National Post Barbara Kay: Text messages exonerate Jessica Mulroney after she was cancelled last summer

National Post - Thursday January 21st, 2021

Jessica Mulroney Photo by Jessica Mulroney /Instagram

“Cancel culture” is pandemic today, but the virus was already in patchy play 30 years ago.

In 1991, Toronto journalist and social activist June Callwood was charged with racist behaviour by a Black staff member of Nellie’s women’s shelter, one of 50 social organizations Callwood helped establish in her lifetime. The staffer accused Callwood of being “a woman of privilege who was unwilling to share power.” Callwood challenged her, then was shocked when her fellow board members refused to support her.

Worse, Callwood couldn’t believe that none of the media pilers-on ever bothered to ask for specifics of the allegation. “That didn’t seem to be the point,” she said in an interview. The point, Callwood wryly concluded, was that “the hounds were after the fox.”

The contours of Callwood’s case map a classic mobbing, which usually involves a popular high achiever who is targeted by peers. (Mediocre performers tend not to arouse the eliminative impulse.) They form around the accuser as a unanimous hostile pack. The charges tend to be holistic in character — “racist,” “transphobe” — or fuzzy (“woman of privilege”). The rhetoric becomes melodramatic. Most important, the accused is not accorded due process.

These metrics also apply to a mobbing that took place last June in Toronto, at the height of the moral panic following the wholly awful Minnesota police killing of George Floyd.

On May 31, the mobbing of PR/marketer and stylist Jessica Mulroney was seeded when Black Toronto influencer Sasha Exeter put a call-to-action video on her Instagram (IG) feed, directing followers to post anti-racism messages in solidarity with Black Lives Matter (BLM). Although Jessica follows Sasha, they were not friends. Their professional paths occasionally crossed, because both had partnerships with similar fashion and lifestyle brands.

Jessica says she missed the video. The finale of her CTV reality show, “I Do, Redo” — in which disastrous weddings get a makeover by Jessica — was airing that night and, as she was contractually obliged to, she was busy promoting it. By coincidence, without prompting from Sasha, Jessica had posted a quote from Martin Luther King to signal quiet support for anti-racism. Sasha found this anodyne gesture completely inadequate to the occasion.

And here Jessica’s troubles began.

But that is a small, and entirely misleading, part of the conversation.

Sasha responded to the MLK quote in a sarcastic direct message (DM), “oh my goodness smh (shaking my head). Hmmmmm.” Bewildered, Jessica replied, “Why? Was my Martin Luther King quote offensive?”

Soon enough, Jessica famously told Sasha the following: “If you go to the press over this nonsense and threaten to go to your followers, I won’t be afraid to go to brands and tell them what you are doing to me.”

But that is a small, and entirely misleading, part of the conversation. Their lengthy exchange provided to me by Jessica, played out first in DMs and then in phone texts, would strike any reasonable observer as a complete exoneration of Jessica from all the false allegations of racist bullying that were to come from Sasha Exeter, charges that would rally the “hounds” to a hunt that led to Jessica’s complete professional cancellation and social shunning, entailing such profound feelings of humiliation and despair, including suicidal ideation, that she has required medication and psychiatric treatment ever since.

While I can’t know for sure that I have all exchanges, the messages — eight pages printed out — appear to reveal the ineluctable truth that Jessica Mulroney did nothing wrong. Jessica is the furthest thing from a racist.

CTV executives have been in possession of the message stream since October, Jessica informed me, but have apparently chosen to sit on them (they were also made aware of Jessica’s perilous mental state). Otherwise in the mainstream media, only the National Post has seen the messages. The first time I spoke with Jessica, she sobbed with gratitude: I was the sole journalist in Canada or beyond to seek her side of the story in good faith.

Even Canadians with no interest in Jessica’s professional world will likely recognize Jessica’s name. First, because she is married to former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s son Ben, who works in entertainment media (they have been dubbed Toronto’s “power couple”). And also because of her close friendship with Meghan Markle, established long before Markle met Prince Harry.

The Mulroney family’s insider role in the royal wedding thrust Jessica into a limelight that on the one hand conferred positive professional exposure, but on the other ignited raging envy and resentment amongst a status-obsessed female cohort in the gossip/entertainment/fashion domain, for whom tall poppies like Jessica are just begging for a “punching up” (permitted treatment of those with higher status or privilege).

(Speaking of Meghan, and this is the only mention I will make of her, as Jessica is sick to death of media pressure to talk about her, which she constantly resists: The shamelessly factitious Daily Mail “reported” that Meghan made statements suggesting she was disappointed in Jessica’s conduct. A reliable source has confirmed that is a lie.)

The kiss of death for Jessica was a lachrymose 12-minute video Sasha posted June 10 on IG, titled “My Amy Cooper Experience.” (White New Yorker Cooper achieved notoriety in October for a filmed act of racism against a Black man.) Sasha says, “Listen, I’m by no means calling Jess a racist but what I will say is this: She is very well aware of her wealth, her perceived power, and privilege because of the colour of her skin. And that, my friend, gave her the momentary confidence to come for my livelihood in writing. Textbook white privilege really, in my personal opinion.”

Of course, by linking Jessica to Amy Cooper, Sasha is indeed calling Jessica a racist. The allusion to Jessica’s wealth is also a bit rich, given Sasha grew up with financial privilege that permitted her full athletic and educational realization. Her parents live next door to supplement child care.

Sasha claims Jessica sent her “a trail of offensive messages.” She calls Jessica’s behaviour “an attempt to silence a Black woman during this movement behind closed doors.” She claims she waited a full week after the alleged bullying to make the video because she was “(a)ctually paralyzed in fear.” From time to time Sasha seems to choke up, and at the end wipes away an apparent tear.

The video went viral, with more than a million views to date.

Within days, Jessica’s career was in tatters. Corporations with whom she had enjoyed profitable affiliations — the loss of Hudson’s Bay (Kleinfeld Bridal) stung most painfully — abruptly ended their partnerships with her. Her regular appearances on Rogers’ Cityline evaporated.

Jessica-bashing spread like an oil slick all over CTV. Lainey Lui, Melissa Grelo (a “friend” of Jessica), Marci Ien (Sasha Exeter’s aunt, one of Jessica’s most vocal detractors and now a Liberal MP) and Jess Allen, all then hosts on CTV’s daytime talk show The Social, fell upon the story with glee. They repeatedly defenestrated Jessica. The irony here is that while Lainey has been happy to play enthusiastic hound to Jessica’s fox on her blog, it was a different story for Lui when news of her own troublesome 2006 tweets surfaced (of Janet Jackson: “worst ghetto tits”). In late June, Lainey was given on-air time to apologize, and the same women compassionately midwifed her rehabilitation.

Tracy Moore, host of Cityline, was also Jessica’s “friend.” Moore posted on her IG feed following the video: “Here’s what I know: @JessicaMulroney used her extreme privilege to potentially bury a Black sister. @sashaexeter took a brave step telling her story. Believe Black women….” Then — bizarrely — she ends with evidence that Jessica is not a racist: “Jess has sat on the phone as I bawled, coaxing me, soothing me, lifting me up. She has helped me in ways both big and small with my fashion side hustle. She’s strategized with me, ate with me, laughed like crazy with me time and time again. And that’s what makes this so hard. I am a friend. I am also a Black woman …”

Bell Media, which owns CTV, put out a statement on June 11 affirming its commitment to “listen to and amplify Black voices, and not to minimize them.” Because “recent conduct by one of our show hosts, Jessica Mulroney, conflicts with our commitment to diversity and equality,” the statement concludes, “CTV has removed ‘I do, Redo’ from all Bell media channels and platforms effective immediately.” All photos of Jessica were removed from their site. Jessica was “disappeared” from Bell/CTV history. Ben Mulroney, a CTV eTalk anchor for 18 years, resigned from what had become an untenable position, although he continues to host Your Morning.

Don’t ever compare yourself to me. Ever.

Bell’s lofty statement sits awkwardly beside its apparent failure to verify the specifics of Jessica’s alleged racist “conduct.” Jessica says Bell did not consult with her before taking action. When I sent a media query to Bell in an effort to confirm this, Scott Henderson, then Bell/CTV’s VP Communications, responded: “We have no additional comment on this matter — other than to clarify that Jessica Mulroney was never an employee of Bell Media.” True, she was only under contract with them, but she was also the source of all their ad revenues from “I Do, Redo.”

Jessica has been quite open in the past about her struggles with anxiety. Given her present extreme fragility, which Jessica ascribes in large part to the brutality of Bell/CTV’s public shaming of her, there is a certain irony in Bell Media’s proud self-branding as an ally in de-stigmatizing mental health afflictions.

The video gave Sasha’s career a huge boost. Her IG following increased by 300 per cent. Plans for TV work accelerated. She’s on all Toronto’s Top Ten and Twenty lists. The Dec. 14 issue of Hello!Canada features a lavish 10-page fashion spread of Sasha and her little daughter, complete with fawning interview. I’ve read or listened to several Sasha interviews. They all mention Sasha’s “bullying” ordeal with a kind of reverence. Nobody ever asks for evidence to support her allegations.

Sasha declined my request for an interview.

In the May 31 message exchange, following Jessica’s puzzled query about her MLK post, Sasha writes, “You have a large following and should be posting about BLM not promoting your show.” Jessica responds: “I’ve spoken out about racism before. I believe that the real work needs to be teaching my children, doing work behind the scenes.”

In fact, Jessica has done a good deal of diversity-related community service “behind the scenes.” She was, at the very time Sasha began hectoring her, working with a continuing education organization within Toronto’s Black community, whose objective was to encourage businesses to offer young Black men and women internships and jobs in the tech and hospitality sectors. As well, when COVID restrictions began, Jessica turned her Sunday afternoons over to a “female empowerment” project, organizing remote meetings where diverse female small-business entrepreneurs could take counsel from friends of Jessica who are experts in finance, manufacturing and digital space.

Jessica takes greatest pride in the Shoebox Project she and her Mulroney sisters-in-law started 12 years ago, which provides holiday gifts for women in shelters, a touch of luxury for disadvantaged women in straitened circumstances, with special care taken to make the gifts for Indigenous women culturally appropriate.

But to me, the best evidence of her goodwill is the exchange with Sasha. Here’s how that unfolded over several days:

June 1

Sasha responds to Jessica’s statement that she believes in fighting racism “behind the scenes.” She says she “can’t find the words” to express her displeasure. “I am deeply disappointed in the response.” Then, ominously, “But your response will be discussed with my community and followers.”

This speaks to me as a direct threat to expose Jessica publicly in a potentially damaging light. Jessica told me she found it incomprehensible and alarming. What was so terrible in what she had said? Sasha goes on: “If you cannot be uncomfortable for a few minutes and fear what people will say to you, just imagine how ppl of colour have felt their entire lives. It is a cop out. It is cowardly. It is sad and pathetic.”

At this point, Jessica told me, she was in a state of shock. She reaches out to dial down the tension: “Hey girl. I’d love to chat with you.” They talk. It seems to go well. Jessica tags Sasha on IG: “Thanks Sasha. I appreciate your kindness and understanding. You really opened my eyes and I appreciate it more than you know.”

Now they move from DMs to text messages. Jessica asks Sasha if it is true, as friends had told her, that Sasha was directly targeting her in the call-to-action post that Jessica says she never saw.

Sasha: “I SURE DID….I posted it the night I originally sent you that message…Sorry. Not sorry.“

Jessica: “Just seemed unnecessary.” …

Sasha: “So was your relentless promoting posts” (she apparently meant contractually obligatory posts on I Do, Redo.)

Jessica: “like your Tetley Tea post” (Sasha was also posting her brand ads as she was obliged to).

Sasha: “…Don’t ever compare yourself to me. Ever.”

Jessica: “Give people time to do the right thing.”

Sasha (again): “Don’t ever compare yourself to me. Especially right now.”

Jessica: “I thought I deserved a conversation before calling me out.”

Sasha: “Girl, everyone is calling you out. You were not dialed in to see that.”

Jessica: “(then) I guess our friendship wasn’t what I thought. I tried my best to make it right.”

Sasha: “DO NOT MAKE YOURSELF THE VICTIM HERE! …Not one person that I called out for their poor judgment and behaviour was ‘disappointed’ or did make it about themselves. Nor did they have the balls to compare themselves to me as a black woman and what I’m (putting) on my feed.” You still have a lot of work to do moving forward. That is clear.”

June 2

Jessica hopes the dialogue has run its course. But the next day, in the evening, Sasha continues to express anger.

Sasha: “I’ve lost all respect for you” (Jessica believes Sasha is still dwelling on Jessica’s allegedly inadequate response to the call-to-action Jessica never saw.)

Jessica: “I’m sorry you feel that way. Was only trying to help and learn from you…I believe working together is the answer. Do you? I tried to make a conversation happen. I was just hurt.”

Sasha: “Honestly, I think I’m done with this conversation. You are not Woke and you won’t be. Ever. You’re scared which is probably why your account is private and you’re taking a social media ‘break.’ Girlfriend, you aren’t fooling anyone. This entire thread is proof that you have not learned one thing. I cannot devote energy to ignorance. I am very sad because I foolishly expected different.”

(Jessica had made her account private because of a separate issue: a fake story from the Daily Mail, for which she was being attacked online. Sasha apparently took it personally.)

Jessica: “You have no idea what goes on behind my closed doors. But think what you like. I’m a good person.”

Sasha: “Especially since you seem to have (friends) who are black.”

Jessica: “I hope you realize I was only trying to do the right thing the right way with your guidance. I’ve been hated before and I’ll be hated again.”

Sasha: “Sad. Still selfishly making this ALL about you.”

Jessica: “No. It’s about wanting your help. That’s so selfish. But think what you want.”

Jessica: “My only way is to do things the right way. I thought you could help me. If that’s selfish, I’m sorry. I don’t want animosity. Truly.”

Jessica: “I have 400k followers that I would NEVER threaten you with like you did to me about not being ready to speak out. It’s not how I believe change works.”

June 3

(Jessica says she is now fearful of where Sasha’s anger will take her, and the fulsome apologies begin)

Jessica: “I had a moment to think and I want to apologize. I was wrong. Comparing myself to you was wrong and what you are doing is all the good the world needs. I will do better and be better. I am not a fighter. I’m a lover. But I went about it the wrong way. Please accept my sincerest apologies.” (Jessica tells me she is not sure why at this point she is still apologizing; she thought it might tone down the anger.)

Sasha: “I noticed you blocked me.”

Jessica: “I did not take time to realize I was not approaching the right way and needed space. I was wrong and am sorry. Truly. There is no need for hate right now. I’ll do better. I hope we can get back to a good place. This is why I wanted to be thorough and thoughtful about what I say (on IG). Anyway, I hope you will take my apology under consideration. Only love and respect for you. But what you said. It’s not about me. It’s about a larger issue and speaking up is the only answer. Thank you for enlightening me.”

Sasha: “This is ALL kinds of wrong and shows how much you’ve tried to exercise your privilege in this situation. Your comments in yesterday’s text thread are so problematic, you have no idea. It’s textbook Amy Cooper.”

Sasha: “just a heads up, 3 media/news outlets have contacted my assistant this morning for comments and interviews this morning.”

(This puts Jessica into a panic. She tells me later she was terrified Sasha would do an interview with a tabloid that has trolled her for years.)

Jessica: “Sasha, we are not always reasonable in moments of shame. I’m sorry. That’s all I can say. Emotions are running high and I guess I felt embarrassed that you called me out. I received many calls about it and it hurt. But let’s move forward. I realize I was wrong and I’m trying to apologize. But if you don’t want to understand me then I get it.”

(Silence from Sasha.)

Jessica: “Well, your silence is understood. We don’t always do it the right way. But we learn from our mistakes. Take care.” (Jessica tells me she is still unsure what her mistake is or was. The MLK quote? Sasha never specified.)

(Finally Jessica breaks.)

Jessica: “If you go to the press over this nonsense and threaten to go to your followers, I won’t be afraid to go to brands and tell them what you are doing to me.”

Then, immediately:

Jessica: “Sasha, I just want to sincerely apologize for the back and forth for the past few days. I was naive in thinking that because I used previously and always try to help that I had done enough. But clearly I didn’t. That was a huge oversight on my part. I just (should) have been faster to show my support. I’m grateful that you encouraged. Thanks so much for talking to me. It’s not your job but it meant a lot. When I get threatened by the media, it hurts. Because I’ve been vilified and that sets me off. I handled this wrong. I just want you to know that I’m in the wrong. I hope we can talk properly. I have no animosity towards you. I want to work this out. I’m sorry. I should never have threatened you. You are a good person. Better than me. Let’s talk. Please. I can’t make it up to you but I want the opportunity to be better.”

(Silence from Sasha.)

June 4

Jessica: “I woke up this morning still shook by what I said to you (Jessica is referring to the threat to contact the brands). I should have never said that. I thought you were threatening me to go to the press and my emotions took the better of me. But now reading your comments back, I know you weren’t. I’m embarrassed by my behaviour. I hope one day you will forgive me. Best, Jess.”

(Silence from Sasha)

June 8

Jessica: “I’ve done a lot of thinking and learning. I don’t want any animosity with you. I respect you. What I realize is that my problems are not the world’s problems. I am so protective of my life I’ve worked hard for but it should never have been about me. My world is not THE world.”

Painful reading, is it not?

There was a later exchange, after the video came out, in which Jessica alluded to a potential libel suit. She told me she was on medication at the time, and in a state of high anxiety late at night. She never followed through.

She told me that she had deleted one of her own messages. I asked if there was anything that could be considered threatening or insulting and she swears it was not. She said the texts referred to the brand she could contact, and she didn’t want them implicated in the controversy.

If the messages I have seen are otherwise a complete record then Jessica did nothing wrong. Sasha not only threatened Jessica first, she never withdrew the threat even after Jessica’s multiple apologies for a “crime” that was never defined. Jessica’s threat was a desperate hail-Mary pass to make the bullying stop, and even then was immediately followed by more grovelling apologies. Yet it was on the basis of Sasha’s alleged fear for her career and safety that observers felt Jessica deserved to be cancelled.

The Black Lives Matter movement has educated the world on some stark realities. But any movement can overreach, producing collateral damage. If a disagreement over Instagram posts had played out between two white women or two Black women — and have you noticed that this case, as with Callwood’s, is a story of women’s inhumanity to women? — it would have been a nothingburger. But a Black woman accused a white woman of racism, and everyone’s politically correct brains froze up.

Honourable journalism would have spared Jessica Mulroney her Kafkaesque nightmare. How best to sum up the pusillanimity of the media hounds? I can’t improve on Sasha Exeter’s words: “It is a cop out. It is cowardly. It is sad and it’s quite pathetic.”

Jessica Mulroney is innocent of the moral crimes she has been so unjustly charged with. She did not deserve the reflexive shunning the accusations called forth. But she has no wish for revenge. She wants only to resume the profession she loves with honour and dignity. Whether or not that reasonable outcome is realized will have much to say about high society in Canada’s present cultural moment.

• Email: | Twitter: