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The Line's Naughty List: Sexual violence survivors are still being let down
We have discovered that inquiries don’t give us change, recommendations don’t give us change, and that public pressure doesn’t give us change until leaders are committed to it.
We at The Line are, we admit, often a bit on the grumpy side. But there are wonderful, happy stories worth celebrating, and in the final week before Christmas, we celebrated a half-dozen of them here. Now, though, it’s time to get back to doing what we do best: pointing out all the bad things that we really ought to be fixing!
Today: Kristin Raworth on how #MeToo has stalled.
By: Kristin Raworth
In October 2017, the hashtag #MeToo was trending all over the world. It exploded online as a response to the exposure of sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein. The hashtag was created in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke as a social movement against sexual abuse, harassment and rape culture. For a brief moment, the thousands and thousands of survivors sharing their experiences online, even if only by sharing the hashtag, and the immediate downfall of Weinstein, seemed to suggest that this was a turning point. It was possible to believe that this was a genuine change in the culture, and that we were moving from a society that protected perpetrators to one that believed survivors.
Five years later, the faith we had in the idea of widespread institutional change seems woefully naive.
In a brief submitted to the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women hearings on the safety of the Women and Girls in Sports, Dr. Jennifer Fraser, herself a survivor of sexual abuse, stated that, “The systems we presently have in place in Canada protect enablers and perpetrators, not victims.” Sadly this statement could as easily be made about any institution in Canada, however the two most high-profile examples, and I would argue failures, would be our sports organizations, and the Canadian military.
I find one of the best ways to highlight how slow institutional reactions to sexual violence remain is to demonstrate how quickly they can and do act on other issues. In 1988, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson won Olympic gold in the Seoul Olympics. Three days later he was disqualified after steroids were found in his urine. Less than a year later the government began the Dubin Inquiry, the Commission of Inquiry into the Use of Drugs and Banned Practices Intended to Increase Athletic Performance. In 1990, as a result of the inquiry, the government created the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports after declaring the doping scandal as a “moral crisis” in sports.
A moral crisis in sports. Sound familiar?
In the summer and fall of 2022, Canadians were horrified to learn that Hockey Canada had systematically, over years, covered up cases of sexual abuse and harassment, paying off victims to keep them from reporting and protecting their assailants, some of whom reportedly went on to successful professional hockey careers. As a result of several high-profile stories Hockey Canada lost significant sponsor support and eventually responded by firing the CEO and the board, and made vague promises to address the institutional issues that were laid bare in their appearance before a parliamentary committee.
The issues, however, do not end with Hockey Canada. Since late November 2022, representatives of multiple sporting organizations and individual survivors have testified before the Standing Committee on the Status of Women discussing the systemic issues of sexual abuse and harassment in sports, and that goes beyond hockey, including soccer, gymnastics, boxing and the Coaches Association of Canada. Advocates are requesting three core actions. A judicial inquiry, much like the Dubin inquiry; criminalizing institutional complicity which would hold individuals who enable abuse and are accomplices to abuse and actively cover up abuse criminally accountable; and better education on training and supporting athletes in sports.
For a government that consistently labels itself a “feminist government” and has spoken extensively about its commitment to addressing violence against women and girls, these requests would seem not only completely aligned with the direction of the government but consistent with previous government approaches to issues in sports. However, when Bloc MP Andréanne Larouche put forward a motion for a public inquiry, the Liberal government rejected it.
On December 20th, Kirsty Duncan, the previous minister of sport, in a seeming rebuke of the Liberal government’s position, quote tweeted a survivor of sexual abuse in gymnastics saying “only a national public inquiry will shine light on the darkest corners of the sport system.” The current minister, Pascale St-Onge, however, has stayed silent.
The hearings are ongoing, but without a public commitment by the Liberal government for the systematic change demanded by advocates, it is hard to trust that real change will result from them. These are institutions with widespread issues with sexual abuse. Survivors spent days testifying about their experiences, and instead of moving to concrete actions that could address this, the government has done nothing and the institutions that are complicit in the abuse of athletes remain unaccountable for the harm they have helped cause.
So what about when there is an inquiry? Does that help shift institutional response to sexual assault? Not always.
In May 2022, retired Supreme Court judge Louise Arbour released the report and recommendations from year-long inquiry into the sexual abuse and harrasment allegations raised against the Canadian military. Her report was damning against all levels of the military, and included 48 recommendations for the Liberal government, which included handing over sexual misconduct cases to civilian courts.
This is, of course, the second recent inquiry into the systemic issues of harassment and abuse; the first was also issued by another retired supreme court justice (inquiries seem to be hot business for them these days). Justice Marie Deschamps issued her report in 2015, seven years ago, and revealed a massive issue with military culture that resulted in sexual assault complaints being ignored, a hostile and sexualized workplace culture, and military commanders protecting and often promoting predators.
Nothing was done. So of course the announcement of the Arbour report was met with a significant amount of skepticism by sexual violence survivors and advocates. The government knew enough to act … what did it need another report for, except to look like it was doing something?
This skepticism, as it turned out, was warranted.
Six months after the release of the report, Arbour came out swinging this month decrying the lack of fundamental action taken by the military, especially as it relates to handing over miscount cases to civilian courts. The government insists that this will be done but that the process of moving these cases to civilian courts and various civilian police forces is expensive (there have already been additional funding requests made by municipal police and RCMP) and time consuming. The government says it needs more time, a claim that Arbour rejects as “posturing” given that military sexual assault cases make up only a small percentage of sexual assault cases investigated each year. In what is clearly a fundamental misalignment between Arbour and the government, National Defence Minister Anita Anand appeared before the defence committee following Arbour’s comments, seemingly defending the slow pace of action, and refused to say when legislation to enforce the recommendations would be presented to parliament.
So in the five years since #MeToo burst into our collective consciousness, we have discovered that inquiries don’t give us change, recommendations don’t give us change, and that public pressure doesn’t give us change until the government is willing to push it. The problem here is simple to express, but profound in its implications: while our federal politicians, particularly in government, like to talk about changes needed in other institutions, the federal government itself is one of the institutions that must change if we are to actually alter the culture on sexual abuse and harassment.
Nothing will fundamentally change until they our leaders, from our “feminist” prime minister on down, understand and accept this. Survivors will keep screaming into the void, while perpetrators keep hiding behind the structures and institutions more comfortable in complicity than change.
Kristin Raworth is a victim advocate.
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