December 7, 2014
#61 Laura Robinson
45 First Nations people allege experiencing or witnessing abuse by former school teacher John Furlong, President of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Journalist Laura Robinson broke the story.

Episode Rundown

[00:00:21] The story will sound familiar. An incredibly well liked, well respected, powerful and well-connected Canadian faces many credible allegations of physical abuse, assault and sexual abuse. But that’s where the similarities end. Laura Robinson wrote for the Georgia Straight about John Furlong. If you’re like me and don’t know anything about sports, you may not know that John Furlong was the head of the Vancouver Winter Olympics. He has been named to the Order of Canada. He has the recipient of many honorary degrees, he sits on the boards of corporations like Canadian Tire and Whistler Blackcomb. But long before all of that, according to Laura Robinson’s reporting, he was an educator at a residential school (CORRECTION: not technically a residential school, some non-natives attended). Former students at this school now allege that John Furlong subjected them to very serious physical and racial abuse. Shortly after I became aware of Laura Robinson’s case, the story was brought up in a conversation with Denise Balkissoon on Canadaland short cuts. And having just learned that she (Robinson) was being sued and not the Georgia Straight, the newspaper that published her, and that she was footing her own legal bills, I said something about the Georgia Straight that later I received emails telling me things were not true. So, I wanted to get to the bottom of that and issue any correction or apology if necessary. And as it happens I was able to get Laura Robinson in the studio for an interview- not only to help me with that but to tell her incredible story. And she will so in a moment. Wait for it.

[00:02:03] “I was out in Vancouver, I was speaking at UBC and I went down to Robson square because there was a First Nations cultural event going on that I wanted to be at. But as you know you don’t go anywhere without your notepad, so I went down and I started talking to the cultural performers. And I said ‘well you’re going to be in the Olympics,’ and no one was going to be in the Olympics. And they said ‘no way are we going to be at these Olympics, we’ve scheduled our own gigs.’ And I said ‘why not?’ and they said ‘well if you look at the contract we would have to sign, we would have to give our intellectual property rights to VANOC and IOC, the International Olympic community. And forget it, we’re not going to do that. They are our intellectual property rights, not theirs.’ -Robinson

“We hear a lot about this, the Olympics being predatory when it comes to their copyright.” Jesse

“It’s a very strict contract, they say it’s not worth it. And so I was getting all these interviews and they were virtually all saying the same thing. Whether they were drummers or dancers or visual artist. And then one guy said to me, and I don’t know who it was because he wouldn’t give me his name. He said ‘you want a real story? John Furlong came from Ireland and taught at a residential school.’ And I said, ‘I don’t believe you’. And he said ‘I’m telling you, it’s true.’ And I said ‘where?’ And he ‘said Northern B.C.”  I googled, nothing came up.” Robinson

“What was the official story of Furlong’s beginnings?”Jesse

“Well it was interesting. It was hard to find the official story actually. Nothing was coming up that had anything to do at all with residential schools. And frankly I couldn’t believe that they would hire someone that taught at a residential school because they were all working with the Four Host First Nations. So I didn’t think that the kind of contractual arrangements that were with the Four Host First Nations were going to go very well. If those people knew they were working with someone who was a residential school teacher, given the history. So anyway nothing came up and I dropped that story completely and I covered the Olympics, I covered every summer Olympics since Atlanta in 96. This was my first Winter Olympics to cover. And I almost forgot about it. And then Mr Furlong book came out called Patriot Hearts. And I was reviewing it for Anishinabek News, which is a First Nations newspaper I’ve worked for, for many years in Northern Ontario. And there were things that didn’t sit. For instance he said that he was recruited. He lived in Dublin, he was recruited to be the athletic director of a northern B.C high school. This is 1974, Well I was in high school in 1974 and first of all we didn’t have athletics directors in Canada. We had gym teachers and we had department heads. And I knew that our gym teachers, you didn’t have to go to Europe or Ireland or the UK to find them. Our gym teacher could come from down the street.” Robinson

“The idea of recruiting some foreign talent for a job like that.” Jesse

“It didn’t ring true, but the main thing was also…if it was an athletic director that would be like a department head. Well I knew to be department head in a Canadian high school you had an honours degree. That’s four years and you went to teachers college in five years or maybe you did those two together. It was a minimum of four years, and then you taught for ten or fifteen years and then you could be considered for a department head. And he was only twenty-three, when he came, and he had a wife and two kids and a coached the women’s basketball team in Ireland and he had played on the Irish basketball team, and he played GAA football for Dublin ,and he had played international handball. And I couldn’t imagine how you could possibly do all that stuff and only be twenty-three and be a department head. And he didn’t name the school, but that was easy to find because there was only one catholic high school. It was Prince George college. Then up came Bishop O’Grady and Bishop O’Grady was quite the businessman. I must say, found lot’s on him. And then up came the frontier apostle missionary. Because Bishop O’Grady started this Catholic Peace Corps as he called it. And he staffed his school a hundred percent with missionaries. Unpaid, twenty five bucks a month kind of thing. Room and board, and that set me off on a search because up came the frontier apostle facebook site for the alumni. He had shut down the missionary. But the frontier apostle still kept in touch and had reunions. So the facebook site was up and someone had put on hundreds of pictures from the yearbooks including Coach John A Furlong where he was. You know with the basketball team, the volleyball team, the cross-country running, the track and field. That was him so then I asked his publisher Douglas and Mcintyre I said was it Prince George college that Mr Furlong taught at and did he come as a Frontier Apostle missionary? And no answer, no answer. I keep asking and eventually yes it was Prince George college and then Mr Furlong has nothing more to say to you. I tried to ask him in person when I was out west at a lunch in he was speaking at and he screamed at me and walked away. So for a journalist thats a slight red flag.” Robinson

“Lots of red flags here. What did he scream at you?” Jesse

“He yelled ‘stop it, stop it’ and walked away. So I did a story for play the game in Denmark. Play the game is this great organization that’s all about transparency anti-corruption, pro democracy, freedom of expression and sport. So I did a story called sins of omission. And I interviewed the high school basketball players. I could see their names in the year book pictures and they said he was a good coach. They won a lot of games but then they said they realized later that ‘he just used us to move up the food chain’. And he was soon out of Prince George, left his wife and kids there and moved down to Nanaimo to be Parks and Recs director there and then move from there to the Arbutus Club which is a health club in Vancouver…and then moved on to be the COO of the bid community in the Olympics and then the CEO of the Olympic organizing community. There were not allegations of abuse at that time at all. That story was on the net for a year, that he came to Canada as a Missionary.” Robinson

[00:09:08] “In comes in a email from another First Nations person, saying to me ‘I got so sick of the accolades for Furlong. I googled his name plus residential school, and your story came up. Well you only talked to the high school basketball players. You need to talk to those people in Burns Lake‘. Prince George and Burns Lake are few hundred kilometres aparts. Burns Lake is a much more isolated place. And then he gave me two examples that included violence. And that set me on a search, you know I called up to the Burns Lake band office and within minute and half. Someone had an email to me and said ‘I had Mr Furlong, so did my siblings’. What are you writing about? I contacted the indian residential schools survivors society. Those people put me on to a bunch of people. They have a northern B.C office, they have quite a few offices in Northern B.C. From Ontario I was able to do a number of telephone interviews. One of the examples that this original person who emailed me gave me. She told me what happened but she said ‘I’ve worked so many years – in counseling to get rid of these memories… I’m not going to be part of this story’ and I completely respected that. I’ve down so many years of research on sexual abuse on hockey and in the military. So once someone tells you, I can’t do this publicly, you respect that. I didn’t need her story. By then I had a huge amount of people in Burns Lake. I had booked my flight to Burns Lake by then.” Robinson

“Were you operating completely independently? Were you working for any publication at this point?” Jesse

“No I wasn’t working for any publication and I knew that this kind of a story. You know John Furlong kind of walked on water out there in Vancouver. The Globe and a lot of newspapers were official olympic sponsors, media sponsors. Like for me, you either are a news media or sponsor. But you’re not both. And the TV station the same thing. CTV had the broadcast rights obviously for those Olympics.” Robinson

[00:11:50] “Have you done much investigative work at this point?” Jesse

“Oh yeah, tons. I mean my book on hockey Crossing the Line: Violence and sexual assault in Canada’s national sport came out in 98. I spent six years in hockey arenas across Canada researching this phenomenon of the rape culture in junior hockey. I’ve got all kinds of hockey players and girls who ended up at parties and retired hockey players who are finally telling their stories about what really happened to them.” Robinson

[00:12:43] “I came from sport. I knew in grade eight that I was going to be a bike racer.I knew when I got on my bike, when I got on a real tenspeed and through my leg over that saddle that I had found what I was supposed to do for the rest of my life which was ride a bike. And you know I raced at the international level but I could see huge problems in cycling. I could see that there were a huge amount of young women who were being compromised by their coach. By their sponsor, and at first I thought I thought was in the wrong sport but in 1993 I worked with the fifth estate and we did a documentary on coaches and sexual abuse of female athletics. And we attended the 1993 Olympic summer games and I would just go up to groups of girls and ask, you know have you ever had a coach who crossed the line. And there wasn’t a single group of girls. It didn’t matter what sport I went to…A look crossed their face and they either said ‘well not me but my sister or my best friend’. And we had for that documentary we could of done a series. It had so many female athletes who had been sexually abused by male coaches. I was the first journalist in Canada to write about that. I wrote about in the Globe (Actually the Toronto Star) fall of 92-93. They called that story Sexual Abuse: sports dirty little secret.” Robinson

[00:15:22] “I found that in hockey. The whole Sheldon Kennedy story and Swift current Broncos and I knew about Theo Fleury years before his book came out. But I didn’t saying anything because you have to wait until that persons ready and most people are never ready, most people never tell us what really happened to them.” Robinson

[00:16:01] “I got up to the Burns Lake Band office. There were thirty-six people waiting for me. And the notice went out at a day and a half…Half of them were there to hold the hand of the people who had something to tell me. If they needed someone with them they were with them and I took those stories. They signed them, they dated them, they initialized every page. I went right back down to Vancouver and went right to Charlie Smith, the editor and chief of Georgia Straight and Charlie said ‘Laura it’s John Furlong. I need affidavits’. So I went right back up to Burns Lake and those people were very happy to give me affidavits. We were lucky that there was a lawyer in Burns Lake, a good person.” Robinson

[00:16:55] “Had you only been able to get anonymous sources, was this story a non-starter?” Jesse

“It would of been a non-starter. There’s no way you could write about someone like John Furlong with anonymous names. I wouldn’t have done it. Even with four people I wouldn’t have done it. But I probably had, by the time that story ran. I had probably twenty people…eight affidavits and of the other ones were signed statements, who said if you want for me to do an affidavit, I’ll do an affidavit. The Georgia Straight was fine with eight affidavits plus the rest on the record. Dated statements.” Robinson.

[00:17:44] “The lawyer in Burns lake, Warren Chapman said ‘you know these people have arrived early Laura to sign these things’.” Robinson

“So what were they saying?” Jesse

“They were talking about physical and racial and psychological abuse. This is an elementary school, these are people that are between the ages of six and sixteen. Because you know in those days, they would be failed in kindergarden. I mean some people were failed in kindergarten three and four times in a row. And you have to understand the catholic church got for every first nation kid, they got money from the federal government. So the longer they could keep them, the more money they got. That’s why you could find a sixteen year old in grade seven. It wasn’t because they were stupid. They were alleging very serious physical abuse actually. And racially taunting like ‘you’re a bunch of stupid indians, you’re good for nothing dirty’. You know that kind of stuff. A lot of people would say ‘I’ll thump yeah’…And one person, Beverley Abraham alleged sexual abuse. I sat there with her in the restaurant. Doesn’t touch alcohol at all, she’s on a healing journey. She fell apart talking to me about the physical, sexual  and psychological abuse. It was in her affidavit, It was in my original draft. The Georgia Straight went with the Torstar decision of 2009. In terms of what we were going to put in the story and what we weren’t going to put in. We didn’t put in the sexual abuse because we only had one allegation of it. So I think we aired very conservatively in the way we did this story. And I’m glad we did… I believe everything Beverly Abraham in her affidavit. More people came forward about sexual abuse after that. Not just the two other who sued him for child sexual abuse but other people who chose not to sue him also gave me statements. So it’s not that i didn’t believe her.” Robinson

[00:20:37] “Macleans said that you are as much an activist as a reporter. Is that accurate?” Jesse

“I think it depends on how you define activist. I am a coach in a First Nations community. I started the mountain bike club and cross country ski club there. I love skiing and cycling with my friends at Chippawa First Nation. I’ve seen an entire generation of kids go through and now I’m coaching and skiing with their little ones. And thats massively wonderful to do, to be in the woods with kids who get into skiing. If that’s what you call an activist, then I’m an activist.” Robinson

[00:21:37] “One of the very first stories I did on First Nation athletes was for Canadian Living. And I did it with a man named Basil Johnston. He’s an elder from Chippewa Nawasha. He was an ethnologist here at the Rom… He has written many books and is a fluent Ojibwa speaker. And he said to me, ‘the Ojibwa understanding of truth is as much as I know from the place I now stand’. He told me that in 1990, and I’ve tried to use that as my guide as much as I know from the place I now stand. So how hard of I tried to find as much as I can know. I stand here now but I’ll stand somewhere else later. How much am I going to know then. So the truth changes as you learn more.” Robinson

[00:22:56] Robinson list of written books.

[00:23:13] “You’re going to have to ask the Toronto Star exactly why they killed the story.” Robinson

“Who made that decision?” Jesse

“That was made above Colin Mackenzie. He was the national news editor at the time. Colin felt terrible about it, he’s no longer there. That’s definitely an important issue for me.” Robinson

“Had lawsuits been threatened when they made that decision?” Jesse

“The lawsuit had been threatened way back in March or April 2012. What happened is I of course had to get John Furlong’s side of this story. I had these two original allegations from a First Nation’s person from northern B.C.  I sent them to his publisher because he had never given me his email. And I said very unfortunately this has come to my email and I need for Mr Furlong to comment and probably forty-eight hours later… a letter from his lawyer came and said. ‘He doesn’t know what you’re talking about, this was forty years ago and don’t forget one libelous word and you’re sued’.” Robinson

[00:24:38] “They (Georgia Straight) didn’t put anything about it on the front cover. I mean normally that would be a cover story. No it was inside, they were really very careful not to sensationalize this. They published late too…They did all they could to make this a normal way that we are not going to sensationalize this story. But I guess they published around ten o’clock pacific time and by 1:01 my time, the phone is ringing. And it continued to and I guess Mr Furlong held a press conference that afternoon. He said incredibly libelous stuff about me.” robinson

“What did he say?” Jesse

“He said that they thought they were rid of me after the Olympics. We had to endure this, I’m paraphrasing. ‘We had to endure this journalist during the Olympics but we thought we were rid of her once the games were over but obviously not. She has this vendetta’. And he talked about me and then he started the next sentence with and. And it wasn’t a new paragraph like when he gave out the statement. ‘I (Furlong) was approached about this before the Olympics and I was told for a certain amount of money this story could go away’. And it definitely looked as if I had been the person who had approached him before the Olympics as though I was extorting him. I mean it was unbelievable when I read that.” Robinson

[00:26:49] “The story breaks and way more people come forward about him. Including an ex-common law wife, including a lot of non-native people who witnessed stuff. And meanwhile I’m back in northern B.C interviewing people, way more people up there are nodding to me and said ‘I need to tell you something`about Mr Furlong’ and then what I saw up in northern B.C was this terrible trauma in people. Here they were little children when these allegations occurred, they use run away from the school. He wasn’t the only alleged abuser. The police would bring them back and they would be punished for lying. So forty years later they get the courage to tell their stories again. And instead of feeling believed, they know I believe them and the Georgia Straight and the majority of people in Canada know that it’s really hard to come forward about child abuse. You spend your life trying to get over it. And you don’t want to make enemies of powerful people. So they get the courage to say it and Christy Clarke the Premier of B.C gets on television that night and says ‘Mr Furlong’s a good friend of mine’. And the own the podium which we all support with our tax money says ‘Mr Furlong is a man of great integrity, of ethics. We support him a 100% in these difficult days’. So what I did after I saw the trauma up north and saw how difficult it was for people not to be believed again. I talk to some experts that deal with trauma, childhood trauma that revisits in adults. Suicides more likely, violence is more likely. There is all kind of things that trigger very difficult things in their lives. So I wanted to do a story about the retraumatization of the students. So I wrote to Own The Podium and I said how did you decide that Mr Furlong a man of great integrity and ethics. Did you go to Burns Lake? Did you call the people in Burns Lake and interview them and get their side of the story? I mean why would own the podium use what I’ve written, if their going to make a decision they need to ask the people who I’ve reported on. There not interested in talking to me. So I sent that email. So his common law wife alleged very serious violence and so did the girls from hostel number 2. He got married to a woman named Margaret Cook who became Margaret Furlong. They became resident, they moved to Prince George and they were the resident supervisors of Hostel number 2…The women who were girls in hostel number 2 started to talk to me about very serious domestic violence and I so again it was getting toward December 6th. And I wanted to do a story on these allegations and so I asked Own the Podium to forward these questions to him and the lawsuit came within two days.” Robinson

[00:30:30] “It’s not simply the journalism that gets published but the idea of practicing the journalism, asking questions that you are committing some crime of libel or slander in asking questions.” Jesse

“All journalists, all human beings who use email and anything on the net need to know that any words you put on an email or internet are potentially actionable. And I knew that, I mean I asked the questions as concisely and compassionately as I could. I said to own the podium, I trust you understand the serious nature of this.” Robinson

“And you were asking questions not making assertions?” Jesse

“Exactly.” Robinson

“Originally you were sued as was the Georgia Straight and that is typically how it goes when their is a libel claim against a journalist is that the publication or broadcaster is sued as well. But the suit against the Georgia Straight was dropped.” Jesse

“…He received a letter from the RCMP, they were investigating the schedule abuse allegation made by Bev Abraham. and he received a letter saying that he said exonerated. They said they couldn’t find enough evidence and it was historical. It was very difficult of course to show evidence in historical sexual abuse. So they said ‘we don’t have enough evidence’. And he used that letter to say well now… ‘I’m going to withdraw the suit the against the Straight and accelerate my case against Ms Robinson’. But infact I didn’t put anything about sexual abuse in the article in the first place. Everyone else did by the way. that night, the night my article came out the CBC did a big documentary on the national news and did include sexual abuse. And everyone ran up to Burns Lake, everyone else, CTV, Global and every single print media. They all ran including the Star with sexual abuse allegations. in fact I was the only journalist who didn’t run with sex.” Robinson

[00:33:06] “I’ll say this. He’s not suing any of these major news brands or alternative news brands but he is suing you and he has previously attacked you and your credibility and your motives. So one might suggest that it is a consistent strategy to discredit you and then a lawsuit against you and not others. Maybe there’s some hope of public salvation – if that is successful and that is my speculation about his motive. And then you sued him.” Jesse

“Yeah because what happened is you know play the game, this wonderful Danish organization has a conference every couple of years. And what I thought was very interesting for me is why all these organizations Own the Podium, Canadian Tire, Whistler Balckcomb, Rocky Mountain and the Vancouver White caps. Why they decided not to talk to anyone in Burns Lake and Prince George because by then there were a number of people in Prince George at Prince George College who had also made allegations. They all supported him and kept him on the board. So I thought how is it you can have dozens now of First Nations people making allegations of physical and physcological and racial abuse but we are not going to talk to those First Nations people. ‘We are going to pretend they don’t exist really. And we are just going to keep going with the story that we’ve been told’. So I went of to Denmark and the day before my talk. I was about to give the organizers my paper so they could lawyer it at the very final draft. And they said to me ‘we’ve recieved a letter from Mr Furlong’s lawyer and he’s threatening that if we let you talk, he’s threatened to sue us‘. So they very nicely in their Danish way said ‘well we said to them cencorship was outlawed in Denmark a hundread and fifty years ago and we are not bringing it back’. So of course my talk was packed with people. And you can read that paper on the Play the Game website…So he went on an absolute national barrage during that time period I was in Denmark. Saying incredible things, saying I went into the RCMP office in Burns Lake and laid the sex abuse allegations against him. I mean I was with my book club in Ontario when those allegations were made. I was nowhere near Burns Lake and the only time I called the RCMP up there was after Bev Abraham said to me I went to the police yesterday. So of course I had to ask the police if indeed she had gone. Theres no way I’m going to move forward with a story on a complainant’s word. Of course I had to get confirmation from the RCMP and they wouldn’t confirm or deny. So eventually they ended up calling me when I was covering the London Olympics and by then they were investigating. So of course I had nothing to do with the allegations made. Beverly Abraham was perfectly capable of deciding whether or not she was going to make these allegations to the RCMP. She told me from the start she wanted to but she needed to gain the strength.” Robinson

[00:36:53] “What I said was that the Georgia Straight did not stand by you.” Jesse

Yeah, that’s incorrect. The Georgia Straight has been enormously supportive of me. Particular my editor Charlie Smith.” Robinson

“So I owe him an apology and the Georgia Straight which I’ll issue right now. Sorry.” Jesse

[00:38:21] “This has cost us when you include all the travel, all the times up to Burns Lake and Piince George and Ireland. I got a lot of important documents in Ireland that took quite a time. It’s well over $250,000 now. Well over.” Robinson

“What were you paid for the article?” Jesse

“$2500.” Robinson

[00:39:53] John Furlong currently sits on an advisory board in a mining company, he’s executive chair of the Vancouver whitecaps soccer team and Chair of Rocky Mountain Rail Tours

[00:40:15] “But in terms of physical and physiological abuse, whether it was to them or they witnessed it. Way over forty five (people) now. You know, that’s more than two hockey teams. And I have to ask Canadians: if two white hockey teams said a coach had physically and physically abused them, I think we might believe them. And I think what Canadians need to ask themselves is, why when First Nations people allege psychological and physical abuse- why aren’t they believed?” Robinson

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