Last week, Nova Scotia’s provincial government announced that it had appointed two new Crown attorneys to focus on sexual assault prosecutions. The lawyers, Constance MacIssac and Danielle Fostey, will be in charge of prosecuting such cases. They’ll also provide specialized sexual-assault case training and advice to other Crown attorneys — widening the circle of expertise and knowledge — and develop measures for monitoring prosecution performance of sexual violence cases, raising the bar for the country’s historically dismal conviction rates. The move comes after protests last year over Judge Gregory Lenehan’s decision to acquit a taxi driver alleged to have sexually assaulted an intoxicated female passenger, saying, “Clearly, a drunk can consent.”
Though the new attorneys are part of Nova Scotia’s sexual violence action plan, launched in 2015, the move feels very of our moment: it’s a fitting way for the province to say “time’s up.” The idea is similar to Ontario’s own “enhanced prosecution model,” also part of an overall action plan to end sexual assault. The $41 million three-year project, called “It’s Never Okay,” kicked off after Jian Ghomeshi’s sexual-assault trial sparked a nationwide conversation on why women may not report their attacks to police. In its first year, the program trained more than 600 Crown attorneys on improving complainants’ experiences in the criminal-justice system. There is also a mentorship program for attorneys who are new to sexual-assault cases, as well as an advisory group that provides attorneys with legal and strategic advice.
In addition to the training, the province launched a pilot program in Toronto, Ottawa, and Thunder Bay to provide free legal advice to survivors, regardless of how much time has passed since their alleged assault. In its annual progress report, the Liberal government reported that more than 100 women had used the service since its June 2016 launch. Just under $2 million has also gone toward 15 two-year pilot projects aimed at developing what the government calls a “survivor-centered approach” to policing. In March 2016, the government removed the limitation that barred survivors from suing their attackers after too much time had elapsed, meaning women can now wait until they are ready to bring forward a civil suit.
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These initiatives are all part of an encouraging start toward making the criminal-justice system work better for survivors. Considering that only 33 of every 1,000 assaults in Canada are reported to police — and only three of those lead to conviction — any reform is vital and welcome. Going through the criminal-justice system is not is not every survivor’s best choice for themselves, and that’s likely to remain the case even as the system improves. But certainly, a major reason survivors don’t use the system is that the system doesn’t work for them. It’s important that we protect due process, yes, but we are realizing — at long last — that we can do so without re-traumatizing those who report assaults. We can do it with respect.
Still, training is not enough. A 2015 joint-Global News/Ipsos Reid poll found that of those women who’d reported their sexual assaults, more than 70 per cent found it to be a negative experience. Nearly 40 per cent said they felt “abandoned,” while another 40 per cent felt “devastated.” Most women did not report at all. While roughly one out of five chose not to because they felt it wouldn’t do any good, more common reasons were “feeling young and powerless,” “self-blame,” and “shame.” These reasons expose deeply rooted prejudices against women who speak out about their assaults — ones that go well beyond our callous legal system. It’s good that we’re working on better training and on creating a kinder system, but we must also eradicate cultural attitudes that signal women should feel bad about their own assaults — a far trickier prospect, even in the era of #MeToo.
We often call women who come forward about their experience with sexual assault “brave.” The word suggests all the things we fear — and that we know to be true — about that experience: those who do so will also be put on trial, will be called liars and attention-seekers, will be believed but also not believed. But we are, at long last, making strides toward a world in which coming forward will not feel shameful — and in which the response will be to treat assaults on women’s minds and bodies like the crimes they are.
Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus. She's the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, published by Goose Lane Editions.
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