Legal battle over former Olympic boss
Laura Robinson spoke at Play the Game 2013 about the John Furlong case and "the moral vacuum of Canadian sports". Photo: Play the Game / Thomas Søndergaard
27.11.2013By Søren Bang
Are Canadian sport and media closing their eyes to a violent past of one of the country’s most powerful and acclaimed sports leaders? Or is John Furlong, former CEO of the Vancouver Organising Committee for the 2010 Winter Olympics and current chairman of Canada’s national elite sports organisation ‘Own the Podium’, being subjected to vicious accusations from an award-winning journalist?
The battle lines are drawn in the conflict that has been front-page news in Canadian media this October and November. It is in itself a serious issue when a sports and business icon like John Furlong is accused of having covered up an abusive past as a physical education teacher and missionary, but this case is not just a legal conflict between investigative journalist Laura Robinson and Furlong. It also covers sensitive discussions on Canada’s treatment of its indigenous ‘First Nations’ population.
The conflict reached a temporary climax during last month’s Play the Game conference in Aarhus, Denmark, where Robinson was scheduled to give a presentation in a workshop on investigative journalism. At the first day of the conference, the law firm Hunter Litigation Chambers in Canada sent an email to Play the Game on behalf of John Furlong with the threat of a possible lawsuit against the organisation:
“If defamatory statements are made, Mr. Furlong may bring further legal action without further notice to you,” it read.
Like the rest of the case, the question of whether Robinson would be allowed to speak at the conference in Denmark drew headlines in Canadian media. Censoring the presentation was never a consideration. Robinson gave her planned presentation and her paper containing more information on the case was, like the other conference presentations, published on playthegame.org.
Furlong’s hidden past
As a former Play the Game Award winner, Robinson is among the regular participants at Play the Game’s conferences and it was also on playthegame.org in 2011 that she published her first article on the Irish-born Furlong’s past, which sowed the seeds of the current conflict.
In the article, ‘The Vancouver Olympics and John Furlong’s Sins of Omission’, she accused the Olympic CEO of painting a rosy picture, in his autobiography ‘Patriot Hearts’, of the cooperation with the First Nations people during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and of covering up his past as a Catholic missionary and PE teacher in Catholic schools with First Nations children. The Christian schools were part of a government supported school system that is highly controversial today as thousands of First Nations children over the years were taken away from their families and placed at residential schools in order for them to have a Christian ‘white’ upbringing. In her article, Robinson was able to establish that Furlong had worked in the Northern part of British Columbia five years before he according to his own memoirs immigrated to Canada.
However, what ignited the juridical battle was a 2012 article in the Vancouver newspaper Georgia Straight. Supported by eight signed affidavits from former students and a number of anonymous statements, Robinson wrote a story on a man who had allegedly abused his pupils physically and mentally. Following the article, three former students reported Furlong to the police for sexual assaults at the school.
Furlong strikes back
Furlong has denied all allegations, including the allegations of physical punishment and sexual assault, calling them pure fiction and false. In a recent TV interview with the private station Global Television Network, he said that the latest year had been “like living in hell”.
Last year, Furlong filed a suit against Robinson and the Georgia Straight for defamation based on the article. So far, there is no date for when the trial will start and the suit against the Georgia Straight was recently dropped. According to Furlong, he will instead intensify his battle against “the source of these lies”, as he writes in a press release entitled ‘Enough is enough’ sent out on 29 October during Play the Game 2013 in Denmark.
“My defamation case against Laura Robinson will continue and be escalated – she is the perpetrator of these defamatory allegations. She continues to defame me today and this will no longer go unchallenged. Ms. Robinson has a two decade-long pattern of inaccuracy in her writing. Her words have hurt innocent people. I will file those documents to amend my legal case against her in the coming days and weeks,” he writes.
In the press release, Furlong also claims that the police have cleared him of the charges of sexual abuse – a claim the police apparently does not recognise. He also claims that Robinson personally reported the alleged sexual abuses to the police on behalf of the students.
Criticism of Canadian sports and the view on First Nations people
Robinson denies these charges and describes Furlong’s accusations of journalistic dishonesty as false and detrimental. In a letter sent from her attorneys to Furlong, Robinson demands an apology and reserves the right to file her own suit if Furlong’s press release is not removed from his website. Furlong has refused the demands.
At the same time, Robinson also accuses parts of the Canadian public of having failed by not taking the claims of the former students seriously and thereby acted as bystanders. In a recent TV interview, she said that this probably never would have happened if white hockey players had been behind the many statements regarding Furlong’s past instead of representatives of First Nations people.
In her presentation at Play the Game 2013 in Denmark, she elaborated on those she believes have uncritically supported Furlong.
“That the Canadian sport and business community either stand behind a man, or stay silent when dozens of First Nations people allege he brutalized them and others when they were just innocent children, is beyond reprehensible. They are quite happy to let these survivors experience all the nightmare pain, sorrow, and trauma that surfaced when they gathered the courage to speak about their past and devastating disappointment as the Canadian sport and corporate community stood by their man,” she concluded in her paper.
The article ‘John Furlong biography omits secret past in Burns Lake’ printed in Georgia Straight
Laura Robinson’s paper from Play the Game 2013 in Aarhus, Denmark
John Furlong’s statement ‘Enough is enough’ from 29 October 2013:
The lawyers’ letter on behalf of Laura Robinson to John Furlong’s solicitor demanding an apology
An article on the demand and its rejection from Furlong
Global News television interview with John Furlong
Global News television interview with Laura Robinson
Toronto Star’s story on the letter to Play the Game
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada