Politics / Social issues

Why Bill Cosby Matters to Canadians (And how Kitchener turned a negative into a positive)

Wednesday night, Bill Cosby — one of history’s most beloved comedians and prolific alleged-rapist – performed the first show of his three-month long “Conversations” tour at the Centre in the Square in Kitchener, Ontario. It was the first of 3 Canadian tour dates this week, and the show made international headlines.

For feminists, protesters, supporters, and lifelong fans, the Cosby situation is still hotly contested for many reasons. The fact that an estimated fifteen hundred Canadians attended his Kitchener show while the world looked on is proof of this. As many as 10 of Cosby’s tour dates in the US have been cancelled or postponed. And as more and more survivors have come forward in recent months (including 3 more within hours of the show), many Canadians have steadfastly called for the cancellations of his shows. Hollywood producer Judd Apatow publicly weighed in with his support for the alleged survivors, calling for the Ontario venues to cancel the shows and distance themselves from the comedian regardless of contractual financial obligations. It was an admirable call-to-action by an industry heavyweight with considerable influence (1.21 million Twitter followers), but also one that brought to the surface some shades of grey with the situation.

Bill Cosby Canadian Tour

What’s important about these 3 Canadian shows is that they are very much centred around months of sexual assault in the spotlight of Canadian media.

In the wake of the Jian Ghomeshi scandal, our country has awakened. We are a country that is lucid, with a pulse, paying attention, and not taking shit. Over the past three months, the conversation regarding sexual harassment/assault/abuse of women has changed, grown and been given the attention it has long deserved.

Pretty much everyone I respect has, at some point in the past 8 years, exuberantly emitted a, “you have to listen to this Q interview!” or a, “Jian Ghomeshi is such a great interviewer!” Even as recently as September, I remember standing in my kitchen listening to Ghomeshi’s promo for his interview with our mainstream feminist sister, Lena Dunham, thinking, “Fuck ya, Jian!” The whole country was on board.

So, when details surrounding Ghomeshi began to surface in late October 2014 – at first slowly and somewhat confusingly before a flood of survivors started coming forward – people really didn’t know how to react. Seemingly overnight, it brought awareness to the fundamental issue that survivors of sexual abuse are often not taken at their word; and that this is exacerbated when the perpetrator is a man of influence and power, and when that influence and power makes it impossible to speak up in a so-called ‘timely fashion’. And within a matter of days the dialogue began to change from ‘it’s probably a spiteful ex-girlfriend’ to ‘it’s clearly a horrific case of a sexual abuse on a national scale; no questions asked.’

The intersection between these two points is where the United States – nay, the world – finds itself with Bill Cosby.

On the day where Ghomeshi faces three new charges of sexual assault, bringing his total to 7 charges of sexual assault and one charge of overcoming resistance by choking, this issue is not going away. If Canada’s Doucheheart (trademark) can fall from celebrity, so too can America’s Dad, Bill Cosby. Innocent until proven guilty, sure, but when dozens of women have come forth with stories of sexual abuse spanning decades, why are people still hesitant to get involved? Why is the default always finding a way to defend one man against a group of women? Why is it always ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and ‘I grew up with this individual’ and ‘Yes, BUT… it’s been 1, 10, 20, 30 years?’ Influence or not, why are people still so quick to defend one man but women are only to be believed in groups, if then?

Bill Cosby Canadian Tour
Growing up watching his shows while home sick from school doesn’t excuse anything he’s done.

Which brings us to Kitchener. As TV trucks and national media littered the streets on Wednesday, speculating what may-or-may not happen inside the walls of Cosby’s Centre-in-the-Square show, a different gathering happened slightly further downtown. People wishing to protest the Cosby show in a more constructive way gathered at “Voices Carry”, a fundraiser and awareness event put on by activists in the Region meant to bring attention to the issue of sexual assault. With a $20 admission, the event raised $10,000 for the Sexual Assault Centre of Waterloo Region and Women’s Crisis Services of Waterloo Region. Oh, and the event also let anyone who bought a Cosby ticket use their ticket as admission.

bill cosby canadian tour
photo via CBC Kitchener

With support from the region’s politicians including Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic, Waterloo Mayor Dave Jaworsky, local MPP Catherine Fife and local and regional councillors, Tuesday’s event drew close to 300 people. The event highlighted local musicians and in between acts, community members spoke about the impact sexual violence has had on their lives. Former Waterloo Mayor Brenda Halloran publically told her courageous story of both being in an abusive marriage and dealing with sexual violence at work in the 1980s. Strangers told each other about their own unreported sexual assaults. It was an inclusive space; one not for Bill Cosby, but one for all of us.

“Cosby receives standing ovation from large Kitchener audience” was the headline in Thursday’s Waterloo Region Record [print edition]. Its accompanying picture: a female protester with the sign “Rape is No Joke” outside the venue being escorted by security. The subtext: He won.

bill cosby canadian tour

We may still be a while from front-page headlines that read “Region comes together to support survivors of sexual abuse” but the fact that Voices Carry existed is evidence that Canadian communities are listening, responding, and positively changing our understanding of sexual violence. Until the day when the voices of survivors carry further and with more weight than the silence of sex-crime perpetrators and until the tide of public opinion becomes a rolling wave of support for women’s rights, all we can do is be there for survivors and tell them they’re not alone. Thank you, Voices Carry, for doing that.

 

You May Also Be Interested In…

Become a Citizen of Dal:Rape culture and restorative justice at Dalhousie University

How Not to React to Jian Ghomeshi’s PR Statement

2 thoughts on “Why Bill Cosby Matters to Canadians (And how Kitchener turned a negative into a positive)

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