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Martensville: Truth or Justice? the Story of the Martensville Daycare Trials

by Frann Harris

The Sterling family – Ron, Linda, and Travis – along with a young offender who cannot be identified, were accused of sexually abusing children in Martensville, Saskatchewan, just outside Saskatoon, in the early 1990s.

While Linda ran the daycare, her husband Ron, a guard at a correctional facility, spent time hanging around the daycare, as did their son Travis, then in his late teens and early 20s. The young offender was a female boarder at the Sterling home, where the daycare was based.

Martensville author Frann Harris, an educator turned journalist, argues that the Martensville case – which yielded two original convictions, one of which was set aside and the other reduced on appeal – is not about whether justice was served but about the way in which police forces investigate allegations of child sexual abuse and the “difficulty of assessing the testimony of children.”

Harris avoids a just-the-facts-ma’am retelling of the trials, focusing instead on court transcripts, academic sources, and the testimony of expert witnesses to question the “linear” process of Canadian law and to ask whether it serves the needs of the children or simply the procedures set down by law enforcement and judicial officials.

Harris makes a few spot-on observations of Prairie society, commenting on the Prairie “uniform” (jeans) and Prairie towns (“short on privacy, long on gossip”), and she uses striking imagery to describe the surroundings, but these disappear early on, replaced by increasingly annoying fits of conjecture (she wonders if Linda Sterling ever dreamed of a career, perhaps as an artist) and gross generalizations (“farm people are tough, smart, and family-oriented”). Her bathroom conversations and hallway asides are, surprisingly, well placed and compelling, and she demonstrates clearly how the usual courtroom assumptions – that the only credible testimony is consistent testimony, for example – don’t apply to children given their cognitive development.

If there are lessons to be learned from the Martensville case, Harris argues that they must be applied to disclosure and prosecutorial procedures so that “a better body of evidence” is created. Then, the author argues, cases will not only satisfy child welfare advocates but will also stand up in court.