Robyn Doolittle is on her way to an 8 p.m. synchronized ice-skating practice. Even though her schedule is packed with speaking engagements for her book Had It Coming: What’s Fair in the Age of #MeToo, full-time investigative work at the Globe and Mail, plus a baby and a toddler at home, she relishes the ice time. “I started when I was nine and I thought I would be done by now. But I couldn’t imagine not skating. It’s fun to completely check out of journalism and politics, and I love the nonsensical drama of adult figure skating.” For example, Doolittle was kicked off her last synchronized team for missing tryouts when she was nine months pregnant. She found this out while in labour. Not about to be benched, Doolittle started her own team.
That kind of perseverance is even more prominent in her professional life. Doolittle is one of the most recognizable names in Canadian journalism. In 2013, working as a Toronto Star reporter on the City Hall beat, Doolittle broke the Mayor Rob Ford substance abuse story, and was one of the first to see and report on the infamous crack smoking video. “I’m just a newspaper reporter,” says Doolittle. “I was covering City Hall and the Mayor stopped showing up. I was curious as to where he was.”
In 2017, her Unfounded series for the Globe and Mail resulted in Canadian police departments across the country auditing 37,000 previously closed sexual assault files and led to a systemic change in the way police now handle these types of charges. The genesis for this, Doolittle explains in her book, was that after the CBC host Jian Ghomeshi’s trial she “wondered if the Canadian justice system was rigged against sexual assault complainants… [and] could [she] prove conclusively that rape cases were being mishandled.”
These two high-profile newspaper investigations led to bestselling books, a Journalist of the Year award in 2017, and superhero status within the journalism community. “The thing that I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that there’s really no replacement for basic hard work,” she says. “You don’t need to be a genius to do this job. You just need to be willing to call the 500 John Smiths in the phonebook. In the early part of my career, I made a name for myself in the newsroom by just putting in the extra call or being willing to sit outside and wait longer than other people.”
Doolittle broke the Mayor Rob Ford substance abuse story, and was one of the first to see and report on the infamous crack video.
From a very young age, says Doolittle, a Sarnia, Ont., native, “I wanted to know why a rule was a rule, and I really pushed back against rules for rules’ sake.” This included citing a tenet of British etiquette to a teacher as a reason why the ban on wearing hats indoors did not apply to her and the other girls in class. “I was probably a very irritating student,” she admits. But Doolittle ended up in a field where this kind of questioning of authority is required. “Now I feel a responsibility to do that,” she says, “As long as you remember, don’t make it personal. I have a job to do, I need to conduct myself professionally and be fair to everyone — to the powerful, and even to the ‘bad guys.’”
But fairness isn’t always black and white, as Doolittle realized in the writing and promoting of Had It Coming. In her dissection of rape culture, consent, the justice system and how #MeToo can move forward, she gives voice to complainants, sexual assault prosecutors and prominent feminists from different generations but she also examines polarizing aspects of the issue, including giving men a voice. In fact, she interviews and details the rehabilitation of former Federal Court Justice Robin Camp, who infamously asked a woman in court why she “didn’t just keep her knees together.”
“I spend a lot of time looking at due process, false accusations and the question of redemption. These are the third- rail issues where the [prevailing] opinion is, ‘Why [focus] on what men want to talk about in this unprecedented moment when we’re hearing from women?’” Doolittle knows there is no perfect solution, but she makes an argument to have “faith and patience in people, for there to be space for people to say stupid things and then grow.”
Doolittle hopes to personally evolve with each investigation and has a preference for the kinds of stories she wants to be remembered for. “I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t interested in trying to do something so that I’m not the Rob Ford girl for the rest of my life,” she says. “I’ll probably retire with the Unfounded series being the thing I’m most proud of. It was a unicorn investigation that came together in the most perfect way and landed at a time when the culture was really ready for it. There was tremendous action out of it and it’s an example of why journalism is so important.” In figure skating terms, a perfect 10.