A conversation on the moral complexities of vigilantism and what makes Justin Payne, Canada’s ‘Vigilante Pedophile Hunter’ such a fascinating and controversial individual.
Screen via 'Age of Consent'
Everyone kinda likes a vigilante. It's hard not to be attracted to the appeal of street justice. It's the reason we're so culturally saturated with stories that conjure a dark, anti-hero vibe in comics, video games, film, and television.
We want to cheer those characters on.
That's why, in many ways, it's so unsurprising that Canada's vigilante pedophile hunters have large followings for their YouTube and Facebook clips that expose men across Canada who allegedly spend their time online sexually luring children.
That rabid audience, mixed with the moral complexities of this type of vigilantism, is largely why we were compelled to produce our latest documentary: Age of Consent.
The subject of the film is Justin Payne, an Ontario construction worker, who is arguably the first Canadian pedophile hunter, and is certainly the most well-known.
VICE first profiled Payne in a print piece back in the fall of 2015, but it was obvious to us that we needed to spend even more time with this fascinatingly controversial man.
The result is a documentary that is both visceral and upsetting. It gets at the moral gray areas intrinsic to vigilantism, particularly when that breed of renegade justice is pointed toward arguably the most despised crime on the planet.
Here to talk about the documentary are Patrick McGuire, VICE Canada's head of content, and Shawney Cohen, the film's director and one of its producers.
Patrick McGuire: Let's start at the beginning. How did we come to the decision that it would be a good idea to follow Justin Payne around?
Shawney Cohen: Good question. For me, Justin's an amazing character. First and foremost, aside from this being about someone who is a vigilante, aside from the pedophilia, he's a great character, and he's amazing to follow around, and he just jumps into the lens. As a filmmaker, I'm attracted to that. The issues kind of became more apparent as we got deeper into making the film, but I was really attracted to this idea of vigilantism and that you have a true vigilante with Justin, and I had never met one before and it was fascinating. This is someone who operates in a very, very gray area of the law, and in some way believes he is doing some type of justice, but in a very kind of dark-seeded underground way.
Patrick: You're not the only one who likes vigilantism. We see in the film people basically cheering Justin on, and it happens more than once. Did you encounter that a lot? Do you think that the public opinion of this kind of work generally, even if people aren't vocal about it, is that they are in favour?
Shawney: I think so. I think there is a couple things going on. I'm noticing this trend, this idea that people believe police aren't doing enough, and it's not that they are or they aren't, I just think that there is a bit of a disconnect and I think partly it could be about how the police publicly announce what they do. I talked to an officer very recently about Justin. The first thing he said is, you know, "We do a ton of work," and they were defending their point that they do a million times more than Justin ever will. They absolutely track pedophiles every single day. They have a whole unit that is dedicated to child pornography, and I just think people don't know that, so you have this angry public that doesn't know much about what the police are doing. But then you see someone like Justin who, aside from catching pedophiles, is really interested in posting [on Facebook/YouTube] what he does, and he's public and he's so out there that people kind of gravitate to someone that is perceived as doing good.
Patrick: Yeah, and one of the shocking things to me—it's not surprising that the Toronto Police have a whole unit working on this because, Justin—it's not like he's trying to get one guy a week or something like that. There doesn't seem to be a shortage of potential targets for him.
Shawney: When I first started filming Justin it was shocking to see just how many potential sexual predators he's communicating with online. I wouldn't be surprised if at peak times—it's in the dozens. I thought going into this we'd maybe get to film one or two potential sexual predator confrontations over the course of the entire production. I was way off. Justin sometimes confronts five or six people a night. That's what's shocking to me. There doesn't appear to be a shortage of people interested in meeting children in the middle of the night.
Patrick: We have Dr. Cantor in the film who provides medical analysis that helps place at least the syndrome of pedophelia into context but we didn't get any police that would give us an on-camera interview. What was the tension around going on the record about that?
Shawney: We actually had police interested in talking to us and then something happened a few months ago that changed everything. In BC, a police officer was caught by the Creep Catchers group. I just want to make this distinction: Justin doesn't affiliate himself with Creep Catchers. He actually believes what he's doing is quite different, and there's different tactics that he uses than the Creep Catchers use that he doesn't necessarily agree with. But, in saying that, the bigger group, Creep Catchers—this BC group—caught an RCMP officer who is currently being investigated. The second that happened, it became very very difficult to get any comment from a police officer about this, and I respect that. I think they just felt that they didn't want to deal with this in the open. One of their own got caught. I'm not sure where the situation legally is now but that was definitely a catalyst for them not talking to us.
Patrick: And another thing you and I talked a lot about is why Justin is so legally ineffective. He obviously exposes people and publically shames them and probably traumatizes them but carries essentially a zero percent conviction rate so, what is that failure rate attributed to?
Shawney: You quickly learn when you're filming Justin that, while he's interested in justice, his end goal is very different than the police. What he's interested in is social media, and his brand of justice has, really, nothing to do with a conviction or an investigation. Even though he's very good at what he does and he employs tactics that the police use, his end result is quite different. He is only interested in posting people online and shaming them, and that is quite different than the due process involved with what the police would do. And, once you make that distinction you realize that—I'm sure Justin would love for a lot of these people to get arrested, in fact, someone in the film does—but, make no mistake about it, first and foremost his interest is putting these people online and getting as many views as possible. He believes that by doing that, by shaming someone, that they will probably not reoffend. [But] nobody really knows the statistics about whether people reoffend or not. There's a couple people that have been shamed and have come back and he's caught them a second time, but those are few and far between, so, yeah, it's just a different end result. A different brand of justice.
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Patrick: On the one hand, he's looking for publicity, which he says is a way to punish these people, but it's also a way for him to have some kind of connection to the outside world. He's obviously had some personal issues in his life, but he's kind of a media darling. I mean, we have this film and it's a sometimes excruciating look at what this guy does, but we see him on the front page of the Sun, we see him on Global News, we see him on CityTV. This guy is built for mass attention. Is that just going to drive these alleged predators more underground, do you think? Or is it actually going to reform people. It seems more likely that it will make his targets more savvy.
Shawney: If you ask Dr. Cantor, the expert in the film, he would probably say that what Justin is doing it completely ineffective. It's hard to say. I had a different opinion about this when I started filming him. I actually thought Justin, aside from how effective he is, what he was doing was kind of controversial and it kind of bugged me a bit, and then you see his phone, and then you see someone who's going to meet him, and then you see a dick pic, and then you see someone who is in their 40s clearly interested and trying to hook up with a child. And, when you see that, you begin to realize, OK, if Justin is doing this—it is a grey area—but, I'll tell you this: the crew, everyone involved began to really sympathize with Justin and believe what he was doing was something of importance. So yeah, I mean, it's a tough grey area—it's really tough. I think that's why the film is so good because it really balances this fine line of whether Justin is morally correct or not.
Patrick: I think we've done a good job at giving people the tools to make their own decision, but you see it in the film. I mentioned it earlier, about that woman in the parking lot that says, "I want my kid to meet you one day" or "I want my kid to shake your hand one day" or something like that, that's kinda crazy. People kind of love him, it seems.
Shawney: Yeah, I mean, part of that has to do with his looks and how he comes off in the media. You're right, he is a bit of a darling and he loves the media and he knows how to handle himself. At the same time, there are a lot of issues going on with him. He's a complex character and like everyone else, he's got a few problems. But I do think… his intentions are noble. Over the course of making the film his charisma kinda grew on me. There's just so many layers to this guy and that's what makes him so interesting to capture on camera. At the end of the day the film is really a biography about him, and there's quite a distinction between what he does in comparison to a lot of other creep catchers in my opinion. One of our writers, Manisha Krishnan, is writing a lot about these other groups that employ tactics that can be despicable.
Patrick: Like what?
Shawney: Well, swapping ages, for instance.
Patrick: When you say swapping ages, you mean...
Shawney: So, basically, when you're luring someone, you say that you're a specific age. Justin does this to but he's much more savvy. It's very important to him that he clearly understands that the person that he's in contact with knows that he is underage. More of a grey area from what I can see with some of the Creep Catchers, for instance. Swapping age basically means on their profile they say that they are 34-35 or 28-29—show a picture. On route, they swap the age and say "You know, I'm actually 14 or 13." So, without getting into too many details, there's actually a rule and an ethical kind of approach to doing this, and that's what's interesting about Justin. It's not cut and dry and there's actual tactics and a style involved and, I think, from what I see, Justin's style is a bit more ethically correct. I could be wrong, but that's what it appears to me.
Patrick: So, to me, this film is important to see because it's happening. This is a phenomenon that is spreading across the country in multiple provinces, and there are alleged predators out there in droves it seems that are being targeting by both the police and the Creep Catchers and, for that reason alone, I think it makes sense for this film to exist. I think it's going to shock a lot of people, probably upset some people and, maybe, like you said, create some Justin fans—I'm not sure what I think about that—but, why do you think it's important for people to see this?
Shawney: I would say, first and foremost, it's a good film. Aside from all the controversy and ethics behind shaming sexual predators, the film is an intriguing biography. In terms of the bigger social context? I hope the film is balanced enough in its objectivity, that people walk away thinking vigilantism isn't the only answer to an age old issue.