Documentaries·In Depth

'We think there are thousands of victims': Is Peter Nygard the worst of the worst?

Some were as young as 14 years old. More than 125 survivors have come forward while Nygard denies all allegations. Lawyers believe it may be just the tip of the iceberg.

More than 125 survivors have come forward while Nygard denies all allegations.

Billionaire Peter Nygard is photographed with one of his oversize lion heads for Vanity Fair Magazine on July 3, 2015, at Nygard Cay in Lyford Cay, Bahamas. (Jonathan Becker/Contour by Getty Images)

WARNING: This article contains graphic content and may affect those who have experienced​ ​​​sexual violence or know someone affected by it. 

In late 2020, the country was shocked by the revelations of a vast, decades-long criminal conspiracy involving one of Canada's most prominent entrepreneurs and businessmen. Peter Nygard had been arrested, accused of unimaginable sex crimes spanning nearly half a century.

By that point, about 20 women had come to the CBC with their stories that Nygard had sexually abused them both in Canada and abroad. 

Until recently, Nygard had been at the helm of one of Canada's largest clothing empires, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But now American authorities were charging him with multiple counts of sex trafficking and racketeering. 

The news immediately drew comparisons to other wealthy and prominent men accused or convicted of assaulting young women, like former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and comedian and TV star Bill Cosby. 

One news headline declared Nygard "Canada's Jeffrey Epstein."

Could Nygard be the worst of the worst?

It's among the questions that prompted a new-three part television documentary series from CBC Docs, Evil by Design: Surviving Nygard.

The series is based on investigative reporting from The Fifth Estate and the CBC Podcast, Evil by Design.

"This was by far the most sinister, the most pervasive, the most perverse, and the most violent of all of the trafficking endeavours I've seen accomplished," said Lisa Haba, a former prosecutor from Florida who spent seven years trying cases involving human trafficking, sex crimes and child abuse. 

She is now part of the legal team suing Nygard on behalf of dozens of survivors.

"There will never be a case like this again that I can dream of," added her co-counsel in the lawsuit, Greg Gutzler. 

"The magnitude is hard to really even understand."

Nygard would stop at nothing to cover up his crimes

I first started investigating Nygard in 2008. That's when I received a tip that would trigger a journalistic investigation lasting more than a decade.

At the time, Nygard was still rich and powerful. He ran a massive international company with several factories and more than 100 stores. He traveled on a private jet and owned homes in Winnipeg, Toronto, New York and Los Angeles along with a sprawling beachfront estate on the westernmost tip of Nassau in the Bahamas. 

And while there had been rumours for years about Nygard's predatory behaviour, and a handful of news stories in the '80s and '90s, his reputation, at least publicly, was firmly intact. 

Local and national profiles showered him with praise for his business success, heralding him the "Viking Gatsby" and the "Fabulous Finn." He was also routinely seen with prominent politicians and business people, cutting a ribbon on a new store or making a large donation to charity.

Our first Nygard documentary aired on The Fifth Estate in 2010. It revealed Nygard's widespread abusive workplace behaviour, sexual harassment of his employees and other sexual misconduct. 

That's when it became clear Nygard would stop at almost nothing to prevent us from telling the truth, and covering up his crimes.

He hired a former Scotland Yard detective to go undercover for three months posing as a competitor pretending to dig up dirt on Nygard, when in reality he was investigating the CBC and me.

While the undercover sting failed to turn up any dirt on me or my colleagues, the private investigator nonetheless signed the documents that would trigger a private criminal prosecution.

I, along with two colleagues, was charged with knowingly publishing false information in our 2010 documentary. If convicted, we could spend as many as five years in prison. Eventually, after nearly ten years in provincial court, the charges against us were stayed.

"[Nygard] used the criminal justice system against you to potentially protect himself from being subject to criminal justice himself,"  said Jamie Cameron, professor emeritus with Osgoode Hall Law School at York University.

"Think how many potential women would not have been victims if the allegation that you presented in the documentary had been able to lead to charges at a much earlier time." 

Nygard used the combined strategies of other predators

At the time, Harvey Weinstein was still a respected movie producer and the hashtag #MeToo was nearly a decade away from becoming a long overdue social movement that would change the world.

Then, in 2017, the New York Times and The New Yorker published their groundbreaking investigations revealing more than a dozen women had been sexually harassed, assaulted or raped by Weinstein. 

They also exposed an elaborate undercover campaign designed to discredit Weinstein's accusers and the journalists who were investigating him. Weinstein might have taken a page from Nygard's playbook.

Just like Nygard, Weinstein had been using his influence to lure women into private meetings and raping them. Nygard offered modeling jobs; Weinstein offered acting jobs.

Then, in 2018, "America's Dad," Bill Cosby, was found guilty on three counts of aggravated indecent assault involving Toronto native Andrea Constand. He was sentenced to prison, but released last year when the charges were overturned on a legal technicality. The U.S. supreme court recently refused to hear the appeal of that decision.

Again, there are parallels in their methods. Both Cosby and Nygard are accused of drugging women before raping them.

And then, in 2019, Jeffrey Epstein was arrested on charges of sex trafficking after traveling from Paris to New Jersey on his private jet. 

According to prosecutors, a search of his apartment turned up a "vast trove of lewd photographs," including "hundreds – and perhaps thousands – of sexually suggestive photographs of fully – or partially – nude females."

Much of the outrage in the Epstein case centred around a shockingly lenient deal he got from prosecutors in Florida in 2008. According to the Miami Herald, federal prosecutors had identified 36 underage victims at the time — some as young as 14 — but Epstein pleaded guilty to just two charges and spent 13 months in custody, much of it on work release.

Nygard and Epstein targeted young and impoverished women and girls. 

And, like Epstein, Nygard's reputation and influence helped him avoid prosecution for decades in his adopted home of the Bahamas. The Fifth Estate and the CBC podcast Evil by Design showed how police officers and politicians were routinely paid by Nygard employees to look the other way.

"It comes down to being a white man with money," said Damian McLoughlin, a private investigator who helped uncover the allegations of rape in the Bahamas. His story is told fully, for the first time, in the new CBC series.

"Everybody had a handout and he was more than happy to grease the palms. I think it very firmly comes down to government corruption and police corruption."

In the end, instead of my colleagues and I facing criminal charges, Nygard was charged instead, first by authorities in New York. 

"Nygard used the Nygard Group's influence, as well as its employees, funds, and other resources, to recruit and maintain adult and minor-aged female victims for Nygard's sexual gratification and the sexual gratification of his friends and business associates," the indictment said. 

In 2021, Nygard was finally charged in Canada, by police in Toronto, where he is currently in jail, facing six counts of sexual assault and three of forcible confinement.

'A systemic enterprise' of cruelty, suppression and intimidation

Nygard denies all of the allegations against him, and they haven't been tested in court. But we do have a clearer sense of the methods Nygard used and the scope of his abuse. 

Consider this: According to reporting by the Miami Herald, about 80 survivors have come forward in the Epstein case. Weinstein's accusers also tally into the 80s. In Cosby's case, more than 60 women say they were raped or assaualted by him.

While it's impossible to draw conclusive comparisons given the understandable prevalence of underreporting around sexual assault, we do know Nygard's allegations of rape, sexual assault or harassment go as far back as the late 1960s and include incidents from as recently as 2019. The girls he raped were as young as 14 years old at the time. 

We also know the civil class action lawsuit against Nygard, launched in February 2020, started with accounts from 10 women, but has since ballooned to more than 125.

And lawyers working on the case believe that could be just the tip of the iceberg.

"In terms of the level of manipulation and forethought to a systemic enterprise of cruelty and rape and suppression and intimidation, I don't think there's been anybody like [Nygard], ever." said Gutzler.

"We think there are thousands of victims."

Watch Evil by Design: Surviving Nygard on CBC Gem. 

Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. Call The Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-833-900-1010 for more information.


Timothy Sawa, Producer, The Fifth Estate

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