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The Canadian businessman whose retail empire has crumbled faces multiple charges of sexual assault at a Toronto trial, along with charges in three other jurisdictions

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Former fashion mogul Peter Nygard is shown in this courtroom sketch in Toronto on Jan. 19, 2022.Alexandra Newbould/The Canadian Press

The first trial of Peter Nygard, the onetime Canadian fashion executive whose retail empire has crumbled amid a series of sexual-assault charges spanning decades, is set to begin in Toronto.

Mr. Nygard, 82, faces eight counts of sexual assault and three counts of forcible confinement in Toronto, allegedly involving eight people at various times between 1987 and 2005.

The Toronto trial is the first of four jurisdictions where Mr. Nygard is slated to face charges. The Finnish-born businessman who founded the Nygard Group in Winnipeg in the late 1960s, and later became one of Canada’s wealthiest designers, is the subject of similar charges in Quebec, Manitoba and the United States, where he faces extradition.

None of the charges have been tested in court and Mr. Nygard, through his lawyers, has denied the allegations.

For Mr. Nygard, a flamboyant executive who once routinely courted the spotlight, the past several years have been dominated by turmoil as multiple women have come forward to say he sexually assaulted them.

During its heyday from the late 1970s to the early 2000s, Mr. Nygard’s business was inextricably tied to his image, with his face dominating billboards and commercials for his various lines of women’s clothing. Today, he remains in custody at Toronto South Detention Centre awaiting his first trial, which will take place before a jury.

A prosecutor in one of the cases against Mr. Nygard said the legal proceedings are an attempt to hold the former executive accountable.

“The law applies equally to everybody, whether you are an ordinary person or an international fashion mogul,” said Quebec Crown prosecutor Jérôme Laflamme.

The trial in Montreal – related to one count of sexual assault and one count of forcible confinement – is scheduled to begin in July, 2024. The most recent charges against Mr. Nygard, in Winnipeg, were brought forward this summer, involving one count of sexual assault and one of forcible confinement in 1993.

“Regardless of the outcome, whether Mr. Nygard is found guilty or not [in Quebec] – cases like this one and like the ones in Toronto and Winnipeg, they really show us that nobody is above the law,” Mr. Laflamme said.

The Nygard headquarters in Winnipeg in February 2020. In December of the same year Mr. Nygard was arrested on an extradition request related to U.S. criminal charges. John Woods/The Canadian Press
Mr. Nygard founded the Nygard Group in Winnipeg in the late 1960s, and later became one of Canada’s wealthiest designers. John Woods/The Canadian Press

Mr. Nygard is being represented by veteran criminal defence lawyer Brian Greenspan.

“As the [Toronto] trial is by jury and there will be an inquiry by the presiding Judge with respect to prospective juror exposure to media coverage, it would be inappropriate, if not improper to provide a statement at this time,” Mr. Greenspan wrote in an e-mail. “As has been said in the past, the allegations will be vigorously defended.”

Though questions about Mr. Nygard’s conduct have lingered for decades from Winnipeg to the Bahamas, where he owned a sprawling enclave dubbed Nygard Cay, the cases in Canada moved forward only after charges were brought against him in the United States.

Mr. Nygard was arrested in Winnipeg in December, 2020, on an extradition request related to U.S. criminal charges of sex trafficking and racketeering.

At the time those charges were announced, U.S. law enforcement agencies described “a decades-long pattern of criminal conduct involving at least dozens of victims in the United States, the Bahamas, and Canada, among other locations.” They included one charge involving an underaged girl. The U.S. charges asserted that women were “forcibly sexually assaulted, drugged and/or coerced into sexual contact with Nygard.”

His business has also been tied to the allegations, with the U.S. charges describing that the Nygard Group’s resources were used in his alleged sexual-racketeering schemes for decades. The charges say he and his companies presented jobs in modelling or in the fashion industry as a “ruse” to “lure victims.”

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Several buildings at Nygard Cay, including its famous multistorey tree house were discovered engulfed in flames.

The charges also said that Mr. Nygard used company funds to quash negative publicity about rape allegations against him, including “to secure a victim’s silence.” U.S. authorities wrote that they believed some of the crimes occurred in Canada, at properties in Winnipeg, Toronto and Falcon Lake, Man.

He also faces a class-action lawsuit in New York. However, that suit, which includes dozens of women who say that Mr. Nygard sexually assaulted them, was paused by a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in the summer of 2020. The reasons for the stay have not been made public.

In Winnipeg, where the business was founded, charges against Mr. Nygard have not moved as quickly as in other jurisdictions, raising questions among victims and politicians about the scrutiny placed on him in his home province by Manitoba authorities.

After the U.S. charges, police in Winnipeg opened an investigation in June of 2020 and submitted eight cases to the provincial ministry, Manitoba Justice. But the ministry decided not to pursue charges.

“It was really extraordinary, because you had the situation where first, Nygard was being charged in the States and he had never been charged in Canada; then, he gets charged in Quebec and Toronto, but he’s never been charged in Winnipeg, in his own province. That was part of the question – what is going on?” said Manitoba Liberal leader Dougald Lamont.

Late last year, Mr. Lamont went before the Manitoba legislative assembly to present complainants’ calls for a new investigation. In an unusual move, Manitoba Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen referred the case files outside the province – to the Saskatchewan Public Prosecutions Service – for review.

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The flagship Nygard store near Times Square in New York. Mr. Nygard resigned as CEO after an FBI raid of his company's Manhattan offices in February, 2020.BRENDAN MCDERMID/Reuters

That review determined charges were viable in the case of one complainant, related to a sexual-assault investigation involving a 20-year-old at Nygard’s Winnipeg headquarters in 1993. Police arrested Mr. Nygard, who was already in custody in Toronto, this past July.

“This is a fundamental question of justice – can justice be done in Manitoba?” Mr. Lamont said. “The answer up until now has been no.”

KC Allan, one of the women who stepped forward to speak to Winnipeg police, said Mr. Nygard raped her in Winnipeg in 1979, when she was 17 years old.

“The course of justice, in Manitoba at least, I found that to be a rickety structure. It just felt like someone was holding the whole system together with baling twine and duct tape,” Ms. Allan said.

Asked for comment on Ms. Allan’s claim, Mr. Greenspan noted the Crown’s decision not to prosecute.

Ms. Allan said she has come to terms with not seeing charges related to her case. However, she said it was “heartbreaking” to see other Manitoba complainants’ cases so far not result in prosecution.

The business Mr. Nygard once presided over is now in receivership, with assets sold off to pay down debt.

He resigned as CEO after an FBI raid of its Manhattan offices in February, 2020. The brand’s largest customer, U.S. department store chain Dillard’s, cancelled orders – as did Canadian retailers such as Rogers Communications Inc.’s TSC (formerly The Shopping Channel) and Suzanne’s.

A month later, in March, 2020, Nygard Group of Companies filed for protection from creditors after new allegations of sexual assault against him emerged in a New York lawsuit.

Mr. Nygard began building the business in 1966, when he bought and renamed a Winnipeg clothing company, Jacob Fashions Ltd.

Nygard Group operated a network of retail stores in the U.S. and Canada, as well as selling women’s fashions through department stores and other retailers, under brands including Alia and Tan Jay. The company expanded to the U.S. in 1978. In 2015, Canadian Business magazine estimated Mr. Nygard’s net worth at $777-million.

He has pushed back against media outlets reporting on women’s claims that he assaulted them. Mr. Nygard is suing the CBC for defamation and libel, saying coverage about him was designed to tarnish his reputation and prevent him from obtaining bail in Manitoba.

“The claim filed by Mr. Nygard is clearly without merit,” CBC spokesperson Chuck Thompson wrote in an e-mail. “CBC stands behind its journalism and will defend itself vigorously.”

Some of the women have also faced public disparagement for speaking out about Mr. Nygard.

Last year, his long-time Winnipeg lawyer Jay Prober pleaded guilty to professional misconduct related to comments he made to members of the media about women who had said Mr. Nygard assaulted them. Mr. Prober had called the women liars, and said they were “on the money train.”

Ms. Allan filed a complaint about his conduct. The Law Society of Manitoba reprimanded Mr. Prober and fined him $4,000.

“Going through the so-called justice process was pretty miserable,” Ms. Allan said, though she added the Law Society decision provided a measure of relief. As Mr. Nygard’s trial approaches, Ms. Allan said she now has more faith in the process. “I just don’t understand why it took so long.”

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A courtroom sketch of Mr. Nygard during a bail hearing in Winnipeg in January, 2021. He remains in Canadian custody and is set to be extradited to the U.S. after the Canadian cases are heard.Tadens Mpwene/The Canadian Press

When trials move forward, complainants can face conflicting emotions, said Shannon Moroney, a Toronto-based social worker and therapist who has treated almost 50 women over the past three years who say they were assaulted by Mr. Nygard.

“The cost of justice is a huge burden on complainants,” said Ms. Moroney, who agreed to speak broadly about the issue, but declined to address the Nygard case specifically out of concern for the integrity of the trial and her clients’ privacy.

“There can be feelings of vindication – certainly from victim-blaming – and a sense of safety, if the person is given a custodial sentence. But the actual concept of justice is an ideal. … The work of healing is left to every individual, and there is very, very, very little support.”

Mr. Nygard remains in Canadian custody. He is set to be extradited to the U.S. after the Canadian cases are heard, though Mr. Nygard’s lawyers in April asked the Manitoba Court of Appeal to reconsider the extradition order.

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