The Ontario Liberal government rolled out a slate of policy goals that address sexual assault and harassment this morning, using frank language and stunning statistics on the heels of a year when the subject has dominated public discussion. The allegations and subsequent charges levelled against former CBC star Jian Ghomeshi brought the conversation to the fore, highlighting the systemic causes of sexual assault.
According to Nicole Pietsch, coordinator of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres, the action plan announced by the provincial Liberals Friday morning targets sexual assault and harassment in an “unprecedented” way, and she says the recommendations form a comprehensive suite of changes.
“The strength in this action plan is that it deals with systemic as well as concrete initiatives. How they roll out, to me, I think that will be important,” said Pietsch.
Premier Kathleen Wynne announced the plan at the YWCA in downtown Toronto, sharing the podium with Women’s Issues Minister Tracy MacCharles, in a speech that also directly discussed rape culture, and unveiled a jarring PSA as part of the plan’s education and awareness campaign.
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“At its core, this is a plan to change behaviours and challenge social norms,” said Wynne. “The problem of sexual violence and harassment is rooted in deeply held beliefs about women, men, power and inequality. This is not a simple isolated cause. Sexual violence is rooted in misogyny, which is deeply ingrained in our culture often in unconscious or subtle ways.
“ For example, when we refer to ‘rape culture,’ we mean a culture where ideas, social practices, media images and institutions implicitly or explicitly condone sexual assault by normalizing or trivializing sexual violence and by blaming survivors,” she continued. “Those attitudes don’t just hurt women, they hurt men too.”
“It's one of the first times I've seen reference to those systemic issues, the terminology around rape culture, to be included in this kind of document,” said Pietsch. “We're very excited about it - it seems very comprehensive. It looks at a lot of different facets that impact survivor-victims of sexual assault and to us that's unprecedented.”
Wynne said legislative changes that spring from the action plan are expected to be drafted by fall 2015. The document is still an aspirational plan – proposed legislative changes and initiatives are described in brief, broad strokes over its 40 pages. The government has committed to spend $41-million over the next three years to implement the plan.
Here, the five most significant promises from the action plan:
- Changes to the legal system.
The Liberals plan to launch a pilot project to give free legal advice to survivors of sexual assault whose cases are proceeding towards a criminal trial. The plan also says the government is working with the Law Society of Upper Canada on regulations surrounding the use of prior sexual history in sexual assault trials. Rape shield law prevents this, but Pietsch says the reality is that lawyers find exceptions.
The plan also promises to remove the two-year limitation on civil suits in sexual assault cases – something lawyer Angela Chaisson with Ruby Shiller Chan Hasan Barristers describes as “absolutely a step in the right direction.”
“The two-year limitation period is a huge problem for sexual assault claims in civil court and civil court is really the only place where the victim is the victim,” said Chaisson. “Two years is not a long time in the life of a sexual assault survivor, particularly when you want to see how the criminal case plays out.”
- Legislation to direct how colleges and universities respond.
A Toronto Star investigation in November 2014 highlighted problems with how universities and colleges respond to rape and sexual assault. There’s currently no framework in place that mandates schools to have any response, though many institute their own programs. The action plan seeks to change that and also to require colleges and universities to make public incidents of sexual violence.
- Defining sexual harassment.
The current Occupational Health and Safety Act does not contain a definition of sexual harassment. The Liberals want to update the Act. They also want to implement a special enforcement team that would investigate all complaints about workplace harassment.
- Amend the Residential Tenancies Act.
The action plan calls for a change to the Residential Tenancies Act that would allow sexual and domestic violence victims to end their lease without giving 60 days notice. “I see that as a very proactive way of addressing this, but we also need to make sure that we have somewhere for them to go - that we have services and supports in place,” said Barbara Gosse, senior director of research, policy and innovation at the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
- Better training at most levels of the criminal justice system.
One of the plan’s systemic proposals is a promise to implement better training for police, Crown attorneys and community workers in handling the cases of sexual assault victims. “It’s an incredibly difficult system to walk through for any victim, particularly when you're dealing with intimate partners or partners who are part of that system,” said Gosse, who noted the training does not target the judiciary.
“It's really focused on prevention, education, supporting survivors who have experienced sexual violence and assisting them in rebuilding their lives,” said Gosse. “We'll see what happens and we'll see how accountable these ministries are in the future, but they are putting commitments on paper today and they're doing it in a way that signifies this matter is urgent and needs to be addressed with action.”