Media History



This hand picked compilation of the best stories written by and about Jeannette Tossounian serves as a media biography of this Canadian civil rights hero. Starting from her fight with the City of Cambridge for equal rights to helping medical patients in Kitchener; her art and political ventures in Niagara then her biggest and most treacherous battles trapped within the injustice system… these are just the highlights… and there is always more to come…

August 15, 1997

Heroine in the topless wars

Toronto Sun

Unlike me, Fatima Pereira Henson is not a dilettante. When I went topless recently, for as long as it took my friend Rosie DiManno and I to play out the last hole of a media golf tournament, it was for a lark. We were among friends and colleagues; we were bored; we got a little silly.
Pereira Henson is much braver, much more serious, and far more worthy of your sober consideration.
She lives, first of all, not in Toronto, but in Cambridge, which is not that far away in miles but in other ways, such as in its municipal politics, is in another galaxy entirely. She is a nice conservative woman of 35, a full-time mom with two young daughters and a husband, and in the ordinary course, unlike some of her coarser sisters, she would not dream of going topless.
But when, in the aftermath of the Ontario Court of Appeal decision late last year which overturned the conviction of topless trailblazer Gwen Jacob of Guelph and made toplessless legal for women, Pereira Henson saw a story in the local press about Cambridge city council having thumbed its nose at the ruling and passed a policy against toplessless, she was outraged.
Her late father, Alfredo, fled his comfortable life in Mozambique, then a Portuguese colony, and moved his family to Canada in 1972 precisely because democracy was too slow in coming to Portugal. “My father did not bring us to this country so I could be treated like a second-class citizen,” Pereira Henson snaps.
Given the choice to be topless or not, she would be clothed every time; “Try to take my right away, and I will continue to exercise it.”
So it was that on Feb. 21, Pereira Henson headed off to her local swimming hole, the W.G. Johnson Pool and, in short order, went topless, was asked to leave and, when she wouldn’t unless the lifeguards also asked the men in the pool to don tops, found herself surrounded by Waterloo Regional Police and given a $65 trespass ticket.
This past May 9, fully prepared to go ahead, she went to court to learn that the Crown attorney was asking the court to quash the charge on a technicality.
She might have left well enough alone, but it turned out that in anticipation of her court date, council had in April actually formalized its anti-topless policy into a bylaw (it is No. 72-97), and then, a few days after she was in court, she saw some city literature featuring the councillors in their favorite sports gear; one of the men was in swim trunks, baring his chest. It was salt in the wound.
On July 18, Pereira Henson and a 21-year-old friend from Kitchener, Jeannette Tossounian, went to the same pool, removed their tops and went swimming. The same scenario as before played out, with a few twists; this time, the pool was crowded, so the lifeguards blew the whistles and ordered everyone out before the police approached the two women. At one point, Pereira Henson pulled out her well-worn copy of the Charter and tried to show the police the relevant sections; one of them told her the Constitution doesn’t apply in Cambridge.
On Wednesday, her lawyer, T. Sher Singh, was contacted by Brian Law, a local lawyer hired by city council to handle this matter, and he revealed that the Crown attorney was declining to prosecute the case, a decision senior Crown Lydia Narozniak confirmed yesterday. The opinion in the Crown’s office, she said, was that a prosecution would not be successful.
The city, Mayor Jane Brewer said yesterday, has now asked Law to study the merits of a private prosecution — in other words, using public money to push the trepass charge through the courts one way or another.
Brewer is clearly annoyed by Narozniak’s decision. “She said they had other priorities,” Brewer sniffed. “I hope they don’t take that same position with a lot of other things.” She referred to earlier “assurances” council had that their bylaw was enforceable.
Asked why the bee in council’s bonnet, Brewer replied, “There’s some strong feeling in the community that there should be community standards.”
Indeed, lawyer Sher Singh believes the issue, which has already polarized opinion in the city, would be a handy campaign hot button in the coming fall election, useful for diverting attention away from more important matters.
Fatima Pereira Henson has lived in Cambridge for eight years. Her opinion of the local politicians isn’t high, but she has great affection and respect for her neighbors. “The majority of this community is so peaceful … there’s that deep-down good heartedness.” She is willing, if that’s what it takes, if council decides to prosecute regardless of the cost and the lousy prospects for success, to lose her house in order to pay for the battle. A tawdry floozy in comparison, I am not worthy, but would be honored to go topless with her any time.
Anyone wanting to help with her legal expenses can send donations, cheques made out to her, care of 256 Union St. N., Cambridge N3H 5L1.


1997: Topless swimmers won’t face charges, Cambridge councillors decide

NEWS Jan 01, 2000 by Bob Burtt Waterloo Region Record

Editors note: This story was published in The Waterloo Region Record Sept. 23, 1997

CAMBRIDGE — Women will be allowed to swim topless in Cambridge, city council has agreed somewhat reluctantly.

Fatima Pereira Henson, the Cambridge woman who achieved notoriety for swimming with breasts exposed, appears to have won her battle with city council — for now anyway.

After being advised the city didn’t have a strong case, council decided Monday it would not proceed with charges against Pereira Henson or Jeanette Tossounian of Kitchener.

The decision came after the local Crown attorney’s office refused to proceed with charges against the two women last month.

Cites court ruling

At the time, Lidia Narozniak, the Crown prosecutor, said an earlier case argued before the Ontario Court of Appeal concluded that women have as much right to swim topless as do men.

Narozniak put the ball back in the city’s court when she suggested the city could enforce its bylaw or retain a private prosecutor for the trespass-to-property case.

The city said last month that it would consider its options before deciding how to proceed.

But in a closed meeting of council Monday, the city’s lawyer advised that it had a weak case and few options to consider.


Mayor Jane Brewer said city council would also direct staff to develop a new bylaw and new policies that could be upheld.

Those bylaws and policies would not restrict topless swimming to male swimmers.

At the same time Brewer made it clear that she and her council aren’t happy about the situation.

Council will petition the provincial and federal governments for legislation allowing municipalities to adopt bylaws and policies that more accurately reflect and protect community standards, she said.

Brewer said after the meeting that she had received only one letter and one phone call during the last month on the issue. Both urged her not to proceed with charges against the two women.

That didn’t surprise her, she said, because the media had made it an issue and people felt they had their say earlier. Most people would not have known when the city was going to deal with the issue.

Brewer said the decision not to proceed was made after a one-hour debate and was supported by all of the councillors.

The decision not to proceed with charges is a victory for Pereira Henson who challenged the bylaw by swimming topless in public at the W. G. Johnson pool.

Pereira Henson took the topless plunge first in February and again in July. The charges in the first instance were quashed when the case went to court in May.



Pubdate: April 13, 1998
Source: The Record (Kitchener-Waterloo, Canada)
Author: Phillip Jalsevac


A local club that provides marijuana to ill people began operations last week, with organizer Jeannette Tossounian saying she’s prepared to risk going to jail for supplying cannabis to members.

Waterloo regional police have warned they will charge anyone selling or distributing pot, whether for medicinal purposes or not.

“It does concern me,” Tossounian, 22, of Kitchener said in an interview.  However, she said, “If I have to put myself on the line, that’s what I have to do.”

Tossounian noted that federal Justice Minister Anne McLellan plans to explore the possibility of decriminalizating marijuana for medicinal use.  But, she said, “it’s not like I’m going to sit there waiting for the govenment to decide to change something.  I mean, they’re thinking about it now but they were thinking about it in the 70s.”

Tossounian, who is studing to be a chartered herbalist and runs a hemp clothing company, recently established a local chapter of the Medical Marijuana Clubs of Ontario to serve people in the Waterloo Region and Guelph.

She calls her chapter Marijuana Used for Medicine, and chose the acronym MUM not as a reflection of the expression “mum’s the word.”

Rather, she said: “I like it because the ( mum ) plant is a flower.”

And mom or mother is ideally known for her “nurturing” qualities.

That’s what she’s trying to bring to the suffering people she lovingly calls “my patient.”


About 40 people have asked for membership forms and, to date, 10 people suffering from HIV, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma and epilepsy have returned the forms signed by there doctors.

Only two physicians have declined and the fact that 10 individual doctors have co-operated shows “there is a large support from the medical community,” Tossounian said.

Doctors are asked to verify that a patient suffers from a particular medical condition and to sign the form which says: “I have discussed with my patient what I am aware of in terms of the health benefits and risks of marijuana.  I would consider prescribing it if I were legally able to do so.”

Tossounian phones the doctor’s office to confirm the signature is legitimate and then meets the members.  That way, she said, “I get to know exactly how much pain they’re in and that they’re sincere to the cause.”

In a club brochure, Tossounian advertises her phone number — 744-4721.  But the club’s marijuana is not kept at or distributed from her apartment.


Rather, she arranges to pick it up and deliver it at locations that are “pretty much confidential.”

Still, it’s not an overly clandestine affair.  “I don’t want to have to meet anybody on some corner of the street or that sort of thing.”

The fledgling club is off to a modest start, she admitted.

In her first deliveries last week,she provided members with barely an ounce of grass in total, or enough for somewhere between 80 to 100 joints.

Meanwhile, she’s looking for a supplier who is sympathetic to the cause and will offer marijuana at a dicounted price.  “I don’t have a good supply yet.  I’m getting it here and there.”

Currently, she pays the going street price and members reimburse her.

Tossounian, meanwhile, is off to Vancouver on Tuesday to spend a week studying the operations of a medicinal club there.

When she returns, she’ll be working on organizing a fundraising event which she hopes will generate enough revenue for her to open an office.


She’s getting support from people who tell her “it’s great what you’re doing.  it’s about time.”

And they come from all walks of life, not just stereotypical “hippie” types.

She knows some people who smoked grass in the 60s and 70s and noted that “now they’re lawyers and doctors.  It doesn’t seem like marijuan got in the way of their lives.”

As for her civil disobedience in organizing MUM, she said: “I just don’t like watching people suffer.”

Wistfully, she adds: “I really wish I could do this legally.”


 Illegal Medicine – Kitchener Organization Dispenses Marijuana to Chronic Pain

Sufferers (A feature article in The Kitchener-Waterloo Record, in Ontario,

Date: Sat, 28 Nov 1998 22:35:58 -0500

Source: The Kitchener-Waterloo Record

Date: Saturday, November 28, 1998

Written by: Philip Jalsevac

Section: Weekend





After starting out with little more than high hopes last April, Jeannette

Tossounian of Kitchener now has a small office for her club, Marijuana Used

for Medicine, and about 50 registered members to whom she sells the illegal



The 23-year-old crusader operates one of only four such clubs in Canada;

the others are in Vancouver, Toronto and London. In the process, she risks

criminal prosecution.


Staff Sgt. Kevin Chalk said in an interview Waterloo regional police are

aware of the club and are obliged to charge anybody selling marijuana, even

for medical purposes. However, Chalk said, “I can’t tell you we’re hunting

down these people… We have to prioritize what we do and that would be at

the low end of the scale.”


In the Canadian magazine Cannabis Culture, Tossounian is portrayed as a

“modern-day Florence Nightingale,” dispensing marijuana to patients who

register by having their doctor verify their medical condition.


Most of the 50 members live in Waterloo Region, with a handful residing in

Guelph, Stratford and Hamilton.


“This is a start,” Tossounian said during an interview in her spartan

office in Kitchener.




She has two supplies who sell marijuana to her at below-street prices. A

gram that might cost $15 on the street can be sold to club members for $5

to $10, with one gram providing somewhere between three and five joints.


Tossounian sells the marijuana in small amounts, mostly to ensure it is not

used or resold for recreational use.


Not that she’s opposed to recreational smoking of marijuana, but that’s not

the purpose of her club, which she tries to manage in a professional



“My suggestion would be to have you talk to your doctor,” she tells one

caller who’s had difficulty getting the necessary paper work completed. “If

I don’t have any confirmation from the doctor, unfortunately, you can’t be

part of the organization.”


Then she adds: “I’m sure it’s just a little mix-up. It just needs a simple

phone call.”


Tossounian says she gets by on odd jobs and occasional work as a graphics

artist and is studying to be a herbalist.




Her clients include patients from all walks of life suffering a variety of

ailments like epilepsy, chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, hepatitis,

migraine, arthritis and cancer.


According to an article in the Oct. 26 issue of Law Times, after hearing

expert witnesses in a recent court case, Ontario provincial court Judge

Patrick Sheppard concluded marijuana has a therapeutic effect in the

treatment of those ailments.


As for MUM, local doctors sign forms saying: “I have discussed with my

patient what I am aware of in terms of the health benefits and risks of

marijuana. I would consider prescribing it if I were legally able to do



Sometimes, the doctor’s assistant or secretary will verify the form was

legitimately filled out, but often Tossounian talks to the doctor directly.


“I find most doctors are supportive,” she says, although some are “totally

afraid to sign the form.”


While marijuana may ease the afflicted, Tossounian concedes it can pose

risks to otherwise healthy people under certain circumstances.




Recent studies present conflicting opinions. But from Tossounian’s point of

view, “the negative side-effect would be psychological” rather than



The problem arises when people use marijuana as a form of escapism and it

becomes “a mental addiction so that they don’t have to deal with the rest

of their lives,” she said.


“That happens, and those people should get some kind of counseling.”


She tries to get to know her members’ smoking habits to help gauge their

condition and need.


They usually only have a few puffs,” she said. “Nobody seems to be abusing



As well, she said, “a lot of them are lonely and they need some contact.

So, I stay for a while and talk to them.”


The personal touch, however, sometimes leads to a struggle to remain

detached from their suffering.


On occasion, she’ll drive a member to see a doctor or help with other



“I found myself almost becoming a social worker, but I try not to be,” she

said. “I’m trying my best to discipline myself, because it wears me out.”




Smoking grass can help you get off drugs.


The notion may seem contradictory, but that’s the view of local people who

told the Record about their use of marijuana for medical purposes.


In interviews, they also said if there is such a thing as “reefer madness,”

it prevails among society at large for outlawing any use of marijuana.


“I’m probably one of the most law-abiding citizens you could find and do a

lot of community work. But, in order to stay healthy, I have to break the

law,” said Bob, an area teacher. “It doesn’t seem fair.”


Bob, 48, relies on marijuana to control his epilepsy, which conventional

prescription medicine cannot do because he’s allergic to it.


“I almost lost my life with this epileptic medication,” he said.


His doctor had no reservations about him switching to marijuana, he said.

“She told me it was the smart thing to do.”


Bob and two others interviewed are members of the Kitchener club Marijuana

Used for Medicine (MUM). Like the others, Bob didn’t want to be identified

because of the legal risk and social stigma.


But all three said marijuana either replaced or helped them cut back the

prescription drugs they were taking.


It wasn’t necessarily easy.


Steve, 34, of Kitchener, went through a night of the shakes and vomiting

when he tried to kick his addiction to pain-killers, including morphine,

Demerol and codeine.


Helping him through the ordeal was Jeannette Tossounian, the 23-year-old

head of MUM, who refers to members as “my patients.”


“She actually helped me kick the pills,” said Steve, a driver who suffers

from nerve damage and a ruptured disc.


Steve’s been off prescription medication for about five months now and

relies on marijuana — after working hours — to help control his pain.


“I’ll have a couple of puffs to help me settle down and get to sleep,” he

said, adding that “you don’t wake up the next morning feeling hung over.”


He found that after years of taking prescription drugs, “my organs inside

were just rotting away,” and he developed stomach ulcers.


Nowadays, he said: “I’m off everything. The only pills I take now are



He feels healthier, sleeps better and is more physically active.


“Now, I can’t attribute all that to smoking dope,” he said, “but I can

attribute it to not having pills inside my body.”


Doctors referring patients to MUM did so confidentially and were

unavailable for interviews.


But Steve claimed his doctor knows he was substituting marijuana for

prescription drugs, and “he thought it was excellent.”


Laurie, 40, has cut back significantly, but has been unable to totally

eliminate her use of drugs. That’s largely because she has severe pain from

a rare illness called arachnoditis.


Medical literature describes it as an inflammatory and sometimes agonizing

disease involving membranes of the brain and spinal canal.


Laurie’s troubles began when she was a 12-year-old sprinter and suffered a

ruptured disc while training.


A series of questionable surgical procedures and now-outdated tests —

involving a risky type of myelography or dye injection — led to the

development of the arachnoditis.


She said she also suffers from sciatica, nausea, bowel and bladder



Her condition became more serious in 1978, while she was studying social

services at Conestoga College in Kitchener.


During one operation, “something horrifically went wrong,” she said.


Her life hasn’t been normal since, and she said she has taken prescription

drugs, mostly morphine, for 20 years.


She spends most of her time in a small Kitchener apartment equipped with a

wheelchair and hospital-type bed. At the best of times, she can walk short



Photos of loved ones sit near an old television set, which helps her while

away the night when she can’t sleep.


Before joining MUM, Laurie occasionally tried to obtain marijuana on the

street. But she paid high prices for what was often poor-quality grass and

she didn’t like the drug dealers. Now she gets a more regular supply of

good marijuana through MUM.


The marijuana she smokes daily eases her pain, helps her sleep, induces

appetite and alleviates nausea, she said.


Most significantly, she’s not adrift in a cloud of narcotics.


“Since I gained access to marijuana, I have decreased my intake (of

prescription drugs) at least by half,” Laurie said.


Said Tossounian: “When I first met her, she wasn’t as coherent. Now I see

her hopping into the wheelchair and going to the mall. She’s been happier.

She’s been more with it and not on the heavy drugs.”


As for the law that makes her use of marijuana illegal, Laurie is

incredulous: “If you’re on the heaviest opiates on the market, excluding

heroine, what’s the threat? That just boggles my whole mind, that marijuana

versus narcotics (argument).”


Is the grass strictly medical?


“I’m not going to lie,” Laurie said. “There are times when I just want to

get high. But those times are few and far between.’


To get the most benefit from its pain relief, she said “you have to combine

it with meditation and visualization” — techniques she learned in

pain-management clinics.


In her meditation, she employees a personal “form of praying, but not

really asking anything.”


The aim is simply “to be in the moment and listen to whatever, the universe

and God. And that’s a very difficult place to get to.”



It was the summer of 2009 and the Niagara Falls Humane Society was over run with cats to the point that they didn’t know where to put them. The good people at the Niagara Square shopping centre were generous enough to donate a store for an adoption centre and so I decided offer my services as an artist and direct a community mural project.


Bringing wind to life

COMMUNITY Jul 21, 2011 Niagara This Week – St. Catharines

Niagara Falls artist Jeannette Tossounian and Pelham poet Laura Lane teamed up over the last year to bring one of Lane’s poems — I am the Wind — to life. Tossounian (pictured) took countless canoe trips last fall to serve as inspiration for the ink and water-colour works that would illustrate the wind’s personal tale.


Jeannette Tossounian could feel the fall breeze against her face as it came across the water toward her canoe.

Niagara Falls visual artist Tossounian drew upon this feeling as she worked over the last year on a series of watercolour and ink illustrations. The dozen works tell the story of the wind, as does the poem by Pelham writer Laura Lane which the illustrations accompany.

With a relationship stretching back several years, Lane and Tossounian teamed up to take Lane’s award-winning poem I am the Wind and turn it into a children’s e-book with Tossounian’s works adding a visual touch to the written piece.

“I started writing poetry when I was in my teens,” said Lane, now 40, who enjoys the ability poetry provides her to express her feelings in an abstract medium.

I am the Wind owes its beginnings to a women’s conference Lane attended about 10 years ago. At the time Lane had taken a five-year hiatus from her writing, dedicating the time to a relationship that eventually fell apart. At the conference the women broke into groups for a writing workshop with the challenge of each woman picking an object and writing from that object’s perspective.

“It just seemed like a fresh time to start again,” said Lane, who chose the wind as her subject.

“To me it became very alive,” she said.

I am the Wind would go on to win the Edmonton Songs of the Streets poetry contest and would eventually be accompanied by three other works concerning the perspective of the other elements. Lane has penned I am the Waves, I am the Earth and I am the Light since then. Before the idea for the illustrated book came along, the poems did sit for a few years. Then Lane was inspired by some of the books her kids were looking at. She noticed that many of their children’s books were poems.

So, having a relationship with Tossounian from a Niagara-Falls writers circle, Lane approached the visual artist with the idea.

“I thought it was really cool,” said Tossounian, adding, “I’m a nature person so that totally clicked for me.”

Tossounian noted that at first she wasn’t quite sure how the project would go.

“It was my first children’s book so I had no idea,” she said, explaining that her work normally deals in abstracts or portraits. As she read the poem over and over, consulting with Lane, the illustrations began to take shape.

“I kept finding the story, so I would go back to the beginning,” said Tossounian, recalling that she took many a canoe trip last fall so the wind could inspire her as it blew across the water.

“It (illustrating a children’s book) turned out to be something really enjoyable,” said Tossounian, who is already negotiating with a Vancouver author for another book. She also hopes to team up with Lane again as she releases the other three poems as e-books and a final story tying all four together with a narrative.

As for I am the Wind, the pair both agree that it turned out great.

“We just worked really well together,” said Lane, noting that with children all around the world experiencing nature’s elements, the book is currently being translated into upwards of 20 languages.

“When you get that gust of wind pushing you on the street … everybody knows that feeling,” she said. She added that the text is pretty much all down for the final 6,000-word narrative tying the four poems together with the story of a boy and his grandfather taking a trip into nature. Kids will have to wait, however, as Lane wants to release the other three poems before the narrative.



Sixth candidate in Falls race

NEWS Sep 15, 2011 Niagara This Week – St. Catharines

Jeannette Tossounian entered the race as the sixth candidate in the Niagara Falls riding on Wednesday, campaigning as an independent.

“I’m hoping to be an example that anyone from any background can run. I believe the party system needs to be abolished, (with) all independents running.”
This is Jeannette Tossounian’s mantra heading into the Oct. 6 provincial election. The freelance visual artist announced her intent to run as an independent on Wednesday afternoon, bringing the total number of candidates in the Niagara Falls riding to six.
The 36-year-old ran for a seat on Niagara Falls city council during the 2010 municipal election, to no avail. She’s hoping to use next month’s election as yet another opportunity to engage with local citizens, regardless of the outcome.
“I was originally asked to run for the Reform Party of Ontario, but decided it was not a good idea,” explained Tossounian.
“I’m a woman who speaks my mind, and I don’t want to follow any party. I have a real voice, where others are more or less trained.”
One of the most pressing issues facing her riding, said Tossounian, is ongoing tensions between the public, local politicians and the Niagara Health System in the wake of multiple C. difficile outbreaks throughout the spring and summer.
She was on hand at the July 6 Greater Niagara General hospital health care rally organized by Coun. Wayne Gates, and chanted “no more deaths” after simply picking up a placard off the ground. “The C. diff outbreak floored me…especially with nobody responding,” she said.
For Tossounian, that type of grassroots activism is what drives her everyday approach to politics. In December, 2009, she took a bus to Toronto to join to protest at Queen’s Park against the HST – a decision that almost landed her behind bars.
“I completely shook the House, yelling from the visitor’s gallery (and) causing the Speaker to rise and warn me that I could get arrested. I was willing to take that risk, and needless to say, everyone in Queen’s Park definitely now knows who I am.”
A longtime advocate of the arts, she operated the short-lived Tossounian Gallery in downtown Niagara Falls back in 2008, and remains actively involved in the Queen Street arts community.
Partnering with Pelham-based author Laura Lane, she most recently contributed the illustrations to the former’s e-book, I Am The Wind, and is currently working on the artwork for a forthcoming novel.
“I believe art is an important part of any local economy, but I’m a little wary of government-funded art agencies,” she said, adding that creativity can easily get lost in a “black hole” when mixed with grant money.
Self-described as “heavily involved in volunteering and charity work,” Tossounian spends much of her free time these days knitting winter clothing for local community outreach programs. She recently donated 100 pounds of homegrown grapes to Project SHARE and Community Care, and is “always calling the city (of Niagara Falls)” to report traffic, safety and environmental concerns.
“Whether campaigning or not, this is the person I am…completely driven,” she said. “I’ll always be a watchdog in the community.”
Tossounian will face off against five other candidates in the Oct. 6 provincial election: Kim Craitor (Liberal), Wayne Redekop (NDP), George Lepp (Progressive Conservative), Byrne Smith (Green) and Adam Hyde (Libertarian).


20 Niagara Advance * Thursday, September 22, 2011

Independent candidate bringing health care to the forefront

Niagara Falls resident runs for election after she becomes disturbed by state of hospitals.

Jeannette Tossounian is running as an independent in the Niagara Falls riding in the Oct. 6 provincial election because of the state of health care in the region. When she began reading in the news that people were dying in Niagara’s hospitals because of C. difficile, she says she became furious. After more than a month of watching as people died in local hospitals, Tossounian says she offered to clean and to fundraise. She says all of her offers were refused and the candi- date felt helpless. Tossounian participated in the protest at the Greater Niagara General Hospital in June. She waved a sign and yelled ‘No more deaths,’ but she says people still kept dying, and protesting that Jeannette Tossounian day in June wasn’t enough. At the all-candidates meeting at the community centre on Sept. 14, Tossounian said she doesn’t expect to win the provincial election. She told the audience she wasn’t asking for votes, or accepting money – instead, she said she hopes to bring health care to the forefront. Tossounian says she hopes to use the election campaign as a platform to speak up on health care issues, and she promises whoever does win the election, the independent will be on their case to ensure that the people of Niagara are safe in their hospitals and get the service that they deserve.

Tossounian considers herself to be a life long political activist. In December of 2009, the candidate says she took the bus to Queens Park to join in the opposition protesting against the HST. She says no one she knew could make ends meet. “I couldn’t see how taking away more of our little money would do any good.” Tossounian says she “shook the house, yelling from the visitors gallery,” causing the Speaker to rise and warn her that she could be arrested. It was a chance she was willing to take to make sure her voice was heard, says Tossounian. The 36-year-old candidate has been a self-employed artist for 18 years and has directed many independent and public galleries. Tossounian moved to Niagara Falls in 2008 to join in the revitalization of the downtown through the arts. She is heavily involved in volunteering and charity work. Tossounian has recently picked 100 pounds of grapes from her backyard and donated them to Project S.H.A.R.E. and Community Care food banks. She is currently knitting hats with her church group to donate to people in the community.




‘Registered parties only’–registered-parties-only-/

NEWS Sep 23, 2011 Fort Erie Post

In the wake of being excluded from Wednesday’s All Candidate’s Night in Fort Erie, independent hopeful Jeannette Tossounian feels the process is far from democratic.
“(The debate) is a good example of why people don’t bother to vote, because they know no one is listening to them,” said Tossounian, in an email to the Post Friday morning.
A letter from the Greater Fort Erie Chamber of Commerce to Tossounian dated Sept. 19 outlined the reasoning behind the decision.
Chamber president Stephen Passero explained that one of the main policies of the debate involves “the inclusion of candidates with registered parties only, who are registered as a candidate before a set deadline.”
Passero noted that deadline is usually one month prior to the election. Tossounian officially declared her candidacy on Sept. 7 – one day after the proposed cutoff.
Completing the debate in a “reasonable time frame” was also cited by Passero as a key factor, in terms of limiting the number of participants. Despite wrapping up earlier than expected on Wednesday, the event originally called for two hours of prepared speeches and debate among five candidates.
The Chamber president stated that opening and closing comments (as well as the question and answer period) would be limited to party candidates, and table space for brochures would not be made available for independents. However, Tossounian and other candidates were permitted to hand out literature at the event, if they chose to.
“At some point, we have to make a decision,” said Passero, speaking to the Post on Friday morning. The key to a well-run debate, he explained, is keeping everything on schedule – a goal that becomes increasingly difficult with each additional candidate. Wednesday’s debate featured five participants – Adam Hyde (Libertarian), George Lepp (PC), Byrne Smith (Green), Kim Craitor (Liberal) and Wayne Redekop (NDP).
Tossounian was invited to participate in Thursday’s health care debate at the Gale Centre in Niagara Falls, along with two other candidates absent from the Fort Erie session. She said the Chamber should “absolutely” revise its policy when it comes to independents, and added that Craitor, Smith and Hyde expressed similar concerns to her.
In regards to declaring one’s candidacy after the Chamber’s four-week debate cutoff, Passero wondered if such candidates are “really in the race?” or simply hoping to voice an opinion at the All-Candidates Night.
He added that the entire policy may be examined in the future, but doesn’t foresee any changes.
Family Coalition Party hopeful John Jankovic and independent candidate Tim Tredwell will also be on the Oct. 6 ballot, contending for the Niagara Falls riding.


Female inmate claims she was punished in jail for not wearing bra

By: Jessica Smith Cross Metro, Metro Toronto Published on Sat Nov 24 2012

An inmate at the Vanier Centre for Women has filed an official complaint alleging correctional officers put her in a segregation cell and tacked on extra days to her sentence because she refuses to wear a bra.

“I was locked down in a segregation cell from the morning of Nov. 1 to the afternoon of Nov. 15. I was first charged with misconduct for not wearing a bra,” Jeannette Tossounian, who is currently serving a sentence for arson, wrote to Metro. “A few days later I was charged with another misconduct for saying I don’t want to wear a bra and was given five extra days to spend in jail from my early release date, December 2013, as further punishment.”

The Elizabeth Fry Society confirmed that Tossounian has filed an official complaint about the incident.

Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services Brent Ross would not comment on Tossounian’s allegations, but he confirmed that female inmates are required to wear bras.

“We have policies in place to ensure inmates are treated justly and humanely in all sections of our facilities including segregation,” he said in an email. “While incarcerated, inmates can be awarded remitted time, which is a reduction of a sentence for good conduct, and they can also lose their remitted time or have their privileges suspended if they commit a serious misconduct.”

Tossounian said her aversion to bras wasn’t always a problem for her in jail.

“I was incarcerated at Vanier for eight-and-a-half months and braless the whole time before I was locked down, I guess the guards had better things to do than stare at my chest examining for looseness,” she wrote. “As soon as I put in a request to change to a better unit so I could participate in more programs, I was charged with these misconducts and thrown in the hole.”

Tossounian wrote that she has never been a bra-wearer and believes studies that link wearing a bra to breast cancer (which, however, are not widely accepted by the scientific community.)

“To (force) a woman to wear a bra, inmate or not, is a violation of human rights. It is sexual discrimination that breaks a woman down into body parts that must be controlled because these parts are female,” she wrote.

Tossounian wrote that the incident made her feel helpless.

“No matter what an inmate does, if the institution wants to punish, they will get punished. It starts with one small misconduct, then it piles up, giving no way out,” she wrote. “Some inmates end up losing their minds, even to the point of committing suicide. I have to remain strong.”

Tossounian’s lawyer for the appeal of her sentence, Vanessa Christie, said her client’s account of what happened is “disturbing.”

Tossounian joins race for Regional councillor

Real life experience will help her serve Niagara Falls, she says

NEWS Aug 14, 2014 by Richard Hutton  Niagara This Week – Niagara Falls

NIAGARA FALLS — Real-life experience. It’s something that Jeanette Tossounian thinks sets her apart from other candidates seeking to represent the city at the Regional Council table.

“It’s very important to have a representative who knows reality more than concepts,” Tossounian said.

The Niagara Falls woman, who has run in past provincial and municipal campaigns, is running this time around for a spot as one of three Regional Councillors representing Niagara Falls.

“I’ve always wanted to run for Regional council,” she said, adding that she had considered it in 2010 but instead, chose to run at the city level.

She recently spent 18 months in prison after being convicted of setting fire to her St. Catharines art gallery but rather than hide from it, Tossounian, who described herself as a businesswoman, author and artist, said her experience actually will help her be a better advocate for people, especially women who have had trouble with the law.

She maintained she is innocent of the 2012 arson — she is appealing her conviction — and in fact had warned police that something was brewing.

“There were bullies in the business and the arts community,” she said. “I called the police 10 days before the gallery was set on fire and said something was going to happen.”

Now the she is free, she wants to help others; women in particular, make the transition back into society by setting up a Niagara chapter of the Elizabeth Fry Society.

“Men and women deal differently with issues and there and — probably because we have a jail here — there is more support for men.”

As for the issues facing Niagara, transit ranks high on Tossounian’s list.

“I was one of the people who helped push for regional transit,” she said, adding that she thinks the time has come to take the idea a step further by bringing in transit systems in Niagara Falls, St. Catharines and Welland into the Regional system.

“It just makes more sense to have one transit system,” she said. It will save costs.”

Economically, Niagara Falls needs to move away from a tourism-based economy. She proposes working toward the creation of neighbourhood hubs to promote the growth of small businesses.

“Close off streets, widen bike lanes,” she said. “My focus us actually making Niagara sustainable without tourism,” Tossounian said.

Toussounian’s candidacy brings to four, the number of people vying for three Niagara Falls sports on Regional council. The others are incumbents Selina Volpatti and Barbara Greenwood along with businessman Bob Gale.

Niagara Falls residents head to the polls October 27.


Why doesn’t the justice system help abused women?

Jeannette Tossounian

October 24, 2014

A woman is being abused by her partner. She calls 911 for help. The police arrive and… arrest the woman for defending herself.

Some are under the impression that when a woman is being abused by her male partner, all she has to do is call 911 and the police will arrive like knights in shining armour. The abusive man will be charged with assault and convicted. The rescued woman will be safe from harm.

However, this is not always the reality.

For many women in Canada who experience domestic abuse and decide to call the police, they often find when the police arrive, they are also arrested because of mandatory charge policies.

To boot, several of these women are put in jail, whether they fought back in defense or not.

According to a study conducted by The Women Abuse Council of Toronto in 2005, ‘Women Charged with Domestic Violence in Toronto: The Unintended Consequences of Mandatory Charge Policies‘, research on dual arrests and mandatory charge policies show that the use of force by women is in response to continuous abuse by their male partner.

Charging women only increases the risk of further abuse allowing the abuser to use the criminal justice system as a harming tool.

So, why do police officers arrest women who call the 911 for help?

“With any incident, whether domestic or not, if both parties involved have committed a criminal offence they can be arrested and held to account for the offences they have committed. Being the one who called police does not exempt anyone from any offence they may have committed,” says Constable Rich Gadreau of the Niagara Regional Police.

Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, a society that works with criminalized women, stands firm that the justice system is not helping battered women, but assisting in their harm.

“Abused women — who too often are not provided with state protection and are therefore essentially deputized and given the implicit message that they must protect themselves — are not only likely to be criminalized, but also imprisoned or otherwise institutionalized, if they act to defend themselves and/or others.”

A Toronto mother of two had to find this out firsthand.

“They arrested me because he had scratches on his face from my fingernails,” says Sharon* who was trying to defend herself from her husband who she said was drinking too much at the time.

“Later in jail my body was all black and blue. Well, I just plead guilty to get it over with. What was I supposed to do? I was in jail. I had to go home to take care of my kids. Too many women lose their kids and thank God I didn’t.”

In order to keep her children, Sharon agreed to stay with her abusive husband. Any other option would have left her without her children and in a shelter.

Sharon’s husband was never charged.

Domestic violence and incarceration affects the whole family and people feel at loss when trying to figure out how to deal with the criminal justice system.

“This situation wasn’t something our family had dealt with before from the side of being treated like a criminal,” says Ruth*, a retired senior citizen.

Recently Ruth had to bail her granddaughter, who just graduated from university, out of jail.

“It turns out this guy had a previous assault charge against him. We had no idea how the system worked, we had no one to turn to to find out what we should do. She had a part-time job, but earned too much for legal aid and too little to afford a lawyer so here we are. She did not see the inside of the court house again and in the end she was absolved and has no criminal record, but if you don’t have a Grandma and Grandpa who can put up the money what do these young women do?”

Currently across Canada, one person or both involved in the violence are charged right away with a criminal offense, taken to jail and through a costly justice system.

“Domestic situations are often difficult to investigate,” says Constable Rich Gadreau, “Especially considering police are called to a single point in time with two people that often have been together for many years. The incidences police respond to may not reflect the whole of the relationship but we must deal with the incident at hand.”

What should happen?

There must be an alternative system created to deal with domestic violence.

There is no doubt that the people involved need to be separated. However, criminal charges without knowledge of the circumstances just add more stress to an already stressful situation and makes criminals out of otherwise law-abiding people.

Once a person has a criminal record, their chance for survival in the legitimate world becomes minimal because the criminal justice system only encourages further abuse.

A manipulative partner can use the abused womans’ criminal record as leverage for further power and control.

Threatening to call the police, or to extort money or to take children if a women wants to leave the house are common. If a woman fears going back to jail, she will do anything not to provoke the situation.

There needs to be a separate system to step in and resolve violent domestic matters that also doesn’t re-victimize these abused women. Perhaps they will be safer.


*names have been changed for safety.

Jeannette Tossounian is a Canadian visual artist and writer who recently spent two years in maximum security at Vanier Centre for Women, a provincial jail in Ontario. While she is appealing her conviction, she is self-publishing the many books she wrote in jail as well as running for regional council in Niagara Falls while advocating for incarcerated women across the country. 




Artist free to break chains of imprisonment

By: Jen Zoratti


Artist Jeannette Tossounian was incarcerated for two years. That experience has had a profound effect on her work.

Jeannette Tossounian has been a professional artist for her entire adult life. Two years ago, she was also an inmate.

Tossounian, 40, served two years in maximum security at the Vanier Centre for Women in Milton, Ont. She was convicted of arson for burning down her own art studio in St. Catharines, Ont. — a crime she says she didn’t commit. Confined to her cell, she documented life in jail. She recorded the stories of her fellow inmates, as well as the violence, abuses of power and corruption she witnessed. When she got out, she turned her experiences, and those of the women she met, into art.

Tossounian is in Winnipeg this week as part of the University of Winnipeg’s Placing Justice conference, which runs until Wednesday. She’s exhibiting her large-scale sculpture the Human Kennel, named after her second book, which she self-published a few weeks ago. The Human Kennel serves as the compendium Songs from the Slammer — a collection of her prison sketches and poems. It’s raw work, poignant and plainspoken. A sketch of a bleeding heart with a dagger through it is accompanied by a description: “This is a tattoo I designed for an inmate with missing front teeth. She paid me with a pack of 10 instant coffees and a bottle of hair conditioner.”

The installation, meanwhile, features five stick figures — in the regulation green she wore for two years — behind bars. While the figures are faceless, their bodies communicate defiance, resignation, desperation. It was a concept she came up with while in jail. “It got me through my time,” she tells me. “Focusing on (my art) kept me sane.”

Tossounian is a gregarious woman with a generous laugh. She often speaks in fits and starts, her brain working faster than her mouth. For an hour, we talked about her trial, her life on the inside and her integration back into society.

She represented herself in her three-day trial. She didn’t testify. The Niagara Falls Review reported that court heard from 14 Crown witnesses — including three passersby who say they saw a woman with a gas can in her hand. Tossounian had a lighter on her when she was arrested and police testified she smelled like gasoline. Tossounian tells me she shut down when she saw her studio go up in flames; the judge said she should have been screaming, crying and begging for help. Tossounian was found guilty and sentenced to two years less a day.

She survived by making art and keeping detailed journals with golf-size pencils. She slowly collected coloured pencils, purchased from the canteen with money that relatives of inmates would put in her account. Full-size pencil crayons were a no-go because they could be weaponized, although she did see one shank made out of a toothbrush and a pencil.

“I wasn’t doing a personal journal — I was trying to be a journalist in jail, writing about what was around me so that people could understand,” she says. She wanted to put out an account of jail that was real and human. She laughs about the fact Orange is the New Black, the hit Netflix series based on the memoir by Piper Kerman, debuted when she was still in jail. “I kept asking for the book when I was i jail, but I don’t think they wanted it in the library.”

The stories she heard from fellow inmates are heartbreaking: about how they have kids or how they want to get married and have a normal life or how they are new to Canada and don’t understand why they are in jail. Tossounian says most institutional services are focused on addiction or mental health, not women looking to transition out of the system.

Tossounian has never been one to shy away from advocating for her fellow inmates. She was thrown in segregation three times for not wearing a bra; she ended up changing the mandatory bra policy. But that’s not the only legacy she’d like to leave. She’s hoping her books and her art change the way people think about incarceration in Canada.

“It’s a really crooked place. It’s all about power and control,” she says. She’s met abused women who have wound up in jail themselves for defending themselves, thanks to Ontario’s mandatory charge policy in domestic assaults. She says she gained 60 pounds and developed physical problems. She’s blunt about the psychological effects. “Well, I’m going to be f—ed up for the rest of my life because of this.”

Tossounian became a free woman two days after Christmas in 2013 — the first thing she did was order a chicken and rib combo from Swiss Chalet. She’s making art, and is engaged to be married, but life hasn’t been easy. Headlines calling her the “arsonist artist” are a Google search away, and she’s already been denied studio space in Ottawa. But she’s determined to get her stories out there.

“I’m hoping that eventually it will result in some sort of reform of the justice system,” she says.

“Basically, the majority of people in jail shouldn’t be there,” she says, noting that even if they have committed crimes — such as theft — there is usually a societal circumstance surrounding it. “It was a small percentage of women I met in jail who I found scary and wouldn’t want to see in society. Most of the girls who were in jail, it was a boyfriend who got them into drugs or prostitution.”

Topping her wish list are bail reform, parole reform and a move toward restitution instead of punishment.

“People come out worse. They don’t come out better. If you treat people like human beings, something might actually develop in that person.”

Tossounian speaks at the U of W today at 2:30 p.m. in room 2M70.



Former inmate says jail reforms long overdue

More from Andrew Duffy, Ottawa Citizen

Published on: June 1, 2016 | Last Updated: June 1, 2016 7:58 PM EDT

A former inmate at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre says government plans to improve the overcrowded and primitive facility are long overdue.

Jeannette Tossounian, 40, spent several weeks at the detention centre at the end of her two-year jail sentence for arson.

“I couldn’t believe how horrible it was,” she said Wednesday. “It was more like a homeless shelter than anything else.”

Tossounian said she was placed in a cold cell — “You could see your breath,” she said — with three other women and one bunk bed. Two women slept on mattresses on the floor, she said. One night, three women were on the floor when a fifth inmate was added to the cell.

A detention centre nurse, she said, offered her anti-depressants in order to better cope with the “primitive” jail. “They were offering people drugs just so people could bear the conditions in there,” she said. “I said, ‘No thanks.’”

A provincial task force issued 42 recommendations Wednesday to improve conditions at the Ottawa detention centre. Among other things, the task force called for sweeping bail reforms to reduce the number of people who are awaiting trial at the overcrowded facility.

“This should have been done years ago,” Tossounian said. “People who are waiting for a trial shouldn’t be in jail except in the most exceptional cases.”

In her own case, Tossounian said, she spent six months in pre-trial custody, which severely limited her ability to prepare or finance a legal defence.

In July 2012, Tossounian was found guilty of arson in connection with a fire at her St. Catharines art gallery and sentenced to two years in jail. She spent most of her time at the Vanier Centre for Women, and was transferred to the Ottawa detention centre a few weeks before her release.

Tossounian, an artist and writer, read more than 200 books during her incarceration, and wrote a series of books, including The Human Kennel about her jail experience.

“Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I think it was to keep me sane,” she said of her writing. “When I found myself in jail, I was watching all this stuff go on — I was watching all of these human rights violations — and I thought, ‘People need to know exactly what’s going on here,’ because I don’t think anybody knows the full extent of what they’re doing to people in jail.”

Tossounian said she spent a lot of her jail time in segregation because she refused to abide by a rule that required female inmates to wear a bra. She filed a human rights complaint about the practice. During her time in jail, Tossounian said, she also developed arthritis and put on a significant amount of weight.

Jail’s mandatory bra rule a ‘violation’: former inmate


How one woman’s fight against the ‘strap-in’ rule sparked a province-wide change in dress code.

Jeannette Toussounian refused to wear a bra in prison, and says she faced punishment for it, including time in solitary confinement.  (DAVE CHAN)

By CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDSStaff Reporter Toronto Star

Mon., Aug. 15, 2016

A former inmate says she was often forced to wear a bra against her will during two years in a GTA jail, landing her in solitary confinement but eventually triggering revised dress-code rules in women’s correctional facilities across the province.

Jeannette Tossounian, 40, has come forward about her battle against what she considered an “arbitrary” violation of her rights at the Vanier Centre for Women in Milton three years ago.

“I was told that my braless breasts could actually cause chaos,” she said. “If your nipples show through your shirt you could arouse the male guards,” she said correctional officials told her.

Until 2014, Vanier’s dress code required inmates to wear a bra and underwear at all times except when sporting pyjamas. That constituted “differential treatment based on sex,” according to Tossounian’s former lawyer Leslie Robertson.

Diana Majury, president of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said the issue boils down to bodily integrity.

“This was a breach of her human rights. It’s shocking to me. I can’t think why on earth, aside from wanting to control her, somebody would be required to wear a bra,” Majury said.

In October 2013, Tossounian launched a hunger strike after being placed in solitary confinement “over a friggin’ bra” — resisting the “strap-in policy,” she said.

After she spent 10 days in “the hole” with little more than toilet paper and a Bible, Vanier yielded, altering its dress code, she said.

“That violation was a really traumatizing experience, and this will affect me for the rest of my life,” said Tossounian, released in December 2013. “At one point the thought of killing myself went actually through my head.”

The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services officially abolished Vanier’s mandatory bra rule in April 2014. That year, the requirement was lifted at all provincial correctional institutions for women, Correctional Services said.

Spokesman Andrew Morrison would not comment on Tossounian’s allegations about being put in solitary confinement for her protest over being forced to wear a bra, citing privacy concerns.

“The overarching ministry policy for correctional facilities in Ontario specifies that wearing a bra is optional for female inmates. However, in the past, some correctional institutions had internal policies that required female inmates to wear bras,” Morrison said in an email.

“Those correctional institutions’ rules were modernized in spring 2014 to align with the ministry policy.”

Four provinces and one territory still require bras to be worn during the day, though not after lights out.

Faisal Bhabha, an associate professor of law at York University’s Osgoode Hall who specializes in constitutional law and human rights, said dress-code rules generally tend to single out women “far more often than men for reprimand and control” over what they wear. He cited former public school dress codes and expectations of “skimpy attire” in the hospitality industry.

“I think in all but rare cases, a rule requiring a bra with no exceptions or flexibility would be hard to justify according to the current legal test,” Bhabha said.

He added that “a good, evidence-based hygiene or safety rationale for requiring bras without exception” might justify the strap-in policy. “I doubt such an evidentiary record could be established.”

Spokespersons from most of the five jurisdictions where bras are mandatory did not provide justifications for the policy.

“Staff make these items available to ensure that inmates dress suitably and are not exposing body parts that would be considered inappropriate in a public setting,” Newfoundland Justice spokesman Luke Joyce said.

Some jurisdictions allow exceptions for medical reasons, such as a mastectomy.

Federal prisons do not require female inmates to wear bras.

A 1996 Ontario Court of Appeal decision granted women in the province the right to go topless in public, affirming equal treatment in the realm of public decency.

“The prison context is unique, as inmates by definition don’t enjoy the same freedoms that other Canadians do,” Bhabha said, noting rights can be curtailed but in an equitable fashion.

Tossounian was sentenced to two years for arson in July 2012 after it was alleged she burned down her own art gallery in St. Catharines. Now the owner of a bookstore in Rockland, Ont., Tossounian claims that she is innocent and is appealing the conviction.

Tossounian said the provincial jail bras “offer no support. “It’s this really flimsy sports bra. It was used by somebody else yesterday. There’s stains in the armpits.”

But her reasons for refusing to wear one are beside the point, she said. “It’s my personal space and it should be my right to choose.”

Tossounian’s first few months behind bars were relatively problem-free. The trouble started when several guards started to demand she wear the mandatory, jail-issue sports bra, setting off a year-long fight against the dress-code constraint.

In November 2012, Tossounian filed an official complaint to the ministry alleging that correctional officers put her in a segregation cell because she refused to wear a bra, citing discrimination based on sex.

She claims that she was charged with an internal misconduct and confined to a segregation cell from Nov. 1 to Nov. 15 — broken up by a three-day stint on section-wide lockdown in her usual cell.

“A few days later I was charged with another misconduct for saying I don’t want to wear a bra and was given five extra days to spend in jail from my early release date, December 2012, as further punishment,” she said.

The Elizabeth Fry Society confirmed that Tossounian filed an official complaint about the incident.

On Oct. 18, 2013, 10 days after Tossounian launched her hunger strike, a jail official told her the jail was striking bras from its list of mandatory clothing. As she returned to her regular cell from the hole that night, “everyone started yelling ‘Tossounian,’ and cheering me on,” she wrote in her journal, self-published as a book called The Human Kennel.

“I yelled back that I won, that the jail is changing their policy so we don’t have to wear bras — though most girls do anyway. Someone yelled ‘Everyone! Take off your bras!’ ”



Tossounian: There are real reasons why Ottawa needs a new jail

Jeannette Tossounian

Published:May 27, 2017Ottawa Sun Opinion

At the end of 2013, during Christmas, I spent two weeks at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre.

I was transferred to OCDC after spending time in two other provincial jails. The large super jail in Milton and the Lindsay jail are both considered much newer than OCDC yet were themselves in a state of aging and disrepair.

I know, jail is jail, right? Well, after spending two years at other institutions, arriving at OCDC was like going from a jail and into some kind of medieval torture chamber.

I was actually warned by other inmates during my transfer how bad the jail in Ottawa was. It was never the guards or administration they complained about, or at least no more than at any other jail; it was the building itself. The place is so old, the rumours all said it was haunted.

When I first arrived, I was put in a cell with bars to be processed. Bars? They stopped making cell with bars who knows how many years ago. And everything was opened with keys, not buzzed open electronically like in the modern facilities.

The place was freezing. I thought the other jails were cold, but at those sites I didn’t scrape frost off the windows and wear three layers of dirty sweaters under several blankets and see my breath thick in the air.

Oh, and then there were the bunk beds.

The other jails didn’t have rickety bunk beds stacked on top of one another but two firm bunks on either side of the cell. I could see the safety implications when they decided not to build stacked bunks in the newer jails especially when the top bars on the bunk would be the ideal place for a suicidal inmate to do their grim duty with a bedsheet.

Although the other jails were overflowing with inmates, there was perhaps only one extra inmate sleeping on the floor. At OCDC, there were often four or five extra inmates crammed into a two-person cell.

Anyone who has actually spent time in OCDC would no doubt say: Build a new jail as soon as possible.

I mean, the ministry is going to build more jails anyway and as a person who spent time in OCDC and might have to again, I’d rather it not be in a building were I am packed like a sardine in a can that is cold, leaky, mouldy and could make me physically sick.

I don’t agree with expanding corrections, incarcerating more people to fit bigger quotas and repackaging them as mental institutions, but keeping people in a prolonged state of torture in some archaic dungeon just to prove certain ideologies is not right.

By fighting the construction of a new jail, you are not really fighting the government as much as you are fighting the health and wellbeing of the inmates who are forced to live in a deplorable, rotting building.

Often we hear prisoner activists advocating on behalf of the inmates with mental-health concerns and this makes it seem that the jails are full of uneducated, dysfunctional, helpless causes and, yes, there are many cases as such, but if you have ever actually been incarcerated, you know that the jail population is far more diverse than that.

Jails are a cause of mental-health problems, so for corrections control of mental health care, you are endangering people who are functional, contributing citizens in society who find themselves now incarcerated and going through the emotional mental adjustments it takes to, well, become institutionalized.

This process causes the most self-assured people to start questioning their own sanity.

Most people think incarceration is something that happens to other people, like those low lifes over there, when, in reality, anyone could find themselves incarcerated.

If you found yourself locked in OCDC, you’d be advocating for a new building, too.

Do we need a new jail? Yes.

Do we need it bigger to incarcerate more people? No.

Should we be incarcerating people with mental illness? Hell no!

Jeannette Tossounian is a professional artist living in Ottawa and has published 2 books about her jail experience on She spent several weeks at the OCDC at the end of her nearly two-year sentence for arson. The Ontario government recently announced plans to build a new jail in Ottawa. No timeline has been given. 



Artist’s arson conviction set aside

By Bill Sawchuk, The Standard

Wednesday, July 26, 2017 10:49:17 EDT PM


A former Niagara Falls artist has had her conviction for arson set aside, and a new trial ordered.

Jeannette Tossounian was found guilty of arson and being in possession of incendiary materials in 2012 in connection with a fire that destroyed her art gallery at 107 Welland Ave. in St. Catharines.

The appeal’s panel of three judges ruled that the Crown failed to provide Tossounian with a proper disclosure of all the evidence it had.

The appeal court also found that the trial judge didn’t provide Tossounian with adequate assistance — particularly in failing to make sure she understood her right to full disclosure and the remedies available for the infringement of that right.

“The whole basis of the appeal was she was in custody and representing herself at the trial, so she was already at a disadvantage,” said Kristen Bailey, the lawyer who represented Tossounian at the Court of Appeals. “It turns out she didn’t have all the disclosure, including the important parts of the witness statements. She didn’t have the fire report for an arson. “

“Those are important parts of the disclosure. The court also found the trial judge didn’t offer her enough assistance. It comes down to the fact that Ms. Tossounian didn’t have a fair trial.”

Tossounian was arrested on Feb. 15, 2012, after the fire at what the trial heard was her art studio.

Three people in a passing car noticed the blaze and saw a female walking away from the site carrying a gas can.

They called police and followed the woman. When police arrived, they arrested Tossounian and found the empty gas can on the route she had taken. She had two lighters in her possession and smelled of gasoline.

She was sentenced to two years less a day. Tossounian spent 191 days in custody at the Vanier Institute in Milton.

She represented herself during her two-day trial. The Crown called 16 witnesses. Tossounian didn’t call any.

The only real issue at trial was her identity.

“I’m in shock,” Tossounian said. “I thought the appeal would be successful but, for it to finally happened after five-and-a-half years of waiting, I’m speechless.

“I was in jail the entire time, two years minus six weeks. I spent from February 16, 2012, to Dec. 27, 2013, in jail, two days after Christmas. A lot of it was in solitary confinement. It changes you.

“I was an innocent person, and there was no way I could express that or tell anybody about it. It was hard to deal with it.”

On appeal, the court ruled the Crown violated Tossounian’s Charter Rights by not taking adequate steps to ensure she received the full disclosure.

Tossounian was handed an initial 144-page package by the Crown in court in March of 2012. The Crown also delivered an additional package of more than 500 pages of disclosure to the Vanier Institute on June 25 — only eight days before the beginning of the trial — and instructed staff to place the package in her personal property at the jail.

It consisted of transcripts of the witness statements, a transcript of the Tossounian’s statement to the police, and reports from the Centre of Forensic Sciences as well as notices to tender expert evidence.

The appeal panel ruled that the Vanier Institute did not tell Tossounian about the additional disclosure, and, although it was placed with her property, the Tossounian was not aware of it until the trial had begun.

The Crown’s position on appeal was that Tossuonian was told at pre-trial that additional material would be coming — and that she didn’t exercise due diligence by asking the Crown if it had been sent.

Justice Russell Juriansz of the Court of Appeal for Ontario wrote the decision for the three-judge panel. He acknowledged that while there are complications in making disclosure to an unrepresented accused person in custody, that doesn’t alleviate the Crown of its duty to make sure the relevant materials made it into her hands.

Juriansz also wrote that there was evidence in the disclosure that Tossounian could have used to cross-examine and “diminish the reliability” of the witnesses who identified her.

Tossounian, who now lives in the Ottawa area, maintains her innocence. People had been targeting her in Niagara by doing things like breaking her windows, she said.

She added she was lucky to escape the fire.

She said she continues with her art and was painting when reached by phone for comment on her appeal.

While in jail, she said she wrote nine books, three of which were self-published including Songs from the Slammer, the Human Kennel and Jail Essays.

In Niagara, Tossounian tried her hand at politics and ran unsuccessfully for Niagara Falls council in 2010 and as an independent in the October 2011 provincial election.

Bailey said she didn’t know if the Crown would re-try Tossounian.

“The decision was just released,” Bailey said. “I spoke to the appellant Crown. She doesn’t make that decision. She gave me the contact information for the Crown in Niagara. I would expect they would decide in the next few weeks.”


Ontario Court of Appeal overturns arson conviction due to inadequate disclosure

Monday, July 31, 2017 @ 11:13 AM | By Ian Burns

  1. v. Tossounian 2017 ONCA 618

The Ontario Court of Appeal has ordered a new trial for a woman convicted of arson after she argued her rights to a fair trial were violated because the Crown failed to provide disclosure.
Kristin Bailey, Hicks Adams LLP

The appeal in R. v. Tossounian 2017 ONCA 618, stems from Jeannette Tossounian’s conviction in 2012 for arson after she allegedly set fire to an art gallery she owned in St. Catharines, Ont. She was in custody for 191 days at the Vanier Centre for Women in Milton, Ont., before and during the trial, and she was unrepresented throughout the proceedings

Despite being urged to talk to a lawyer, Tossounian said she would be representing herself as she had “never received good advice from a lawyer once in my life.” She did not call a defence, and the only issue at trial was identification. She claimed the evidence of the three witnesses who identified her were not reliable.

Her appeal advanced two issues: one, that her right to a fair trial and the right to make full answer and defence was compromised by the Crown’s failure to provide disclosure, and two, the trial judge failed to provide adequate assistance to her, particularly by failing to ensure she understood her right to full disclosure.

Justice Russell Juriansz, who wrote the unanimous opinion, agreed with Tossounian on both points. He was joined by Justices Sarah E. Pepall and Gary Trotter.

The constitutional right to disclosure of all material that could reasonably be of use in making full answer and defence of the case is guaranteed by s. 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In Tossounian’s case, the Crown provided a synopsis of its anticipated evidence as part of a 144-page disclosure package, and indicated transcripts of the witness statements and tests performed by the Centre for Forensic Sciences (CFS) would be provided.

Early in the trial, it was revealed Tossounian had not received a second disclosure package containing crime scene photographs and witness statements. The package had been kept in the office of the manager of the Vanier Institute, and Tossounian had not been informed it was there.

Tossounian’s appellate counsel, Kristin Bailey of Hicks Adams LLP, acknowledged her client was given a fair opportunity at trial to review the six photographs which were entered in evidence, but said she may have made use of the 165 photographs in total for her defence.

The court also noted transcripts of the witness statements were included in the second package, and Tossounian only received brief summaries.

“There are inconsistencies in these testimonies that could have been explored at trial,” the court said. “The appellant could have made use of this to suggest inadvertent collusion between the witnesses was possible, that it showed they had discussed their evidence and that discussion influenced their testimony.”

As a result, the court ruled the Crown failed to make full disclosure.

“I appreciate the complications in making disclosure to an unrepresented accused person who is in custody,” the court said. “The Crown must resolve these complications in order to fulfil its responsibility to ensure the relevant materials make it into the hands of an in-custody accused.”

The court also ruled the trial judge, Justice Barry Herriot Matheson of the Superior Court of Justice, failed to provide the requisite assistance to Tossounian, “particularly on the issue of disclosure.”

“As soon as it seemed there was a problem of disclosure, it was the duty of the trial judge to make the necessary inquiries and to take the necessary steps to ensure that the unrepresented accused received full disclosure and that she fully understood her rights to disclosure and the available remedies for infringement of those rights,” the court said.

The court set aside the finding of guilt and ordered a new trial.

Bailey said she hoped the court’s decision would provide a “strong message on being proactive” when dealing with disclosure to self-represented accused, especially those being held in custody.

“The Crown didn’t go far enough,” she said. “They didn’t take that extra step. They technically did what they had to do, but failed to consider the fact that [Tossounian] was in custody.”

Bailey said most judges are “pretty careful” when dealing with self-represented accused, but the decision just helps to reinforce the obligation to be extra vigilant.

Emilie Smith, senior co-ordinator of media relations for the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General, said it would be “inappropriate to comment on the case as it is currently within the appeal period.” The Ontario Court of Appeal has ordered a new trial for a woman convicted of arson after she argued her rights to a fair trial were violated because the Crown failed to provide disclosure.
Posted on Thursday, August 3rd, 2017 at 1:25 p.m.

Artist gives back to community with mural

By Alexia Marsillo

Jeanette Tossounian, a Canadian artist from Ontario who moved to Bourget a few years ago, is in the midst of painting a mural along the Prescott-Russell Recreation Trail near the Bourget Pavilion. This project is in collaboration with the Prescott-Russell Trail Corporation, the City of Clarence-Rockland and other members of the community. 



The Trail Corporation and the City put up money for the paint and supplies and, for the rest, Tossounian has started a GoFundMe page. “Most artists will raise the money in advance of the project, but I just really wanted to do this,” said Tossounian. “So I figured I’ll just go and do it and see what I can come up with along the way.” Tossounian takes this laid back attitude with most – she has an idea in her mind of what she wants to paint on the mural but nothing set in stone. So far, she has painted a beaver dam, some Canadian flags, a train (to represent the Bourget Train Station) and a moose. The only aspect Tossounian is certain of is that the focus of the mural is the recreational trail of Bourget through the years. Other than that, she is doing research on some of its history and simply letting herself be inspired by the things she sees and the people she encounters along the way.


Tossounian has been an artist her entire life, even when she did not know it yet. “I actually never wanted to be an artist, I wanted to be a veterinarian,” said Tossounian. “But I was always doing art and making things and selling them to my friends in school. The next thing you know I was taking art classes in College just until I got to University and then the next thing you know I was opening up my own art gallery. It was all kind of serendipitous.” Now, she works mostly from home in Bourget but also has a studio in Ottawa and gets most of her business these days through private commissions. “Everything is so digital nowadays that actually people are reverting back to wanting something real,” said Tossounian.


Tossounian has led an interesting life, to say the least. She was convicted of arson in 2012 in connection to a fire that destroyed her art studio and spent almost two years in the Ottawa Carlton Detention Centre. She has always maintained her innocence, and the case is presently up for review in which the Court of Appeal has set her conviction aside and ordered a new trial.

While in detention, Tossounian became a self-journalist – documenting everything she saw and heard – and gathered the stories of the women she met there.


After her release, she self-published those documentations into three novels and became an advocate for justice reform and criminalized women. Tossounian was also one of the first people to have a medical marijuana club in Kitchener, Ontario, working with Health Canada and pushing for it to become legal. “Being in a relationship with someone who is on the cutting edge of a lot of just general human respect and decency issues and how we look at other people and their pasts blows me away,” said Matt Paul, Tossounian’s life partner.


However, Tossounian has presently set aside some of her activism in order to just focus on her art. “Right now, I’m really just working on the mural and I go back and forth between things when I have time for them or when an issue I care about comes up,” said Tossounian. For this summer, at least, Tossounian’s cause is the mural along the Recreation Trail in Bourget; giving back to a community she now calls her home.




Arson charge stayed against former Niagara artist

By Alison Langley, Niagara Falls Review

Friday, October 27, 2017 4:46:05 EDT PM


A charge of arson has been stayed against a former Niagara Falls artist less than four months after Ontario’s court of appeal granted her a new trial.

Jeannette Tossounian was found guilty of arson and being in possession of incendiary materials in 2012 in connection with a fire that destroyed her art gallery at 107 Welland Ave. in St. Catharines.

The Crown stayed the charge Wednesday in an Ontario Superior Court in St. Catharines. A stay means the case is essentially on hold. Stayed charges can be resurrected within 12 months from the day they are stayed.

“I am extremely happy to end this,” Tossounian said. “I didn’t want to go through a re-trial as it would have re-victimized me and I have gone through more trauma than what most could handle.”

Tossounian, 41, has always maintained her innocence.

“Continuing to try to convict an innocent person, who never has had any actual evidence against them and is the victim of the crime, I don’t think is in the public interest.”

After her conviction, Tossounian spent 191 days in custody at the Vanier Institute in Milton. She said she was put into solitary confinement for defending her civil right not to be forced to wear a bra.

“Spending two years locked in maximum security and solitary confinement has changed me forever,” she said.

Tossounian was arrested on Feb. 15, 2012, after a fire at her art studio.

Three people in a passing car noticed the blaze and saw a female walking away from the site carrying a gas can. When police arrived, they arrested Tossounian and found the empty gas can on the route she had taken. She had two lighters in her possession and smelled of gasoline.

She represented herself at trial. The Crown called 16 witnesses. Tossounian didn’t call any.

The only real issue at trial was her identity.

The Court of Appeal for Ontario ruled in July the Crown violated Tossounian’s Charter Rights by not taking adequate steps to ensure she received the full disclosure.

Tossounian was handed an initial 144-page package by the Crown in court in March of 2012. The Crown also delivered an additional package of more than 500 pages of disclosure to the Vanier Institute on June 25 — only eight days before the beginning of the trial.

Justice Russell Juriansz of the Court of Appeal for Ontario, who wrote the decision for the three-judge panel, said there was evidence in the disclosure that Tossounian could have used to cross-examine and “diminish the reliabity” of the witnesses who identified her.

The appeal court also found that the trial judge didn’t provide Tossounian with adequate assistance — particularly in failing to make sure she understood her right to full disclosure and the remedies available for the infringement of that right.

She wrote nine books while behind bars, including Songs from the Slammer, the Human Kennel and Jail Essays.

After her court appearance Wednesday, Tossounian set up an easel across from the court house and painted a picture of the court building. She called the work Victory at the House of Persecution.

In Ottawa on Friday, Tossounian received the 2017 Civil Liberties Award from the Ontario Civil Liberties Association. She spoke about her work and life experience related to civil rights and liberties.

“I have been publicly speaking about all this for some time and continue to advocate for prisoners, particularly incarcerated women, as well as continue to make changes to unjust policies,” she said.

While she now lives in Ottawa, she still considers Niagara her home.

“I may return to Niagara in the future if I feel safe from my haters who did this to me.”

Tossounian tried her hand at politics and ran unsuccessfully for Niagara Falls council in 2010 and as an independent in the October 2011 provincial election.



Release: Jeannette Tossounian to Receive the 2017 OCLA Civil Liberties Award

Posted on October 16, 2017 by Joseph Hickey

(Ottawa, October 16, 2017) — The Ontario Civil Liberties Association (OCLA) will present its 2017 Civil Liberties Award to Jeannette Tossounian at a public event in Ottawa, Ontario, on Friday October 27 (7pm, PSAC building, 233 Gilmour St., Ottawa, Ontario).

Senator Kim Pate, defender of women prisoners’ rights, will introduce the award recipient.

Ms. Tossounian will speak about her work and life experience related to civil rights and liberties, followed by a question-answer and discussion period open to the participating public.

Jeannette Tossounian is a life-long artist, author, and an authentic and dedicated defender of civil rights. She was self-represented and was wrongly convicted in a trial in which the Crown violated its disclosure obligations (see 2017 appeal decision, link here). She spent
two years in harsh conditions in an Ontario jail for women. She was put into solitary confinement for defending her prisoner’s civil right not to be forced to wear a bra. Her 2016 book The Human Kennel, which was written in jail, is a compelling and incisive examination of inner and institutional life behind bars. This quote illustrates Ms. Tossounian’s spirit:

“I doubt I’ll make parole, I’m not into submitting to a corrupt unjust system and telling them what a bad person I have been and how much I’ve changed for the better thanks to my incarceration. … I still have my mind and won’t lose what is inside of me.”

Her continued revelations and commentary are helping to reform police and prison practices in the province.

Past recipients of the OCLA Civil Liberties Award were Harry Kopyto (2013), Terri-Jean Bedford (2014), Connie Fournier (2015), and Bruce Allan Clark (2016).

The OCLA thus co-celebrates its five-year anniversary and hopes the free public event will be an occasion for meetings and discussions on these vital issues.


Artist | Author | Activist

%d bloggers like this: