I first wrote a version of this article in the immediate aftermath of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the United States Supreme Court. It has been revised and altered from its original state: at the time I wrote it, I was furious. Today, I’m still angry, and also have the advantage of distance.
As a Canadian, the results of the US Supreme Court directly impact me little. There is no avoiding that the US does influence globally, so there are shadows cast by decisions made there – but a shadow is not a tangible thing. I have loved ones who reside in the US and who will be affected by decisions made, but I myself am not threatened. As a feminist, I feel solidarity with the survivors across the US and others who were hurt or re-traumatised by the whole ordeal and eventual confirmation. But beyond that… I can imagine folks asking, What’s the big deal? What does Kavanaugh’s confirmation have to do with Canada?
For me, Kavanaugh’s confirmation and the destabilizing trauma Doctor Christine Blasey-Ford endured, was a stark reminder of the work still ahead. It was yet another loss which should have been an easy win. It is, of course, worth noting that rights are not a finite source, it is not a zero-sum deal: there are not losers in the expansion of rights. The elevation of an alleged abuser in the face of credible allegations, alongside fundamentally inappropriate behaviour, did feel like a loss. The palaver acted like a mirror, undermining my sense that progress is being made, whether in the States or Canada or elsewhere. To a degree, the veracity of the sensation doesn’t matter: when it comes to the safety, security and justice of survivors of all genders, one failure is too many. Kavanaugh’s confirmation was the culmination of many failures and of systemic problems. Canada is not immune, despite perhaps considering itself better.
The Kavanaugh hearing has a direct line drawn to it from the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991, and to the current #metoo movement. Canada has seen high profile sexual assault cases, most notably that of Jian Ghomeshi only three years ago, but there are many others. There are the devastating circumstances of Cindy Gladue’s death, followed by a trial which was so disrespectful to Gladue that the defence lawyers and judge have been repudiated for unethical behaviour, with a new trial now in the Court of Appeal. Then there was Judge Lenehan in Nova Scotia asserted that “clearly a drunk can consent” in a case dealing with an unconscious woman, and in this instance, the judge was not reprimanded. These are examples which have made national waves in the last few years, but they are by no means the only ones. They are exemplary of Canada’s failure to take sexual assault seriously: as a crime, and also as an embedded and insidious societal issue.
Canadian systems work differently to American ones: we don’t have Supreme Court appointments in the same way, and happily it is more impartial. Recent legislative changes by the federal Liberals sets an independent body in charge of selecting potential candidates from applicants, who then go on to be questioned by a cross-party group of MPs and Senators. The final decision for appointment is made by the Prime Minister, from a short-list as put forward by the cross-party group. I can’t speak to historical appointments, but the current system strives to be transparent and apolitical (to the extent this is possible). This is a good step.
More needs doing. Particularly when looking to political representatives and the lower courts, and when we consider legislative measures and the avenues through which the law is upheld. The lack of a coherent, definitive procedure for dealing with allegations against a representative or judge is a massive problem. Politicians weigh in on issues or actions relating to sexual assault and harassment by negotiating with colleagues, debating proposed legislation, and then voting on it. Members of the judiciary hear the cases which make it to court. Of the four federal parties (Liberal, Conservative, NDP, and Green) only the NDP have a clear sexual harassment policy. There are questions about how well the NDP dealt with internal accusations – and I am unclear on whether this policy was in place as regards allegations against Weir, though it was with Moore. But it puts them ahead of the Conservatives: who, when searching google or looking through their Code of Conduct, no policy or guideline exists. The Liberals, who seem only to have had a Code of Conduct for their 2018 convention. And the Green Party, who have a generic Code of Conduct for members, with no specifics about sexual harassment.
This is unacceptable for any party looking to manage in the so-called ‘post #metoo’ world. Only one has a coherent internal procedure. Internal procedures matter because the way a Party comports itself is going to be indicative of how they’ll run the country (or province, municipality, etc). If they can’t organize themselves, if they can’t work with their female-identified and non-binary members, if they can’t protect and seek meaningful resolution for victims and survivors in their own ranks… How will they ever be able to do so credibly nationally or provincially? Or create adequate legislation? Seek judicial reform to befit the unique nature of these crimes?
I’m not saying it’s easy. If it were easy, men wouldn’t cry foul at the first whiff of an accusation. We would have long acknowledged the legitimacy of the vast majority of claims, and the severity of the effects on survivors of these crimes.
It isn’t easy to come up with workable policy: on the spectrum of behaviours that constitute sexual harassment and assault, there are clear crimes, and there are grey areas and nuance. In her book, “Good and Mad: the Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger”, Rebecca Traister discusses the wide spectrum of consequences that are due to behaviours perhaps better described as sexual harassment adjacent: “Many of the women who told their [#metoo] stories (there were men who told theirs too, but the majority were women) felt that the treatment they’d experienced had damaged their careers, dulled their prospects, muffled their ambitions, and kept them from the kinds of achievements in the public sphere that the powerful men of whom they complained had reached.”
In 2009, the Canadian Department of Justice undertook a study to quantify the costs of sexual crime in Canada. Making note that, “Sexual offences data suffer from severe underreporting; these crimes are less likely to be reported to police than both assault and robbery, and overall it is estimated that approximately only one in ten incidents are reported to police (Brennan and Taylor-Butts 2008).” They found that the overall “victim costs” for women in 2009 were $3.4 billion, including $17.4 million in lost current income, $188 million in lost future income, and $1.8 million in lost education costs. They further highlighted a $181 million cost for mental health disability provisions. Men’s “victim costs” totalled $1.2 billion, including $48 million in counselling costs. These numbers are stark and deeply alarming. I also strongly suspect that were a similar study to be done in 2019, ten years later and in the midst of the #metoo movement, these numbers would rocket higher as more people come forward and share their experiences.
The goal is to get to a point where people are not afraid that trusted individuals in their lives – frequently men – will endanger them, violate them, undermine them, or hurt them. That rejections will be respected. Workspaces honoured. Autonomy validated and held sacred. That when violations occur, survivors will be believed, trusted and centred in the process for their recovery and justice: including defining what justice looks like.
It will be complicated, requiring a flexibility that the law often doesn’t appreciate or accommodate. It will be expensive, requiring long term and comprehensive investment in social, systemic and structural change: the antithesis to our short-term-focussed democratic system. It will mean putting in the work to overcome literal centuries of prejudice around this kind of crime. In particular, it will mean no more passes given to perpetrators, and an end to the punishment of survivors. There will be uncomfortable conversations, high emotions and tempers boiling.
It will be hard as hell.
But so what if it’s hard? So what if it’s complicated, expensive, uncomfortable and causes high emotions and boiling tempers? These things are already there. Survivors and their loved ones and supporters across this country feel this way every day. They also feel hurt and traumatized and abandoned by those meant to serve, protect, and represent them.
I can’t offer detailed policy solutions. This is not my area of expertise. I am simply someone who lives in Canada, a country which purports to value its women and nonbinary folks as much as its men. I have been looking for evidence of this in its treatment of survivors, and of aggressors: I have found little. I don’t have detailed policy solutions, but I do know what kinds of things would make me feel safe.
– Adequate funding for mental health care services for survivors (and anyone), across Canada, but particularly in the documented oversubscribed institutions in BC, Ontario and no doubt elsewhere in Canada. The robust and immediate expansion of mental health services in Indigenous communities.
– For the Federal government to follow through on updating the Indian Act to ensure aid and protection to which First Nations are constitutionally, legally and morally due. For which it has been mandated by the Canadian Senate, and for which the UN is actively calling.
– Regarding the RCMP: from my perspective, the RCMP faces a severe problem regarding their trustworthiness. The list is comprehensive: the sexual assault and harassment reported within its own ranks (3130 as of November 2018. They expected 1000. Both of these numbers are unacceptably, infuriatingly high.) Their response to survivors who come forward. Their handling of interactions with Indigenous communities. Their relationships with Black Canadians, and individuals with mental health and substance abuse problems. That their collective poor record with LGBTQ2 Canadians is so poor, that the Fed has introduced this effort to improve trust within the LGBTQ2 community with police forces nationwide: it must be embraced with the esteem it deserves. The list is endless. There is work being done at addressing internal and toxic cultures. That work is not happening swiftly or robustly enough. The RCMP, and the Federal government by dint of being responsible for the RCMP, need to do better. Urgently.
– Based on the handful of cases discussed, the same robust and urgent change is needed from the judiciary.
– The recognition that this issue is widespread and insidious. It happens across all institutions, industries, fields and communities. All genders, classes, races, religions and sexualities. From this understanding should flow the restructuring of priorities to uphold dignity and respect to all women – transgender and cis – and nonbinary people, and all other vulnerable persons. That this dedication to the safety of people is held above a perceived ‘reputational hit’ at acknowledging the issues within. The support of government in transitioning any organization which comes forward and requests support in routing harassment.
Ultimately I want to see people of authority acting with survivors’ best interests at heart and in mind. I want to see them recognising the seriousness and universality of the issues, and contending with its nuances, hurts, and challenges. With sensitive vigour.
In other words, for this issue to be taken as seriously as though it were faced by the Justin Trudeaus, Andrew Scheers, Donald Trumps and Brett Kavanaughs of the world: privileged white men who can speak blithely on this topic without ever fearing its consequence.