On domestic violence, staying silent is not an option

Since The Coast published an article by Maggie Rahr in which Michelle Coffin told her story of being the victim of domestic violence, the aftermath of that experience and her election campaign encounter with Halifax Citadel-Sable Island MLA Labi Kousoulis https://www.thecoast.ca/halifax/michelle-coffin-is-reclaiming-her-story/Content?oid=7685707, a number of people have asked me for my thoughts.

Michelle Coffin has the right to tell her story about surviving domestic assault on her terms and in her way. I respect her courage in doing so and applaud Maggie Rahr and the Coast for giving Michelle a platform, not only to tell her story, but to suggest practical ways to support victims. Global’s Marieke Walsh, to her credit, also pursued many of the important questions Ms. Coffin raised in telling her story.

Because I ran in the recent election against Mr. Kousoulis, I felt the appropriate approach was to not offer any public comment, at least until Premier Stephen McNeil and Mr. Kousoulis provided their response. If you haven’t read The Coast article, Ms. Coffin stated Mr. Kousoulis told her that her attacker – Premier McNeil’s former communications director – had been rehired after the Premier consulted with organizations that worked in the field of domestic violence.

I had sincerely hoped we would learn more from Mr. McNeil and Mr. Kousoulis that would reassure citizens that they had acted appropriately and reasonably.

Mr. Kousoulis’s refusal to answer media questions at Province House https://twitter.com/larochecbc/status/875704551478890498
and Premier McNeil’s statements Thursday http://globalnews.ca/news/3548828/stephen-mcneil-stands-by-partys-handling-of-domestic-assault-against-former-staffer/
should compel constituents in Halifax Citadel-Sable Island and all Nova Scotians to speak out, be heard and demand answers.

Violence against women is unacceptable. It should be condemned in all its forms. We need strong policies in place to protect those who have been subjected to this horrible crime.

But we also need our leaders to lead by example, not in only public policy, but in how they manage their own offices and account for their decisions.

Having worked with elected officials at all levels, from all parties, I have always believed our elected officials have a responsibility to be accountable to the people for whom they are elected to serve, not just at election time, but all the time.
And working in support of our elected officials is a privilege – it is not just any other job. Someone convicted of domestic assault should certainly have an opportunity for rehabilitation, but not in such a sensitive role as working for our elected officials.

Ms. Coffin’s attacker should never have been hired to work for the Liberal Caucus after his conviction for domestic assault. Full stop. This was bad judgment by Premier Stephen McNeil as Leader of the Liberal Caucus. His comments to Global about this being a Liberal Party matter that should be addressed by the party president don’t make any sense. As a former president of a provincial political party, I know that such a volunteer leadership role provides no role in the hiring of caucus staff, who are paid out of taxpayer funds to work for MLAs.

The bad judgment in re-hiring Mr. Coffin’s attacker at taxpayer expense was compounded when he was given a senior role in the Liberal campaign in the last election.

In telling her story, Ms. Coffin stated that Mr. Kousoulis told her that Mr. McNeil consulted with organizations that support women who have been victims of violence before the decision was made to rehire her attacker in the Liberal Caucus.

As elected officials, Premier McNeil and Mr. Kousoulis owe Nova Scotians a clear explanation in response to Ms. Coffin’s account.

Violence against women is too important an issue for our elected officials to be anything but completely open and transparent.

I also have listened to women who say very clearly the onus to speak out about domestic violence seems to continually be on them. They have pointed to example after example, with Ms. Coffin’s story being the latest one, of how many barriers stand in the way of victims of sexual and domestic violence coming forward to seek justice. Much of the discussion following the article talked about the need to dismantle the “old boys club” – I don’t dispute this, and people who are in a position of authority and influence should do their part to bring down these barriers.

Of course, I recognize that some will seize upon this submission as “playing politics” or an unsuccessful candidate’s “sour grapes”. I hope people will see that I attempted to participate in this discussion in a responsible and respectful manner – especially to Michelle Coffin, someone I have known for the better part of the last two decades.

However people perceive my comments, what I wasn’t prepared to accept was a feeling that I stayed quiet when it was time to stand up for what is right.

More importantly, I hope other citizens – particularly those who won’t have cause to be dismissed like me as trying to inject partisanship into this important issue – take up the charge and ask for answers from Mr. McNeil and Mr. Kousoulis.

When it comes to domestic violence, staying silent is not an option.