damage to his character and reputation," and subjected him and his family to "distress and embarrassment."

Furlong, who was lionized and given the Order of Canada for in the wake of Vancouver's Olympic triumph, claimed he has also suffered loss of income and earning capacity, including cancellation of scheduled speaking engagements shortly after the Straight article was published.