There was no doubt that former Yukon Speaker and Porter Creek Centre MLA David Laxton kissed Michelle Stimson in the Yukon Legislative Assembly building back in February 2016.
It’s whether Stimson consented to those kisses that was the key issue during the two-day trial in a Whitehorse courtroom this week where Laxton stood accused of committing sexual assault.
The trial, presided over by territorial court judge John Faulkner, heard from six witnesses including Stimson and Laxton themselves, whose testimonies differed wildly on critical points.
Before trial, Stimson waived her right to a publication ban on her name. She also gave the News permission to use her name in print.
Both Stimson and Laxton told the court they met at the now-closed Pandas restaurant, where Stimson had worked as a waitress in the 2000s and where Laxton would go to eat. However, while Stimson characterized their relationship as “friendly” but minimal, Laxton said they would flirt back-and-forth. Both said they lost touch after Pandas closed.
Stimson and Laxton also both testified that in February 2016, Laxton had visited the Independent Grocer in Whitehorse.
Stimson, who took the witness stand Aug. 7, testified she’d given her two-week notice that day. Laxton ended up in the express checkout lane where she was working and they had a conversation during which she mentioned quitting. Laxton told her, “I have something for you,” and to call his office to set up an appointment, Stimson said.
The day of the meeting, Stimson said she drove to the legislative building carrying her resume and waited outside of Laxton’s office reading a magazine before Laxton arrived.
Once in the office, Stimson said she looked around and asked about some of the gifts he had on display. They sat down, at which point Stimson said Laxton began sharing “facts about his family,” including Laxton’s relationship with his son, going out to drink and how his relationship with his common-law wife “wasn’t perfect.” Stimson said she asked whether the job Laxton had was the “person who carries the stick and walks through assembly,” and mentioned she’d stopped drinking and had gone back to school, but otherwise, listened to Laxton talk about his life.
“I was feeling that this (meeting) was not about a job,” Stimson said, who recalled starting to feel anxious as time went on.
Stimson said she eventually got up to leave, which prompted Laxton to call the head of human resources, Helen Fitzsimmons, to his office (Fitzsimmons also testified briefly as a Crown witness). Stimson said she recognized Fitzsimmons from when she was a waitress, and the two spoke while Laxton used his computer. Fitzsimmons looked over Stimson’s resume and said it needed a bit more work, offering to help her with it before leaving Laxton’s office and closing the door behind her.
After Fitzsimmons left, Stimson said she standing when Laxton came over and gave her a “bear hug” and kiss on the mouth that lasted around three seconds.
“I froze…. I didn’t go there to be touched, I didn’t go there to be kissed.”
Stimson said she remembers looking at the door and wanting to leave immediately, then following Laxton out of the office.
“I was very scared,” said Stimson, who began to cry on the witness stand.
Stimson said she asked Laxton where her car was before he gave her a second bear hug and kiss, which she said lasted about two seconds. She and Laxton then parted ways, she said, and once she got to her car, she “just lost it.”
Stimson said she reported the incident to Fitzsimmons “a couple of months” later because she “couldn’t get over it” and had lost “every ounce of confidence I had.” She also went to the Yukon Human Rights Commission and then to the RCMP, although she was nervous of going to the latter because she’d heard about internal sexual harassment.
However, Laxton told a different version of events when he took the stand Tuesday. Laxton said he had in fact gone to Independent twice — the first time, the line was busy and he and Stimson only said hello before he left. Later in the day, Laxton said, his partner asked him to pick up something else, so he went back and again used the express lane where Stimson was working. This time, the store was quiet, Laxton said, and they had time to talk. Laxton said Stimson told him she was quitting her job and seemed upset; he gave her his business card, saying to call if he could help, and left.
Then, on Feb. 15, 2016, Laxton said his receptionist told him he had an appointment with Stimson, which Laxton said he was “quizzled” about. The next day, Laxton said, he was on his computer finishing up some work when his receptionist brought Stimson into his office.
Laxton said it was clear Stimson didn’t know much about government, so he explained his role as MLA. They briefly left his office to take a look at the legislature before coming back, Laxton said, and they had a conversation that ranged from Stimson talking about how proud she was of her sons, how Laxton’s partner was doing, Stimson going back to school and why she quit drinking.
Laxton said he told Stimson that he was proud of her for making positive changes in her life, and that although it may be difficult, she needed to keep going. Stimson told him she’d brought a resume with her, Laxton said, so he left to get Fitzsimmons.
Laxton said Stimson went from “cheerful and upbeat” to “down and closed” as soon as Fitzsimmons entered the room. Fitzsimmons suggested Stimson look on the government website’s job portal, which Laxton said he pulled up on his computer, and offered Stimson help on her resume before she left, leaving the office door slightly ajar.
As they were getting ready to leave, Laxton said he got his coat, then gave her a hug and “quick peck” on the lips before opening the door and letting her exit first. They walked to the lower foyer together, Laxton said, where he gave her some more encouragement, another quick hug and kiss he said lasted “a fraction of a second” and then parted ways.
Laxton said that was the last he saw or heard from Stimson; he was under the impression they had a “good friendship” until it “came to a shuddering halt on May 9 when my life fell apart” and the chief of staff told him a sexual harassment complaint had been filed against him. Laxton added he was “threatened and bullied” by the then-premier, who he said told him “in no uncertain terms” that he was to resign as Speaker and leave the Yukon Party or face a vote of “non-confidence.”
The allegations have damaged his career and life, Laxton said, and lost him the friends he had in politics.
“I am still a pariah,” he said.
The defence also called three other witnesses to testify, including Laxton’s common-law spouse, Leslie Goring, who all told the court that Laxton would often greet good female friends with a hug and a kiss on the lips and that they’d seen “back-and-forth” flirting between Stimson and Laxton while she was a waitress at Pandas.
In her closing argument, Crown attorney Amy Porteous said it was clear unwanted contact of a sexual nature had happened. The kiss took place in a professional environment, where kissing is not the norm, she said, and added that previous interactions and relationships aren’t relevant when it comes to consent in a specific moment. It would be “bad public policy” for the judge to see unwanted kissing as harmless or okay, Porteous added.
On the other hand, Laxton’s defence lawyer André Roothman said Stimson had been a “difficult” witness who had a “very selective” memory, and noted that she didn’t fight back or speak up after the first or second kiss. He said the length of time it took for her to report the incident to the police was also suspicious and, tongue-in-cheek, suggested a ban on French, Italian and Portuguese immigrants since kissing in greeting is normal for them.
Justice Faulkner is expected to deliver a ruling in early October.
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org