Raveena Aulakh was a talented Toronto Star reporter who fell in love with a married senior staffer. When their relationship ended badly, she left a suicide note in her desk, went home and killed herself. Her death triggered a scandal that tore the office apart
Jon Filson, left, and Raveena Aulakh carried on a chaotic relationship for five years
The day before Raveena Aulakh died, she went to work. It was May 26, and Aulakh had recently returned to her job as the Toronto Star’s environment reporter after a month-long medical leave. The reason for her absence was both simple and terribly complicated. She’d been in a relationship for the past five years with Jon Filson, an editor at the paper. When she found out he was having an affair with his boss, the Star’s managing editor Jane Davenport, she ended the relationship and fell into a deep depression.
Aulakh was 42, with a wide smile and impish dark eyes. While she was usually bright and bubbly, her misery had recently become palpable. And yet, on May 26, Aulakh’s behaviour seemed relatively normal to those who knew her. In the morning, she had coffee with her boss, Lynn McAuley, the Star’s foreign news editor. They talked about the usual stuff—their weekends, Aulakh’s upcoming projects, her emotional issues.
Around lunch, Jim Coyle, a longtime Star columnist, visited Aulakh at her desk. “She had an ocean of sadness in her eyes. I put my hand on her shoulder. Now, I keep thinking that I was one of the last people to touch her.” Aulakh had been drinking heavily to deal with the breakup. She often started at lunchtime and continued through the evening. Coyle, who is a recovering alcoholic, told her that it was impossible to deal with her pain until she stopped numbing it. He invited her to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting the next week. Aulakh said she’d think about it.
After work, she took the King streetcar home to her condo in Liberty Village. The place was bright and open, with two floors and a big balcony. She’d decorated the living room with two crimson loveseats—red was her favourite colour. That evening, Aulakh texted her friend Noor Javed, another Star reporter, to ask if she was coming into work the next day. She also responded to a text from her colleague Donovan Vincent, who had been worried about her. At 8:59 that night, she emailed Coyle to tell him she’d decided to come to an AA meeting after all. They made a date for the following Tuesday.
Aulakh didn’t show up for work the next morning. It was a quiet day in the newsroom; a number of her colleagues, including the Star’s editor-in-chief, Michael Cooke, were in Edmonton for the National Newspaper Awards. But by the afternoon, Javed had started to worry. She’d tried calling Aulakh several times with no luck. She contacted their colleague Vanessa Lu, asking her to poke around Aulakh’s desk to see if there was evidence she’d been in the office that day.
Lu discovered an envelope. Inside was a strangely dispassionate letter outlining how her affairs should be handled. She wanted one of her old university friends to have her phone, tablet and laptop. She left instructions about her bank accounts and how to cancel her rented parking spot. There was a message for her Aunt Manjeet, who lives in Mississauga, explaining how to pay off Aulakh’s bills and the mortgage on her condo. Toward the end of the note, the tone shifted from calm to anguished, as Aulakh begged that no one talk or write about her.
Lu went into a panic and immediately dialed Aulakh’s cell. When there was no answer, she called the police. Soon after, Lu and Javed went to Aulakh’s building to find out what was going on. The cops were there when they arrived. “Your friend is dead,” the officers told them. In the coming days, they were able to piece together what had happened. Aulakh had prepared a meal and poured a glass of red wine. She left both untouched. Then, according to reports, she hanged herself.
In the following weeks, the Star newsroom would be torn apart by competing versions of her story—not just why she killed herself but who should bear responsibility for her death. That’s why Aulakh’s last wish—that no one tell her story—was both impossible and perfect. As with all suicides, Aulakh took the truth to her grave. That didn’t stop her friends from trying to find it.
Raveena Aulakh worked long and tirelessly to get where she did. She was born in 1973 to a middle-class Sikh family in Chandigarh, a small city in the Punjab region of India. When she was six weeks old, someone at home dropped her, breaking her elbow. Her grandmother, whom she called Ammi, was appalled. She immediately took the baby to live with her and became the formative parental figure in Aulakh’s life. “Ammi was there when I was born—small, wrinkly and two months premature,” Aulakh once wrote. “She was there when I was named and she was there, hovering, when the doctor gave permission to take me home.” Aulakh never lived with her parents again and only visited occasionally. She rarely spoke of her life back in India, but she wrote about her love for her Ammi, as well as her fractured relationship with her grandfather, a retired military man.
Aulakh studied journalism at Panjab University in Chandigarh and eventually got a job as a writer and editor at the Hindustan Times, an English-language paper with a daily circulation of 1.5 million. When she was in her early 20s, she married a fellow writer at the Times. By all accounts, it was an amicable relationship. But Aulakh always wanted more. In 2006, at age 32, she quit her job and came to Canada, where she enrolled in Western University’s master of journalism program. Upon graduating, she decided to stay another year or so to see if she could succeed in Canada. Her husband supported her decision. A year turned into two, then three. Eventually, she knew she’d never return. Aulakh and her husband never divorced. They remained friends as the years passed, emailing and keeping up with each other’s work.
After jumping between newspaper internships—first at the Hamilton Spectator, then the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Globe and Mail—Aulakh landed one at the Toronto Star in 2008 and was quickly given a year-long contract as a city reporter. Senior staff noticed her inexhaustible work ethic and keen ambition. According to former staffers, Aulakh was always eager to work nights and weekends to get a story.
Soon after she was hired, she caught the eye of Jon Filson, who had recently been appointed sports editor. Filson spent much of his career at the Star; he started as a copy editor in 2000 and rose up the ranks into management. He was a cantankerous figure, the sort of rumpled, bespectacled grump who inhabits the dimly lit cubicles of newsrooms everywhere. Those who liked Filson describe him as a talented editor who pushed reporters hard. Those who didn’t described him as a bully who shouted his way out of arguments and picked on his weakest staffers.
Filson soon offered Aulakh a job as a baseball writer, despite her complete ignorance of the sport. She gave it serious consideration—she was flattered by the attention and wondered if it might be an interesting challenge—but eventually decided against it. Despite her rejection, Aulakh and Filson stayed in touch, bantering in the office and over email. They kept their flirtation secret; almost no one at the office even knew they were friends. One night in February 2011, he invited himself over to her condo for a drink, and they began their affair. At the time, he was married with a young child. “I became your mistress,” she later wrote to him in an email. “I wanted out many, many times because I couldn’t stay a mistress forever. You begged me to stay, to wait, dozens of times…. I was sad but I loved you. That became my life.”
Over the next few years, Filson and Aulakh conducted a secret, chaotic on-again, off-again relationship. Filson didn’t respond to interview requests for this story, but he described their affair in a piece for the Walrus. “Raveena dropped me many times, for varying lengths of time,” he wrote. “Sometimes I asked her to come back, sometimes I let go. We loved and cared for each other as best as we could. We both tried. Unfortunately, neither of us was very good at it.”
The newsroom was always a part of Aulakh and Filson’s relationship. It was where they met, where they fell in love. And, in a way, the entire newsroom was ultimately implicated in their affair. The Star’s code of conduct doesn’t explicitly prohibit romantic relationships between colleagues, unless one employee reports directly to the other. But human resources policies are almost impossible to enforce. They exist more to shield employers against liability than to legislate behaviour. In most offices, and especially newsrooms, employees work long hours. They spend more time at their desks than they do at home. Bosses become drinking buddies with staff, co-workers become sounding boards, and professional and personal boundaries inevitably get crossed.
Over the next few years, Aulakh managed to keep her personal life separate from her professional life, which was thriving. The Star appointed her to the role of environmental reporter, and she distinguished herself by travelling to Japan, where she wrote heart-wrenching stories about tsunami victims. She spent several days with a mother, digging through the rubble of an elementary school, looking for the remains of her daughter. The following year, she went undercover in a Bangladeshi sweatshop and wrote a series about doing gruelling piecework for a nine-year-old boss. In these stories, her writing is spare and factual, but extraordinarily vivid. She won a National Newspaper Award for the sweatshop series. She was, by any measure, a serious journalist in the prime of her career.
Two and a half years into the affair, Filson left his wife for Aulakh, but their relationship continued to flounder. And in October of 2015, Aulakh discovered illicit messages on Filson’s phone between him and his married boss, Jane Davenport. Aulakh was devastated. Davenport was the paper’s managing editor, the second-most-powerful person in the newsroom, and Filson reported to her. The couple were flouting the rules. Unlike Filson, who had as many enemies as friends in the newsroom, Davenport was well liked by her colleagues. She was known to be sharp and efficient, yet respectful and kind to the people who worked under her—she would often ask about her staff’s families and personal issues. She was, as one senior Star manager told me, “the golden girl.”
After Aulakh broke up with Filson, she lost weight and became depressed. At one point, she was seeing a therapist, although friends say she often felt worse after the sessions, not better. Soon, she began confiding in friends and colleagues about the whole sordid ordeal. She swore each one to secrecy. One of the people she told was her boss, Lynn McAuley (though she left Davenport’s name out of it at first). Aulakh’s revelation put McAuley in a difficult position. She wasn’t Filson’s biggest fan—few of his colleagues warmed to his irascible manner—but she had nothing against him personally. And here was Aulakh, McAuley’s direct report and friend, suffering as a result of an affair with him, a manager in the newsroom. McAuley and other friends repeatedly asked Aulakh whether Filson had ever made her fear for her job or been emotionally or physically abusive. The answer was always “no.”
McAuley spent hours with Aulakh as she struggled with the breakup. When Aulakh suggested that she might quit her job to find a fresh start, McAuley encouraged her to stay on for the short term. She believed that being away from the job she loved would exacerbate her depression. When Aulakh floated the idea of going to human resources to reveal Filson’s bullish behaviour in the newsroom, McAuley cautioned her against it, partly because he’d technically done nothing wrong. Most of all, McAuley was worried Aulakh wasn’t strong enough to cope with the fallout if the affair came to light.
In April, Aulakh went to human resources to request a stress leave. When they asked her why, she wouldn’t say. By that point, she was drinking heavily and only sleeping two or three hours a night. She had lost nearly 20 pounds and had spent two nights in the ER, complaining of an irregular heartbeat and anxiety attacks. She texted at least one friend to say she had suicidal thoughts. “She’d say, ‘I just want to die. I think I’ll kill myself,’ and immediately follow up with, ‘Oh, it’s okay. I’m fine,’ ” the friend explains. “I’d tell her how beautiful and accomplished she was, how she should move forward and not dwell on the past.”
During Aulakh’s leave, she set into motion a dramatic plan to expose what had transpired with Filson. After hiding details of the affair for five years, she forwarded numerous emails between herself and Filson to various colleagues, outlining what had happened in minute detail. She accused him of lying to her and manipulating her. She was trying to justify her suffering—and yet, to some extent, her efforts had the opposite effect. In some of his emails, Filson pleaded with Aulakh to understand and apologized profusely for his behaviour. He was clearly trying to make amends. “I recognize I am a flawed human being…. I am so sorry for the pain I have caused,” he wrote. At least one editor told me he ended up feeling badly for Filson. “I think she wanted him to be hated, to pay for it not working out,” he said. “She wanted him to be fired.”
She also wrote Filson a long letter, and showed it to several people, asking whether she should send it to him. The resounding response was “no.” “Move on,” her friends told her. “The best revenge is living well.” Aulakh ignored their advice and sent it to Filson on May 2, later forwarding it to at least two others. She was constantly vacillating between silence and noise—sometimes she didn’t want anyone to talk about what had happened, while at other moments she’d reveal the story to anyone who asked.
Many staffers I interviewed refer to that long letter as “the J’accuse email.” It has an expositional tone, as though it was written for a panel of judges rather than Filson alone. “Just to be clear: we were in a five-year relationship, out of which I was your mistress for four years,” she wrote. “I waited for you and as soon as you got out of your marriage, you cheated on me with your boss. With your boss.” Aulakh told Filson that there were 3,455 email chains between them on Yahoo, an ostensible threat that she would expose their affair. She said she had lost her chance to have kids during their relationship—that she’d grown too old. And she described her anxiety in the workplace. “I used to love that newsroom…. Now I’m scared of coming in,” she wrote. “I didn’t do anything wrong and yet my life and work have been destroyed.”
In late May, Aulakh decided to cut her stress leave short. She offered HR a letter from her therapist saying that being home was only exacerbating her depression. “It’s possible she went back to see if she could handle it. She found that she couldn’t,” says Lesley Ciarula Taylor, Aulakh’s close friend and the Star’s former Life editor. While HR agreed to let her return, they insisted on monitoring her recovery. They assigned a nurse to her case and required Aulakh to chat with her regularly. In addition, they formed a staff support group, led by Lynn McAuley, who checked in on her every day and took long walks with her. From all her friends, including Taylor, I heard the same refrain: they wondered what they might have done to prevent her death. “I look back to a hundred moments and think, ‘I could have said this, I could have said that,’ ” Taylor told me, her voice cracking. “I will do that for the rest of my life.”
After Lu and Javed found the police at Aulakh’s apartment, they immediately contacted Lynn McAuley, who passed on the news to Michael Cooke. He was shocked to learn of the suicide. Cooke put in a call to publisher John Honderich, who was on holiday, and sent out a staff bulletin to notify the newsroom of Aulakh’s death. He didn’t specify that it was suicide. Then, he did what he always does when a member of his staff passes away: he asked for an obituary to be written.
Cooke, who has been the Star’s editor-in-chief for the past seven years, is the kind of pugnacious, theatrical newsman you rarely see anymore. Even though he didn’t know Aulakh well, he’d always admired her work, and he remembers her as a quiet, pleasant presence in the office. At staff functions, she occasionally chatted to him about cricket, assuming that, because he’s British, he’d be a fan. (He isn’t.) He and John Honderich were both floored by the death and, while they insist they didn’t know about the affairs, they weren’t surprised by the fact that their employees had carried on romantic liaisons in the office. They both take an old-school view on this: they believe that what employees choose to do in their private lives is their own business, so long as it’s consensual. “The Toronto Star stays out of the bedrooms of its staff members,” Honderich told me.
On the Monday after Aulakh’s death, Cooke came into work early to find the newsroom in crisis. Staffers were emotional. No one was doing much work. Javed and Lu immediately approached Cooke and furiously confronted him about the obituary he’d planned. The paper would be violating Aulakh’s last wishes.
In an effort to manage the situation, Cooke assembled a small group of people from the newsroom who knew Aulakh well to help advise him on how to handle the matter. The group quickly split into two camps: those who wanted the paper to stay silent about the circumstance surrounding Aulakh’s death and those who felt strongly that this would be taking the wishes of a troubled woman far too literally.
The debate became so heated that Cooke cancelled the obituary he had planned. But to the outside world, the Star’s silence reeked of a cover-up. Over the next few days, news of the suicide spread through Twitter and Facebook—and everyone was wondering why the paper hadn’t addressed it. The Toronto Sun’s Joe Warmington accused the Star of concealing the tragedy; Star columnist Rosie DiManno shot right back on Twitter: “I’ll rip your fucking throat out.”
Jon Filson was destroyed by Aulakh’s death. One editor who met with him that week described him as a broken man. He was under no illusions about his future at the paper. He quickly resigned, with a generous severance package for his trouble. With Davenport, things were a bit trickier. She was the one who violated the code of conduct, since Filson was her direct report. And yet the Star desperately wanted to keep her. At first, Cooke announced that Davenport would be transferred to another position within TorStar, but she too ended up leaving the company a few weeks later. It was the sort of crisis that all bosses fear. “One person dead. Two careers in tatters. An organization in trauma,” Cooke later said.
Management soon settled on a compromise between those who lobbied for silence and those who believed the staff needed catharsis. The paper’s public editor, Kathy English, published an article about the tragedy, while Aulakh’s friends organized a short town hall memorial for the editorial staff. They projected photographs of Aulakh and some of her stories on a large screen. Noor Javed was the only one to speak. Not once did she mention how she died. “It was a very eerie and odd and unconsoling ceremony,” said Coyle. “The people who didn’t want the circumstances of her death acknowledged felt too much had been said already. Everyone else just felt bewildered.”
In the hours I spent interviewing Aulakh’s friends and colleagues for this story, conflicting versions of her character emerged. Some people believe Aulakh was a victim who was mistreated by Filson and mismanaged by her workplace. They argue that Filson exploited her, that he malevolently discarded her, and that, as a manager, Lynn McAuley had a responsibility to report what was going on. Even among those who’d known about the affair, there were some who suggested that McAuley was more culpable, since she was in a position of power.
Many others argue the tragedy was impossible to foresee—Aulakh was a mentally unstable woman whose rage fuelled a violent act of self-harm. They believe that, as much as she wanted to end her own suffering, she also wanted to destroy Filson and Davenport’s lives. As one close friend of Aulakh’s said, “There is no doubt that, in the end, she wanted Filson to suffer.”
In John Honderich’s view, Filson did nothing wrong. “Sex in the workplace is as old as the hills. You know it, I know it—there is no way around it,” he told me. “There was a love triangle in the newsroom. But you’re allowed to change your mind in love and clearly this was one of those instances. Jon Filson changed his mind.” Both Honderich and Michael Cooke insist there’s nothing more management could have done to prevent Aulakh’s suicide. “Suicide,” Cooke said, “is not that simple.”
Jon Filson reached out to many former colleagues after the scandal broke, including Lesley Ciarula Taylor. “He went into great detail about evidence of Raveena’s instability,” she told me. “He said that he had spent months researching various mental illnesses to find out what was wrong with her. I thought, ‘What was wrong with her was that you were having an affair.’ ” Taylor maintains that Aulakh was in no way mentally ill or even particularly unstable. She believes Filson needs to take some responsibility. “I think if Raveena could have gone back to a newsroom without Jon in it, that would have made a difference,” she told me crisply.
After Aulakh’s death, John Honderich launched an internal investigation into the matter. He spearheaded it himself, joined by Brian Daly, the Star’s vice-president of human resources, and Alan Bower, the company’s executive director of labour relations. During the process, five employees forwarded him bundles of email correspondence that Aulakh had forwarded to them—emails between Aulakh and Filson, Aulakh and other colleagues, and even correspondence between Filson and Davenport. None of them knew the others had copies. Among the many emails dating back several years was a photograph of Aulakh with a bruise above her eye. When Honderich asked his source about it, she told him it was from a consensual encounter with Filson that took place three or four years prior. “Apparently they liked to frolic and wrestle,” he told me. “It wasn’t germane to my investigation of the workplace.”
Last summer, Aulakh’s private tragedy was exploited as leverage in the tense tug-of-war between TorStar management and the editorial union, as the company headed toward a new collective agreement. In July, the union called for an independent investigation, not only into Aulakh’s death but also the general newsroom culture. Paul Morse, a union spokesperson, told me that, when members were asked if they believed there was a need for a full independent external review process, they almost unanimously replied “yes.” In October, management and the union agreed to conduct an external review of the newsroom’s culture, independent of Raveena Aulakh’s specific case.
When I last spoke to Cooke, he told me that, if he had been made aware of the triangle before Aulakh’s death, he wouldn’t have taken any disciplinary action against anyone involved, but he would have separated Filson and Davenport, and changed the reporting structure. “To say that Lynn had a duty to report the affair and that that may have saved Raveena’s life is stupid and wrong in the greater context of things. Don’t forget she had promised Raveena that she wouldn’t speak of the affair. And Filson did nothing wrong in terms of workplace behaviour.” Had the truth emerged while Aulakh was still alive, there would have been no moral reckoning or heads rolling down the newsroom aisles—just a lot of gossip. “None of that would have helped Raveena.”