Kristin Raworth: A feminist government wouldn’t fight sex assault survivors in court
Military members who have been assaulted deserve better than what they're getting from Trudeau's government.
By: Kristin Raworth
Imagine that you have spent your whole life wanting to join the Canadian military. You have trained and studied and, finally, after all your hard work you are in. Then imagine that once you have actually gotten into the very place you dreamed about, you are sexually assaulted. You are sad, angry and most of all conflicted. You know what was done to you is wrong but you also know that reporting it will damage your career forever. So you stay silent. You rise up the ranks, maybe you get married, maybe you have kids, but you always carry the hurt of what was done to you. But you still stay silent.
According to the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services more than half of the survivors who reach out to them do so more than a year after their experience with sexual violence. Only six per cent of survivors even report to authorities at all. If you ask any women you know if they have had an experience with a man that constitutes assault or at least harassment, almost all will say yes. Most will also tell you that they never reported it.
If you ask anyone who works with survivors of sexual violence, they will tell you that disclosure takes time and that every single person is different. I guess someone should tell the Liberal government that.
In 2019, the government reached a $900 million settlement over a class-action lawsuit from survivors of military sexual misconduct. The deadline to apply for the settlement was November 2021. Before that deadline 18,000 survivors came forward. Yes, you read that right. Eighteen thousand people who signed up to serve our country and protect us were sexually assaulted by the very institution we are meant to idealize.
But the story doesn’t stop at 18,000.
A further 640 people struggled to come forward. Like so many survivors, they needed time. So they disclosed after the deadline. The federal government is now trying to deny them compensation. The Department of Defence has gone to court to deny these 640 people access to the compensation they deserve. Specifically, they appealed a federal court ruling that would have extended the deadline.
The extension wasn’t unreasonable. It was a month. The government has thus far refused to respond to media inquiries about this decision despite the fact it was the prime minister in 2018 who swore they would not fight the settlement.
I have written before about the failure of our institutions to respond to sexual violence, including the government’s weak response to sexual violence in the military, but this isn’t weak. This is cruel.
This is a response that ignores the complexity of a survivor’s experience. When I was sexually assaulted it felt like my whole world crashed in on me. Someone I loved and trusted had taken that and twisted it and hurt me. To be honest, the person I was died that day and I have never gotten hrt back. To ask someone who goes through that to immediately disclose not just to their friends and their family but to everyone is to ask them to take that pain and expose it to strangers. It’s a lot to expect and it’s brutalizing to go through.
But the Liberal government expects that. They expect that, in spite of the personal or professional impacts stepping forward might entail, and notwithstanding the fear, pain and anxiety it will absolutely cause, that survivors should just disclose on a government schedule. If they do not, then the government invalidates their abuse.
Remember. This isn’t abstract. This is 640 people. I struggle to understand how a “feminist government” would punish these people for needing time to disclose, for reasons ranging from dealing with an abusive spouse to complex PTSD. If we are going to actually take military misconduct seriously then we cannot discount voices that are inconvenient.
This is a government that refuses to call a public inquiry on abuse in sport, a government that would rather pay off survivors that actually address the culture in the military, a government that loves announcing they’ll develop an action plan but hates actually taking action.
I have never assumed it’s easy to resolve the institutional issues that sustain and enable sexual violence, but to quote Bruce Cockburn “You gotta kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight.” By ignoring 640 people who have taken every ounce of their strength to disclose, the government is simply pushing this issue back into the shadows. The fact that the minister responsible cannot event bring herself to comment on this shows the lack of real commitment to this issue. There are women and men who have sacrificed their careers to bring these issues to light and again and again that sacrifice is ignored in service of electability.
In this country I grew up wearing a poppy at Remembrance Day, honouring the sacrifice of our armed services. As an adult, as a sexual violence survivor, I more and more see the bravery of the women and men who tried to make our military better, who spoke up to ensure that women and LGBTQ2S people can feel safe and don’t have to ever worry about being hurt by their own. I see a military forced to change by the people within it. To me, these people are heroes as much as our battlefield warriors.
I also see a government protecting a version of the military that shouldn’t exist anymore, whether it is by refusing to implement the recommendations of two former supreme court justices (and counting!) or by consistently giving survivors nice words with no actions, and all while boasting of how no one is better at feminism than they are. This government continues to prove that sexual violence is only an issue worth fixing when it is convenient, and something that’s useful when talked about before an election, and then safely ignored until next time.
Kristin Raworth is a victim’s advocate and executive assistant to a city councillor in Edmonton.
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