Allegations of a dark past in gilded Westmount

A class action lawsuit against the wealthy burgh claims as many as 70 boys were abused by a former employee

One of the more gilded postal codes in the country is facing the potential of a class action lawsuit alleging that one of its long-time employees engaged in decades of sexual abuse against as many as 70 boys.

On Friday, Matthew Bissonnette filed a motion in Quebec’s Superior Court for authorization to institute a class action against Westmount, the wealthy burgh of about 20,000 people located west of downtown Montreal. “The City of Westmount turned a blind eye to the disturbing and illegal behaviour of their long-time employee, John Garland, while he acted as superintendent of the Westmount Parks and Recreation Department from 1953 to 1987,” reads the motion. It further alleges a member of Westmount’s police force dismissed Bissonnette’s initial claim in 1993 against Garland, saying that Bissonnette cooked up the abuse allegations for financial gain.

Bissonnette is seeking $100,000 for “physical, psychological and moral damages” he suffered as a result of Garland’s alleged abuse, as well as an additional $25,000 in punitive damages. He is represented by lawyer Bruce Johnston of the firm Trudel, Johnston and L’Éspérance, which recently won a landmark $15-billion class action lawsuit against three of Canada’s largest tobacco companies.

“The individual was an authority figure who used his charisma and popularity to abuse kids,” Johnston says. “We have good reason to believe that the Westmount authorities knew or should have known what was going on. We believe they intentionally looked away.”

Current Westmount Mayor Peter Trent wouldn’t comment on the motion, though he says the Westmount Police didn’t exist at the time of Bissonnette’s alleged 1993 complaint. “The Westmount Police was disbanded in 1973. They are trying to say we had something to do with his plea in 1993, when of course Westmount Police didn’t exist. It was called the Montreal Urban Community police that was run by Montreal, and Westmount has no control whatsoever over the police at the station.”

In the motion, Bissonnette says Garland began abusing him when he was 12. As one of “Johnny’s pets”—one or two boys in whom Garland took an interest each year—Bissonnette was given special access to the Westmount arena and Garland’s own locker. Garland would often purchase these boys sporting equipment, and take them out to restaurants and golf outings, according to the motion.

Garland would also invite these boys back to his apartment, often driving them back from the arena in his personal car. “Soda, junk food, pool, darts, and video games were readily available in Garland’s apartment,” reads the motion. Bissonnette alleges that Garland began making sexual advances on him in the spring of 1978, which translated into massages and outright abuse months later.

“While at Garland’s apartment, Garland asked [Bissonnette] to sit on his lap in a reclining chair, where he would hug [Bissonnette] while rocking back and forth;

“Garland soon began a series of massages during which [Bissonnette] was encouraged to stretch out on the couch while Garland massaged his feet and legs … By the fall of 1978, the massages came to include Garland touching [Bissonnette’s] genitals, as well as masturbating [Bissonnette].” According to the motion, Garland referred to these instances as “warm ups” for Bissonnette’s hockey games.

“It was probably happening one to two times a week, maybe more,” Bissonnette recently told Maclean’s. “It’s something that became a ritual. It would happen every time I was there. You knew it was going to happen to you.”

Garland coached the city’s pee-wee all-star hockey team for 34 years. He died in 2012. Along with the alleged abuse, Bissonnette says Garland engaged in “emotional manipulation” by showering praise and declarations of love on him, only to accuse him of being “selfish and opportunistic” if Bissonnette chose to spend time with his friends.

In 1985, five years after his last contact with Garland, Bissonnette says he was approached by another boy who told him he suffered similar abuse from Garland. All told, Johnston tells Maclean’s that he believes there are “between 30 and 70” boys abused by Garland. Anyone who was abused by Garland and wishes to join the class action can do so without publicly revealing their names, Johnston adds.

Bissonnette says the toll of Garland’s abuse on him was a life of drugs and alcohol. “I had a certain bravado, I guess, and was under the impression that it wasn’t affecting me. Meanwhile, I was drunk and high for 30 years,” he says today.

This isn’t the first time Bissonnette has pursued Garland. In the spring of 1993, according to the motion, Bissonnette filed a criminal complaint against the hockey coach. The officer, who is unnamed in the motion, accompanied Bissonnette to a meeting with a Crown prosecutor to pursue the charges against Garland. However, charges were dropped several months later.

“The officer informed [Bissonnette] that Westmont Police officers questioned Garland, who had maintained his innocence and that Garland would sue [Bissonnette] for defamation if he pursued the matter,” reads the motion.

“The officer explained that Westmount Police knew Garland and did not believe that the abuse had occurred … [and] stated that Bissonnette, as a first-year law student, was knowledgeable of civil litigation and was fabricating the abuse in hope of financial gain.”

“I can’t quite impress upon you the impact of that particular moment. You have this event that went on that you’ve been carrying for years, and you work up to this certain point where you think you’re revealing this horror, and then it is treated in the most disdainful and cavalier kind of way,” Bissonnette says today. The officer in question retired in 2007 and has since been institutionalized with Alzheimer’s disease, according to Maclean’s sources.

In the spring of 2012, Bissonnette sought out a criminal lawyer to again attempt to bring criminal charges against Garland. The hockey coach died a few months later. All the while, Bissonnette kept his secret from much of his family, and only told his mother of Garland’s abuse this week.

Today, Bissonnette is a 49-year-old film director living in Los Angeles. In therapy since 2002, he has been sober for 15 months, and is father to an eight-year-old boy. He hopes the class action lawsuit, if approved, is “a great opportunity for the City of Westmount to do the right thing, to acknowledge that this happened, and to apologize not only to the victims themselves but the entire community. It’s a real tragedy for that city and that time period that this was allowed to occur,” he says.

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