CBC Digital Archives

The Shady Lady will help you get a divorce

Having concrete proof of adultery was once the only way to get a divorce in Canada. That meant a detective's photograph of a cheating husband. Or witnesses in a dirty motel room. Then in 1968, a new divorce law gave couples trapped in bad marriages an easy way out. The law started a divorce trend that continues to this day, in a time when it's so simple to break the knot, you can even do it online.

media clip
Dressed from head to toe in one colour, the Shady Lady meets her man in a crowded bar. She never gives him her real name, but that doesn't matter. Her job is to set up an adultery scene in a shabby motel room for $100 a pop. In this clip, the Shady Lady tells June Callwood about setting up adultery scenes for use in divorce court as evidence. After the clip was aired, a controversy played out in Canadian newspapers. The Shady Lady, later identified as Joan Johnson, told a newspaper she made up her story.
• A day after this Close-Up interview aired, the attorney general ordered an investigation into the Shady Lady's statements on the CBC, and the methods being used in Canada to obtain divorce case evidence.
• About a month later (July 5, 1960), the Toronto Daily Star reported that the Shady Lady, Joan Johnson, told police her entire story was a hoax. Johnson said that since she worked in a detective agency and overheard these kinds of stories, she "knew what she was talking about" when she appeared on TV.

• The next day, Pierre Berton wrote in a Star article about getting a call from a Close-Up producer before the Shady Lady piece aired on the CBC. The CBC's George Ronald had called Berton to see if he knew of any co-respondents whom he could feature on his show. Berton put Ronald in touch with a contact he had at a detective agency. When Berton eventually saw the broadcast, he realized that the Shady Lady was "the same flamboyantly dressed young woman working in the offices of the Dale Investigation Agency."

• In a separate Star article, Callwood said she spoke to the Shady Lady for a considerable time before and after the interview, and that "I know after an hour whether I'm being lied to. I know I wasn't."
• A co-respondent is a person who is cited as committing adultery with the married defendant in a divorce case.
• In 1960, adultery was the only grounds for divorce in most of Canada.

• Three provinces recognized other grounds besides adultery. Nova Scotia also accepted cruelty as grounds for divorce, and New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island recognized frigidity - extreme disinterest sexually by one spouse toward the other.
• Before the Divorce Act of 1968, people got divorced by making a claim to Parliament under the British Matrimonial Causes Act (1857). The process was costly and most people avoided it.

• In the 1960s, wealthy people got divorced more often than people from lower income groups, who chose the cheaper route of separation.
• Under the 1857 act, getting a divorce in most provinces was impossible unless a couple had proof of adultery.
• Each province had its own divorce laws prior to 1968, with the exception of Newfoundland and Quebec, which had none.

• Divorce was a provincial matter before it switched over to federal jurisdiction with the Divorce Act of 1968.
• The number of people granted a divorce in 1957 was 6,300. In total, 13,000 people in Canada were divorced, compared to in 1999, when the number was nearly 1.5 million.
• According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, nine out of 10 Canadian adults chose to get married in the early part of the 1900s. Post-war bliss immediately following the Second World War saw a surge in Canadian marriages.

• The Centre for International Statistics found that since 1965, divorce rates have increased in every major industrialized country.
• In the centre's 1965 comparison of industrialized nations, Japan and France had two of the lowest divorce rates. Less than one in every 1,000 people got divorced. The U.S. rate was nearly 5 in 1,000, and Canada had just over 3 in 1,000. Sweden fell in the middle at nearly 2.5 in 1,000.
Medium: Television
Program: Close-Up
Broadcast Date: May 26, 1960
Guest(s): The Shady Lady
Host: J. Frank Willis
Reporter: June Callwood
Duration: 5:22

Last updated: May 26, 2014

Page consulted on May 26, 2014

All Clips from this Topic

Related Content

Splitting Up: Canadians Get Divorced

Having concrete proof of adultery was once the only way to get a divorce in Canada. That meant...

June Callwood: Canada's Conscience

No one was excluded in the world of June Callwood. The celebrated journalist/activist with a "...