Judges Got It Wrong in Saskatoon and Regina Cases

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What happened in a Saskatoon courtroom last week was nothing short of appalling. 

It was a sentencing hearing for John Pontes, the 75-year-old owner of the notorious Northwoods Inn and Suites, on the conviction of sexual assault he received late last year after being acquitted of the more serious charge of raping and extorting the same victim.

Pontes is no stranger to the legal process. In 2014, Saskatchewan’s Court of Queen’s Bench found that he violated the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code by “engaging in gender-based discrimination in the form of sexual harassment” of a female hotel clerk in 2009, awarding that clerk a precedent-setting $45,000 in damages. 

“The judgment is financially notable as the damages provided by the code far exceed usual damages for wrongful dismissal,” said David Arnot, chief commissioner of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission. “This is a clear message that egregious human rights violations will not be tolerated in the workplace.”

It was the fifth time Pontes had been convicted under the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code. The facts laid out in some of those decisions detailing the disgusting things Pontes said and did to the female complainants are stunning in their level of aggression and depravity. 

After somehow avoiding criminal charges on several fronts for years, on Feb. 12 Pontes received his sentence for his one sexual assault conviction: a suspended sentence of 18 months probation. Despite the heinous actions of Pontes over the last decade or two, it was presiding Judge Morris Baniak’s comments while sentencing Pontes that caused my jaw to hit the table.

Crown prosecutor Sheryl Fillo was asking for 90 days in jail, followed by two years’ probation, with an order preventing him from being alone with any woman. Judge Baniak ultimately concluded that Pontes’ old age, health problems and lack of a previous criminal record were good reasons to reject jail time. He didn’t stop there though, pointing fingers at Baniak’s victim as a mitigating factor in the light sentence.

“It seems to be the impact on the victim was not as traumatic as in some of the other cases I’ve examined,” said Baniak at Pontes’ sentencing. “She agreed to meet with accused later on in the evening. That tends to indicate she was not as traumatized as other (victims).”

I’m sorry, what? What?? Keep in mind that this same judge had just acquitted Pontes of extortion — the charge being that he held significant power over the woman and threatened her repeatedly about the consequences if she didn’t have sex with him. 

Yes, Pontes was acquitted of that charge, but that does not mean the woman’s story, especially regarding how she felt vulnerable to him, is not valid.

This reminds me of another case that was playing out in a Regina courtroom earlier this month, that of a woman who alleges she was brutally raped on a first date on a back road in rural Saskatchewan. A sexual assault nurse examiner told the court that she has conducted more than 600 rape exams, and only once before has she seen an external anal injury as large as the one found on the alleged victim.

Yet, the accused’s defence lawyer, Barry Nychuk, still felt it was appropriate to ask (and was allowed to do so by the judge) why she didn’t cry while she answered RCMP questions, how many times she said no to the accused and why she didn’t fight, why she didn’t immediately call police, about the woman’s weight and the style of her scream.

“You let him do it. That’s you consenting,” Nychuk said. “You could have just laid back, true?… You could have resisted?” He then went on to suggest that the accused may have misinterpreted her screaming as a “pleasure scream.”

That’s right, this happened in a Saskatchewan courtroom. In 2019. Like, three weeks ago.

Back in Saskatoon, Baniak continued rejecting the prosecution’s attempts to actually punish the convicted criminal. On the Crown’s request that Pontes be court ordered to not be alone with a woman, the judge said no because it would be inconvenient.

“He works with them all the time. He has males and females in his place of business every day,” said Baniak. “That would create a lot of problems in terms of practically as well as how to enforce it.”

OK, hang on just a minute.

Since when do we not sentence criminals because it might put them out? Isn’t that kind of the point? And it seems to me the fact that Pontes sexually harasses the “females in his place of business” is exactly what is creating “a lot of problems,” so the premise that he must be allowed to continue going about his business (literally and figuratively) completely unencumbered is absurd. 

As for the monumental challenges Baniak saw in having to enforce such a condition, I’m pretty sure that there are all kinds of offenders all over this city who have conditions that require enforcement, so not sure why that would be a problem. 

Further, by all accounts, it seems that the Saskatoon Police Service visits the Northwoods Inn regularly, even daily, which perhaps might cause Pontes to think twice about breaking his conditions, because I’m pretty sure SPS officers would be more than happy to check on him since they’re routinely stopping by anyway. 

“John indicates he is not guilty. He believes he did nothing wrong,” Pontes’ defence attorney, Patrick Fagan, said that day, summarizing what his client told the author of a pre-sentence report. Perhaps this lawyer was telegraphing what’s in store for the court next time — Pontes faces more charges of sexual assault and extortion involving another female tenant. 

That hearing is scheduled for May.