Behind the Truscott case:

THE TRIAL OF ISABEL LEBOURDAIS

WILLIAM FRENCH June 4 1966
Behind the Truscott case:

THE TRIAL OF ISABEL LEBOURDAIS

WILLIAM FRENCH June 4 1966

THE TRIAL OF ISABEL LEBOURDAIS

Behind the Truscott case:

WILLIAM FRENCH

PERHAPS NO BOOK and its author have ever received a more astonishing reception in this country than that recently given The Trial Of Steven Truscott and Isabel LeBourdais. Never before has an author been so praised and pilloried, damned as a publicity hound out to make a fast buck, denounced as a threat to the roots of our democratic system, and hailed as a heroine. The clamor was entirely justified: the book may be the most important ever written in Canada.

Mrs. LeBourdais’ book sparked a successful demand for a review of the case, set off an orgy of newspaper sob-sistering. set prominent lawyers sniping at each other, stirred a sickening suspicion that a shocking miscarriage of justice may have occurred, and most important, seriously challenged our smug, complacent belief that our courts are not only infallible but beyond criticism.

What’s more, with publication of The Trial, Mrs. LeBourdais brought an unfamiliar sense of hope to twenty-oneyear-old Steven Truscott, a refugee from the gallows serving a life sentence in Collin’s Bay Penitentiary. As everyone must know by now, Mrs. LeBourdais has an unshakable conviction that Truscott did not rape and murder twelve-year-old Lynne Harper one prickly-hot June night in 1959 near the RCAF base at Clinton, Ont., the crime for which, at fourteen, he was sentenced to hang. Many people familiar with Mrs. LeBourdais’ arguments agree that he is innocent; even those who don’t are troubled by the book’s description of Truscott's interrogation, arrest and trial.

Although Isabel LeBourdais had written the occasional magazine article, she was little known across Canada at the beginning of March. She lived in peaceful anonymity, a working widow, in an old red-brick house in Toronto’s Rosedale district with the youngest two of her four children. What distinguished her from most Canadians was a fierce sense of righteous indignation and the fact that she was about to have a book published. What a book it turned out to be! Because of it. and the unprecedented barrage of publicity it received, there were few people in the country by the end of March who hadn’t heard of her, unless they were in solitary confinement.

It was almost impossible to turn on a radio without hearing her being interviewed — thirty-six interviews in seventeen days, some as long as ninety minutes. She had prime exposure on both television networks. Seven Days and Pierre Berton scrambled to see who would get her first. Berton won: alerted in advance, he had quietly taped his

interview in February, then moved ahead the originally scheduled broadcast date.

The postman brought mail by the bagful to her house, and many of the letterwriters documented their praise with money to help Truscott (donations which she returned). The telephone rang constantly. Often the calls were from radio reporters, including Jack Webster in Vancouver, to tape more of those beep-beep interviews. She made speeches, dashed off to Montreal for a one-day round of interviews, took a ten-day missionary tour through western Canada, dropped into Ottawa to check developments, went back to Montreal, and meanwhile tried to give some attention to her regular job as public-relations officer for the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario. Her surprising stamina and abundant energy found their source in her sense of sweet vindication.

Some people complained good-naturedly that she was spoiling their sleep; after reading her book they were so disturbed they stayed awake all night. Other critics weren’t so good-natured. She received the ultimate accolade — an attack by Gordon Sinclair, who roughed her up in a boorish display of hostility during a television panel show. Joseph Sedgwick, a certified member of the legal Establishment, haughtily denounced her impertinence in suggesting that our system of justice might be something less than perfect. (Sedgwick himself was criticized by his colleagues, including lawyer John Diefenbaker, for suggesting that because 'Truscott was not called to testify in his own defense, he must be guilty.) Residents of Huron County, scene of the crime and trial, regarded the book as an affront to the community and responded with a collective raspberry.

But sociologist Charles Hendry thought so highly of the book that he recommended its inclusion on the curriculum of student lawyers, doctors, clergymen and sociologists at the University of Toronto. A petition demanding an inquiry was circulated among Toronto highschool students, and a delegation of five teenagers from a suburban Toronto school took a bus to Ottawa to make the demand in person. They hoped to see Prime Minister Pearson, but had to be satisfied with his parliamentary assistant. John Matheson, who said Pearson was taking a personal interest in the case.

John Diefenbaker called Mrs. LeBourdais from Ottawa to congratulate her and tell her he was taking a personal interest, too. Stanley Knowles, MP, won the prize for one-upmanship when he made a quick trip to Kingston and talked to Truscott for an hour. He wrote an emotional account of his visit for the Toronto Telegram in which he said he was absolutely

ISABEL Le B O URDAIS continued

“I wanted to stir things up”—and publishers shied away

convinced of Truscott’s innocence. Commissioner of Penitentiaries A. J. McLeod suddenly revoked visiting privileges, normally allowed MPs, fearing a parade of parliamentary detectives. (MPs aren't always so au courant in their reading; publisher Jack McClelland had taken the precaution of sending them all free advance copies of the book.)

Sales zoomed. More than fifty thousand copies of the book were sold in the two weeks following publication, a record surpassed previously only by The Comfortable Pew. Shipments were airlifted from the printer in Winnipeg to anxious booksellers in all parts of the country. Amateur judges and would-be lawyers read the book and made snap judgments as to Truscott’s guilt or innocence.

In England, the book made a rare journalistic grand slam; on the Sunday after publication, it was reviewed at length in all Big Five national newspapers — Sunday Times, Sunday Express, The Observer, Sunday Telegraph and The Guardian. That has never happened to a Canadian book before. The reviewers were unanimous in their praise cf the author, their shock at the trial, their belief an investigation is essential.

Yet, incredibly, the trials experienced by Isabel LeBourdais in getting her book published were just as bizarre and disturbing. in their way, as the trial of Steven Truscott. If it had been leff to Canadian publishers, the book might never have appeared.

Disbelief, then protest

Mrs. LeBourdais first became interested in the case after the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the verdict and the sentence in 1960. She didn’t know anyone involved, but her own son was the same age as Truscott, and she couldn’t believe that anyone that age would commit so vile a crime unless he was insane.

And if he was, he needed a psychiatrist, not a noose, unless we had returned to ihe Dark Ages. She obtained a transcript of the trial (newspapers had been forbidden to report the trial proceedings in deference to the youth of the accused), and the more she read, the more she was convinced that Truscott was innocent, the victim of a tragic combination of circumstances.

Her troubles began when she tried to protest the verdict in a magazine article. Late in 1960 she sent an outline to Chatelaine, which had printed her stories before, but the magazine’s legal adviser said it would be very unwise to publish this one. She approached the Star Weekly. Its lawyer was still ponderine the article four months later. She decided he would never make up his mind, and asked for her material to be returned.

She soon realized that she would need the scope offered by a full-length book to tell all, so she called Jack McClelland, president of McClelland and Stewart. He was so enthusiastic that he had her sign a contract immediately. A year later, in 1962, she finished the first draft which, she admits, wasn’t very good. McClelland thought it was too emotional and prejudiced. He felt better about the third draft, finished in the summer of 1963, and decided it was time to get legal opinion on some of the more abrasive par's of the narrative. Seven lawyers in succession told him it shouldn’t be published as it was. They suggested a number of changes and deletions, but Mrs. LeBourdais balked. She felt she had already weakened i he book by leaving out controversial sections in successive drafts and she stubbornly refused to prune it further. Long fruitless sessions were held with McClelland and their relationship deteriorated. Finally they parted in a flurry of

harsh words and communicated for some time thereafter only through lawyers.

“Jack McClelland,” she recalls, “told me I was the most difficult author he had ever dealt with.” She says it with pride, as though it were a great compliment.

Her next move turned out to be cruci ¡1. She turned for advice to her old friend E. B. Jolliffe. a lawyer and former

leader of the CCF party in Ont trio. He soon became as committed to the cause of Truscott as she was and the book became a crusade for him, too. The first thing he told her — it was now January 1964 — was that she would be wasting her time trying to get the book published in Canada. The legal profession here, he warned, was a tightly closed shop. Establishment-dominated, self-protective,

and it would nexer sanction publication of her attack on its members. He advised her to seek a publisher in England.

Mrs. LeBourdais wasn’t convinced. She sent her manuscript to the Toronto offices of Macmillan. Doubleday. McGraw-Hill and Clarke. Irwin, in that order. One after another, they returned it. One of their lawyers told her she should have written it as a lawyer would, presenting both sides of the picture and letting the reader make up his mind.

“That’s just what 1 didn’t want to do."

continued on page 26e

ISABEL LeBOURDAIS

continued

she says. “I wanted to stir things up.”

Jolliffe, meanwhile, had been improving the manuscript. He reinstated many of the controversial parts that had been removed, and he supervised the rewriting of the vital chapter on the judge’s charge to the jury to make it more pointed. It was his idea to include a passage asking for a royal commission.

This stronger, more polished manuscript was the one turned down by the last three publishers. No publisher accepted Isabel LeBourdais' invitation to discuss the book with Jolliffe.

“Their one common characteristic was that they didn't really care.” she says.

By now it was January 1965. and Steven Truscott had been in jail five years. Mrs. LeBourdais decided to try for publication in England. She didn't know anyone there, but she remembered reading a book called Ten Rillinyton Place, by Ludovic Kennedy. In that book. Kennedy raised grave doubts about the guilt of Timothy F.vans, an illiterate laborer hanged in 1950 for the murder of his infant daughter. An occupant of the same house, John Christie, was later found to have murdered Evans's wife and several other women, and perhaps the F.vans child as well. Kennedy’s book led to the appointment of a judicial inquiry.

Mrs. LeBourdais reasoned that the man who had written Ten Rillimjton Place would certainly be interested in her book. She wrote to Kennedy, asking for advice. Four months went by and nothing happened. She had concluded that he wasn't going to reply, when she received a hastily written note from Kennedy. Her letter had arrived the day after he had left on a four-month trip around the world, he explained. He urged her to send the manuscript at once to his own publisher. Sir Victor Gollancz. a Left-wing crusade" for causes of social justice. "This." said Sir Victor when he read the manuscript, "is the kind of book for which my firm exists."

Gollancz. knowing of Jack McClelland's interest in the book, gave him first chance at Canadian rights. Mrs. LeBourdais insists the book accepted by McClelland is stronger and more outspoken than the version he rejected earlier. McClelland doesn't agree; he says it has been toned down under Jolliffc’s influence and is more balanced.

In a way. Mrs. LeBourdais has been training most of her life for the right cause to come along. Her main ancestral influence is prideful Scottish Presbyterian. with its strong sense of moral duty and integrity. Her father. Frank Frichscn-Brown, was a lawyer who frequently accepted free cases because he believed in the cause of his client. Her mother was an early crusader in Toronto for pasteurization of milk and compulsory vaccination.

Mrs. LeBourdais’ own attitude to social justice was strongly influenced by the Depression. She joined the CCF in the mid-1950s and became secretary of one of the Toronto riding associations. At a party meeting she met her future husband. D. M. LeBourdais. then secretary of the provincial CCF. During the 1940s she was active in improving the welfare of the Negro community in Toronto; a few years later, she and her husband started an organization to help relatives of mental patients bring about reforms in hospital conditions.

The first short story she ever wrote appeared in The Canadian lorum about thirty years ago. It was called And Mercy Mild and described the thoughts of a mother at Christmas, whose son. convicted of robbery, had been sentenced to a long prison term and twenty lashes. The story, written when she was twentyfour. was based on an actual case in Toronto. Her husband's intervention in

the case was responsible for cancellation of the lashes.

Mrs. LeBourdais had plenty of free professional advice available as she wrote. Her husband published eight books, including a biography of his associate. Vilhjalmur Stefansson. the Arctic adventurer. Her sister was Gwethalyn Graham, whose novels Earth And Hit’ll Heaven and Swiss Sonata won Governor-General Awards. Mrs. LeBourdais' husband and sister, two people among the few who encouraged her to keep working on the Truscott case.

both died within the past two years— too soon to share the satisfaction of seeing the book appear.

If Isabel LeBourdais' thesis is correct and Truscott is innocent, a psychopathic killer is still on the loose with a more than ordinary interest in her. This might bother a less forbidding crusader, but she says the possibility of it doesn't worry her. "1 don't think he has any interest in getting rid of me now." she says. "The fact that I've published the book gives me a certain immunity. If he tried anv

physical violence it would just prove that

I'm right. What I am worried about is that he'll try to discredit me by spreading rumors and thwwing up smokescreens. It's not just coincidence that all the ugly rumors I used to hear about Steven and his family around Clinton have popped up around Ottawa . . . But no matter what happens or how' long it takes. I shall never stop until Steven is free and his nan.e is cleared."

She means it. if

William Trench is literary editor of The Globe and Mail. Toronto.