London

Demands to rename Paul Haggis Park gain momentum with new sex assault allegations in Italy

Demands to rename Paul Haggis Park gained momentum after news of the London-born, Oscar-winning director's arrest on allegations of aggravated sexual assault in Italy.

Haggis was charged with aggravated sexual assault by Italian police on Sunday

Paul Haggis Park, named for the London-born Oscar-winning director, has been the flashpoint of controversy more than once. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

The movement to strip Paul Haggis' name from a city park in London, Ont., gained momentum after news of fresh sexual assault allegations against the London-born, Oscar-winning director, following his arrest by Italian police. 

Haggis, 69, is in Italy for a film festival in Ostuni, a town in Italy's Puglia region. Italian prosecutors say Haggis was placed under house arrest after a woman sought medical care following a sexual assault that allegedly took place from June 12 to June 15.

Police say Haggis left the woman at Brundisi airport at dawn on Sunday. He was arrested and charged with aggravated sexual assault and grievous bodily harm Sunday evening. 

The allegations in Italy mark the fifth time the London-born director has been publicly accused of sexual assault or harassment. It has also once again made the park that bears his name the focus of demands to strip it of his identity. 

'There's a pattern at this point'

"There's a sense of 'come on now.' This isn't new for him," said AnnaLise Trudell, the education and research manager at the Anova women's shelter in London. 

"This is years in the making and there's a pattern at this point that's been established." 

Canadian director Paul Haggis attends the Warner Bros. Pictures and Dolce & Gabbana TIFF cocktail party during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival at Momofuku Daisho on Sept. 6, 2014 in Toronto. (Michael Buckner/Getty Images)

Trudell, along with councillor Mo Salih, were among two prominent voices in the city when demands to remove Haggis' name from the park first arose in 2018. That year, four women in the United States accused Haggis of sexual assault and harassment in incidents that allegedly took place between 1996 and 2015, but have yet to be proven in court. 

Four years later, the park on Bateman Trail, in London's sprawling southern suburbs still bears his name, which Trudell said can be damaging for the one in four women who experience sexual assault in their lifetime. 

"[This] sends a very clear message to all survivors in the city — that their experience is not worthy."

"It has this lasting sense of minimizing what you went through and also this sense of, if you speak up too loudly you're also likely going to be in a scenario where you're accused of lying or making a big deal out of something that was not."

Mayor calls allegations 'serious,' 'troubling'

It also seems to be creating a growing sense of discomfort among those living next to the park. 

"My kids play over there all the time. I'd rather have a different name," said Kevin Hough, who lives across the street. 

It's the second time in a week that city hall has had to grapple with the issue of a landmark whose namesake is accused of improper behaviour.

Councillors voted 14 to one in favour of removing the name of Trooper Mark Wilson from a city street, a park and anywhere else it may appear after revelations the soldier, who was killed in combat in Afghanistan, pleaded guilty to assaulting a woman in Quebec 18 years ago. 

London Mayor Ed Holder was not available for interviews Monday because of a medical issue, but his office issued a statement on the new allegations Haggis faces in Italy. 

"These allegations are very serious, and troubling. Unlike where Trooper Wilson was concerned, at this time we have neither a guilty plea, nor the results of a legal proceeding to help inform our next course of action. Regardless, I think this is yet another example why naming landmarks after people is an exercise fraught with risk."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Colin Butler

Reporter

Colin Butler covers the environment, real estate, justice as well as urban and rural affairs for CBC News in London, Ont. He is a veteran journalist with 20 years' experience in print, radio and television in seven Canadian cities. You can email him at colin.butler@cbc.ca.

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