CANADIANS, like most other people, love stories about how the mighty are fallen. Many of them have been grimly fascinated by the travails of Jian Ghomeshi, who only a couple of months ago was one of the nation's most glamorous media personalities. The radio show that he helped to create in 2007, Q with Jian Ghomeshi, was heavily promoted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), which was trying to slough off its staid image with edgy arts programming aimed at young listeners. It was syndicated to 170 radio stations in the United States.
But on October 26th, he was dismissed by CBC; his bosses said he had engaged in conduct unbecoming for one of their brightest stars. The following day, Mr Ghomeshi sued his old employers for $55m, alleging that they had defamed him and breached the confidentiality of discussions in which he had spoken frankly about his sexual preferences. Both in the suit and in a posting on Facebook, he insisted the he had indulged only in consensual activities with a woman who had then made false allegations against him out of jealousy. "Engaging in BDSM (bondage-discipline-sadism-masochism) behaviour is part of the normal continuum of human sexual behaviours," the suit insisted.
But if these moves were intended to shape and limit the national discussion about his sexual tastes, they did not succeed. The Toronto police say they are now investigating three other complaints about Mr Ghomeshi, who denies all wrongdoing. A crisis management company which had been working with him withdrew its services.
Where Mr Ghomeshi did succeed is in sparking a national debate about violence against women, and the status of women more generally, that has engaged politicians, musicians, academics, and ordinary Canadians through social media. His initial Facebook posting has almost 36,000 comments as of early this week. Politicians are cautious, given that no accusations against Mr Ghomeshi have been proven in court. But Kathleen Wynne, who leads Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, said in the legislature on Monday that the details of the case which she had heard so far were “serious and disturbing” and that Canadians could not “pretend that, somehow, this issue has been resolved because it’s 2014 and we’ve moved on. It’s very real”.
Some of the musicians Mr Ghomeshi had interviewed on his radio show started a petition condemning violence against women. The members of the band he used to play with, Moxy Fruvous, publicly disassociated themselves from the former star. Carolyn Andrew, an academic scholar at the University of Ottawa, is urging party leaders to respond to the controversy by devoting a debate in the 2015 election campaign to women’s issues, something leaders last did 30 years ago.
Regardless of what Mr Ghomeshi may or may not have done, the sensation over his sex life has unleashed an anguished national discussion. There have been public statements from women who say they were harassed, assaulted or raped by other men but had been afraid to speak out. This in turn has led to calls for a change in how police forces and governments deal with these incidents.
Such is the free-ranging, border-hopping nature of social-media debates these days that Canadian discussions about sexual violence and inequality can range over the abuse of children in northern Britain to the Nigerian girls kidnapped by the Islamist militants of Boko Haram to a viral video showing repeated harassment of a woman walking through New York. “We’re in a much more global conversation than we used to be,” says Shelagh Day, a human rights expert.
There are homegrown reasons why the issue resonates so loudly. Canada, like its Anglophone peers Britain, Australia and the United States, remains a male-dominated society. Women are under-represented in business, where they account for 5% of chief executiives, and in politics. A global survey by the Inter-parliamentary Union in 2012 put Canada at 27th place in terms of female cabinet ministers and 40th in terms of women in parliament. Moreover, many complain, structures put in place by previous governments to boost women’s input into public policy, like the Office for the Status of Women, a federal agency, or the Courts Challenges Program, which helped groups challenge the constitution on language or equality grounds, have been partially or completely dismantled by the current Conservative government. “We’ve gone dramatically backwards,” says Ms Day.
It also cut funding for NGOs that advocate for women’s rights, scrapped plans for national day-care, announced a tax plan that will make it more attractive for women with small children to stay home, and resisted calls for a national inquiry into almost 1,200 aboriginal women who have been murdered or gone missing since 1980. On the plus side, the government has made maternal and child health its signature international issue. It has promised just over C$6 billion in funds between 2010 and 2020, with the caveat that the money can’t be spent on abortion.
With less than a year to run before the next national election, women's issues seem certain to loom larger in the contest. That is one of the many strange side-effects of the Ghomeshi affair.