Toronto broadcast journalist Cynthia Mulligan first heard from comedian and radio host Mike Bullard in the run up to the last federal election in 2015, when he messaged her over Twitter with a compliment about her work and an invitation to coffee. “He was very charming, very funny — knew his news, knew his politics,” she says. But when they started dating, Bullard got “very intense” very quickly. Over the next few months, they would break up and get back together three times before he started relentless calling and texting her, despite Mulligan’s repeated pleas to leave her alone.
In July of 2016, Mulligan reported his behaviour to police, who gave him a warning, and then two more when he wouldn’t stop. That fall, Bullard lost his job on Newstalk 1010 after being charged with criminal harassment, obstruction of justice and breaching conditions to stay away from Mulligan, who feared for her safety.
In court on Friday, Bullard pleaded guilty to one count of harassing communications and two counts of breaching court orders. His lawyer called it “willful blindness,” fuelled by love. Mulligan calls it harassment. Her victim impact statement (which she wrote while covering the Ontario election, interviewing premier-designate Doug Ford minutes before racing to court to hear the judge’s ruling) made her message clear: “No woman should ever have to go through this simply because she ended a relationship.”
In an exclusive interview at her Toronto home, which is still protected by security cameras and an alarm, Mulligan told Chatelaine what this two-year legal saga has been like for her and her daughters, now 18 and 14, how the court system can improve and why harassment needs to be taken much more seriously in our culture.
You and Bullard broke up for the last time in April 2016. You called the police that July, with reports of the repeated phone calls and texts. At what point did you say to yourself “this is harassment, this is a crime?”
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When I realized it was causing me great anxiety and deep worry. I was starting to get scared, and I’m not someone who gets easily scared. I mean, I flew to Paris to cover the Bataclan terror attacks alone. I was trying to handle this in a very rational, calm way without overreacting. But at the same time I was embarrassed that I got myself into this situation — there was so much shame that I went back to him, and I still wrestle with that. He was like two different people. The good side of him was so incredibly good.
You still have security cameras outside your house, and in fall 2016, police actually suggested you find somewhere else to live temporarily, for your own safety. How else has this affected your day-to-day life?
During the period of harassment, Bullard would text me while I was on air. It was awful, my hands would start shaking. I’d be on air, I’d look down because my scripts were on my phone and all of a sudden his name would come up or it’s dialling and I’m live. If I worked late, security would walk with me. He never physically threatened me. Yet I did feel threatened because there is something about when someone won’t leave you alone repeatedly – it starts to become incredibly unnerving.
Did you talk to your daughters much as this was happening?
They were aware because they kept seeing my phone explode with his name on it, over and over again. They’d ask, “What is he doing? Mom! Why won’t he leave you alone?” They were upset for me. The toughest part was when I came home from the police station after Bullard’s arrest to tell my daughters that police suggested we should move.
You said in your victim impact statement that when a mother is being harmed in this way, her children are too.
Absolutely. I was trying to shield them from it, I wasn’t letting them know at that point that I was getting scared. I wanted to protect them from that as much as possible. When we had to move out of our house, that was devastating to me. But they’re actually the ones who wanted me to speak up about this — they said, “Keep going. Don’t stop.”
As a reporter who’s covered crime and courts extensively, what was it like to navigate that world from the inside?
I’ve spoken to so many women about going through the court cases, so it was fascinating to now see it as one of them. It’s such a difficult system to go through, I was dreading having to testify on the stand. I’ve watched women be ripped to shreds and I knew what that could look like for me — the victim blaming by the defence, “This is your fault. You went back to him. Clearly you wanted this.”
Did you learn anything about the system that you didn’t know before?
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A year ago I did a story on justice by geography, how if you are someone who has been sexually assaulted, justice looks different depending on where you live in Ontario. It’s because of the [court] backlog and Toronto has the biggest in the province. There are more plea deals and more people walking away. I believed it then when I wrote the story and now I know it for sure. It’s justice by attrition and that is not justice.
Six or eight months in after the charges were laid, the Crown in my case told me “By now, 80 per cent of women have dropped out because they can’t take the pressure anymore.” They want to get on with their lives. I’ve received many emails from other women since I’ve released my victim impact statement and it’s so sad because they’re telling me the same thing. We’re victimized the first time and then again by the courts. It’s not right.
No judgment if other women can’t do it, I completely understand. I think the only reason I was able to stick with it for so long is because I had such a remarkable support system.
What has this experience taught you about how seriously harassment of women is taken as a crime?
I don’t think it’s taken seriously. I think it’s greatly misunderstood by the courts and by society in general. People don’t understand how destructive it is and how it just seeps into your mind and becomes this toxic presence that’s with you all the time. I know people who said “Yeah, he went too far but it’s because he loved her so much.” And that made me so angry. That’s not love — please don’t normalize harassment.
The criminal case ended Friday with Bullard’s guilty plea and conviction, ordering him to serve six months probation and take a domestic violence course. How did you feel leaving the courtroom?
I had the same feeling that I did when I left the hospital after my last treatment for breast cancer 8 years ago. I thought I would walk away feeling euphoric and relieved, but instead I felt broken and sad. I realized the one thing that I needed for resolution for myself, I will never get — that’s him just saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ I will never get that because [in my opinion], I don’t think he will admit even to himself that he did these things.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.