The story of Anne-Marie Aikins, which began with a brutal rape, is almost mythic in its startling achievements, reversals, glories and depths.
A pioneer in the rape crisis movement in Ontario, she is quietly emerging from an 11-year shadow of legal travail.
Charged with misuse of public funds, she went through six years of trial delays, appeals and setbacks, was convicted, and then was hit with further charges that that have only now been dropped, after five more torturous years. Aikins' case is a chilling example of what can happen to someone who challenges the status quo, particularly in small-town Ontario.
In 1981, at age 25, Anne-Marie Aikins (then known by her married name of Wicksted) was a dark-haired young beauty from a doctor's respectable family in Barrie.
"I went to strict Catholic schools and wanted to be a doctor, but somehow ended up doing a nursing program and working with the developmentally challenged in an institution," Aikins told me.
She and her husband, with two infant sons, did shifts: He worked daytimes; she worked evenings. Leaving work one August evening and sliding into her car, she suddenly felt a hand grip her throat and a gun press against her head.
Aikins' greatest weaknesses are her naïveté, her deference to convention and her bred-in-the-bone tendency to guilt and self-blame. Her greatest strengths, all of them painfully earned, are her shrewd insight, gutsy defiance of authority and convention, and a steadfast clarity about crimes against women.
Anne-Marie Aikins was guilty of being naive about the vengeful elements in the justice system and those who administer it. Like most people, unfortunately, she had "faith in the system" and underestimated the ruthlessness of these elements until she was in their clutches. Too many scripted episodes of Starsky & Hutch, CSI or NCIS "something", Hawaii Five-O, Miami Vice, Law & order, and the granddaddy of them all, Dirty Harry where rules are routinely broken (crimes committed) but always "justified" and for the "benefit of society".
Real life is not scripted.
The Anne-Marie Aikins of the world are easy prey for these ruthless elements who often use these "easy" cases to springboard their careers.
"I still have trouble with my compliance..." she says, her voice trailing off as she recalls driving just where her assailant told her to.
"He beat me nearly unconscious and raped me over and over. We were three or four hours in that field. When I woke up, he was gone." Her voice, usually warm and flirting with laughter, goes absolutely flat when she talks about the rape. No wonder that, later, she became a respected expert on the way rape trauma affects women and how they appear to be "not upset."
Aikins was in hospital for a week, concussed, scraped, bruised and torn. The police investigated it as a case of simple assault and, says Aikins, were so ham-fisted and accusatory ("Was it your boyfriend?") that she refused to even tell them about the rape. They knew about it from the medical evidence, however. And, in keeping with Barrie police practices in rape cases at that time, they subjected Aikins to a humiliating lie detector test. (One question: "Do you often fantasize about being raped?") Even her husband, she says, felt that "since nothing bad happens in Barrie, it must somehow have been my fault."
Barrie Detective Sergeant Norm Meech of the sexual assault squad agrees that "police officers back then didn't have special training and there was a lack of knowledge about sensitivity issues. They would have been just the regular crime unit that dealt with robbery and so on."
The rape was the worst thing that had happened to Anne Marie Aikins in her sheltered, middle-class existence, and it was also the beginning of a completely new life. Her marriage fraying under the pressure of the trauma, Aikins turned to feminist books to understand what she was suffering. "I had never even heard the word 'feminism'" she recalls with a wry laugh. "It was like a new language and yet so familiar, and it explained everything."
One year later, she had opened a rape crisis line in her basement and began to find other women like herself in the community. She had 50 phone calls that first year.
"The work separated me from my husband and family, and my feminist principles and identity separated me from my church," she recalls.
The response in the desperately under-served Barrie area was overwhelming. Aikins was a star: a quick learner, empathetic and a natural performer in local media. By the mid-'80s, the Barrie Rape Crisis Line was fielding nearly 500 calls a year.
Aikins was fearless in challenging the local police and their conservative attitude toward rape victims. In fact, local media delighted in posing her and the police chief as antagonists in debates about sexual violence. She soon became an expert witness on rape trauma, testifying in 116 trials (115 defendants were found guilty).
She spoke widely, won awards and recognition, became president of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres, taught courses at the Ontario Police College, published well-argued newspaper pieces and made training videos for police.
Five years after Aikins was assaulted, the man who had raped her was convicted as a dangerous offender as the result of another rape case.
The twist in this story is almost Shakespearean. At the height of her achievement, Aikins' centre won the jackpot that would lead to its downfall. In 1991, the recently elected New Democratic Party government boosted the centre's funding from $80,000 a year to nearly $400,000.
In exchange, the centre was expected to create five satellite offices to cover all of Simcoe County, with long-term counselling and court support services in French and English. Eleven new staff were hastily hired.
Aikins and her colleagues were ill-prepared for the leap to the big time. For years, she and her volunteer board of directors had a trusting, informal arrangement. Because she was now a single mother who had taken a cut in pay to $16,000 a year to work as the centre's executive director, she didn't qualify for a personal credit card. Members of the board say - and would later testify in court - that they encouraged her to use the centre's credit card for expenses and, occasionally, for personal shopping, to be repaid in cash. but no mention of this arrangement was recorded in the minutes.
Aikins admits she paid "little attention" to receipts and accounts.
In early '92, some of the new staff, who later testified to feeling "excluded" by the original group, joined with a dismissed employee to accuse Aikins of misusing the centre's funds. The solicitor-general's office swooped down to do an audit, but the police interrupted the audit by seizing the books. Aikins was charged with one count of fraud over $1,000.
The crown alleged she did not repay crisis line money she used for personal expenses and did not remit to the crisis line fees from outside sources that she earned as its director.
But the board declared its complete confidence in her and she continued as executive director. From start to finish, Aikins says she was innocent.
Local papers reported that calls of support flooded in to the crisis line after charges were laid. One client told the Barrie Examiner she thought it was a "crying shame, those who want to discredit all the wonderful things the staff and volunteers have been doing for years for us victims of rape and incest." A special report in the Examiner concluded: "Wicksted has helped more than 2,000 rape victims....Her colleagues have nothing but praise for her."
Amazingly, in the very teeth of her personal difficulties, she dared to defy the court's demand that she hand over her notes from a rape victim's counselling session.
That was in 1993, when the so-called "Rape Shield" law had been struck down, and accused rapists were able to demand, get and paw through every scrap of a victim's personal papers, including diaries, medical records, letters and notes from post-rape therapy sessions. It was a scandalous breach of crime victims' privacy rights. And it was Aikins and a Barrie Rape Crisis Line colleague who became the first counsellors in Canada to refuse to hand over private records. When the Ontario Court agreed with Aikins, her beleaguered centre and rape crisis workers everywhere rejoiced. (The Supreme Court reversed that decision two years later.)
Aikins' case at last came to trial in March of '94, when she was 37. Long-since divorced, she had found a new love and was pregnant. She sold her house and cashed in her RRSPs to hire a lawyer.
The trial was something of a circus. The crown had to take the stand himself to contradict one of his witnesses - investigating Constable Mark Irwin - about the disposition of some missing evidence. The judge found Irwin "unworthy of belief" when he claimed to have lost, then found, then not found, notes from 10 to 12 hours of interviews with the prosecution's chief witness.
Quiet repayment is usually enough to settle a case like this. Instead, Aikins saw all she'd worked for destroyed
Irwin, the judge said, had misled the court. And so much evidence was never disclosed that the judge ordered a stay of proceeding, ruling that Aikins' Charter rights had been breached.
The crown appealed. The Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the trial judge should have opted for an adjournment. Aikins appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed that her Charter rights had been violated, but ruled that she still must stand trial.
In 1998, when Aikins faced the court again, she opted for a jury. The charge was fraud over $1,000, but how much over became a matter of much dispute. In the end, only $2,800 of receipts were unaccounted for - money Aikins swore she had repaid, but repaid again in the panicky run-up to the trial.
Judge Peter Howden, in his charge to the jury, all but dismissed the evidence of the witnesses against Aikins and was eloquent in his praise of her integrity. Was it likely, he asked the jury, that Aikins would openly misallocate funds and "simply hand those records every month to a rigid employee who was not her friend? Or is it more consistent with your life experience that someone who has devoted years to building this organization continued to concentrate on its service development and simply ignored administrative details...since she was acting with the board's approval and was repaying the organization anyway?"
Quiet repayment is usually enough to settle a case like this. Remember, when Queen's Park politicians and their staff were caught charging the public for their liquor and sumptuous dinners, they were able to make restitution. But sometimes it seems that puffed-up guys get cream puff punishments, while severe consequences are reserved for ordinary people. When the jury found Aikins guilty, there was an audible gasp of surprise in the courtroom. She thinks now that it was her act of repaying the $2,800 that convicted her in the jury's eyes.
The crown at the time, Frank Giordano, recalls that "her cause and her successes were never diminished in the case, but people must be held accountable for criminal acts."
The judge sentenced her to six months' community service (i.e., working at her own job) with a 6 p.m. curfew.
Aikins didn't have the money or energy to pursue an appeal. To spare the crisis line further duress, she packed her bags and planned to move to Toronto the moment her sentence was over.
But the roof fell in once more. Just as the six months ended, the Barrie police charged Aikins and six members of the board with criminal breach of trust for misuse of lottery funds because the board had paid some of Aikins' legal fees after her money ran out.
Kelly Redmond, board chair of the crisis line, was one of those accused along with Aikins. "I went to the police with the letter from the Ministry of the Solicitor-General, instructing us to use fundraising money to pay legal expenses, and asked how on earth this could be illegal?" Redmond says. "The police asked me if I really expected the solicitor-general's office to know the law."
The police not only proceeded with the charges, but they also seized the crisis line's files, with the result that the women could not prove their case. Then they offered to drop charges against the board members, one by one, if they would agree to point the finger of blame at Aikins. None took the bait.
(In Redmond's case, the charges were eventually stayed. A single mother, she says she is now expected to repay $100,000 to legal aid.)
When, at last, the case went to trial, defence lawyers expected to find the exculpatory letters and permissions in the evidence disclosed by the crown. Shockingly, the crown provided 3 CD-ROMs worth of evidence, containing 31,000 documents, without the appropriate search engine. It took hard slogging to discover that the important letters of permission from the solicitor-general were missing.
All the Barrie crown attorneys had removed themselves from the case because they knew Aikins and worked with her so frequently. The case was prosecuted by a crown from another jurisdiction.
Last March, five long years after the start of this second case, and only after defence lawyers demanded the missing evidence, the crown suddenly stayed the charges, citing "the costs to the public" of pursuing the case.
By now, the mountain of trouble that had fallen on Aikins had achieved what no other opposition could have done: the silencing of women's dissent.
There was scarcely a murmur when the province yanked every cent of funding and the crisis line shut down. Feminist groups and women's shelters all over the province went quiet, afraid of being targeted in the same way.
Eleven years of Aikins' life had been consumed with humiliating, costly and terrifying legal battles. Single again, she has recently recovered from cervical cancer. She works as a part-time waitress in downtown Toronto and is bringing up her third son, now 9, in a tiny rented house in a poorer part of town. She is close to her two adult sons, but otherwise buries herself in anonymity. Her criminal record has tripped her up every time she applied for a better job.
"I have given up on my dream of getting back to working with women," she says now.
"Writing is solitary; it's a new thing I created for myself, writing about social justice, health and entertainment, and I hope I can make it a new career."
She copes emotionally by writing daily in her journal, freelancing to community magazines and advocating against violence at local forums when she can.
Mostly, Anne-Marie Aikins keeps her head down. I approached her for this story when I heard that the last charges had been dropped, but she barely seeks vindication any more.
When you work outside the mainstream of society, dealing day in and day out with the grief and trauma of violence while right-wing media bray their contempt at you, your inner doubts are often triggered - especially if you're a rape survivor. Aikins still blames herself for not paying enough attention to paperwork.
"So many people were badly hurt by the swarm of troubles that came upon me," she says haltingly.
"I don't really blame myself for what happened, but I still haven't entirely forgiven myself for the hurt that people experienced when they lost their jobs, lost their counsellors, lost their services.
"Even if I know I didn't cause all this, I'm still grieving that so many people were hurt."
This is just a bad story, with no happy ending, no superheroes swooping in to fix everything. The women of Simcoe County lost a tireless advocate; the police and crown attorneys in Barrie lost one of their strongest allies in the struggle against violent crime; the feminist movement lost a personable and eloquent spokeswoman.
Aikins' own losses are incalculable. The only possible happy ending is the new beginning that the remarkable Anne-Marie Aikins may yet write for herself.