What You Need to Know About Ontario's Plan to Curb Sexual Assault
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What You Need to Know About Ontario’s Plan to Curb Sexual Assault

The provincial government has launched a $41-million initiative to curb sexual assault, violence, and harassment. We break down the details.

Photo by Jean from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo by Jean from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Last week, Premier Kathleen Wynne and Minister Responsible for Women’s Issues Tracy MacCharles (Pickering-Scarborough East) unveiled a three-year plan to address sexual violence and harassment. The “It’s Never Okay” Ontario Action Plan sets out guidelines to both educate the public on and prevent sexual violence against women, and was released to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8.

But, much like the backlash against updates to the province’s sexual-education curriculum, some have misinterpreted the plan. One group has even launched a billboard campaign against the Action Plan to highlight violence against men (Wynne and MacCharles’s plan focuses specifically on harm against women).

Below, Torontoist outlines what you need to know about the Action Plan.

Why Now?

The past year has been fraught with high-profile Canadian cases of sexual violence—from sexual-assault allegations against CBC star Jian Ghomeshi and subsequent #BeenRapedNeverReported viral social media campaigns, to the suspension of Dalhousie dentistry students over misogynistic Facebook comments, to the publication ban on the trial for late Halifax teen Rehtaeh Parsons. As a result, Wynne announced in December 2014 that she would be “accelerating” a plan against sexual violence.

Three months later, the 35-page document was released to the public, noting just how pervasive sexual violence against women is in our country. According to the document, less than 10 per cent of sexual assaults in Canada are reported to police—a number that has been corroborated by multiple sources. Statistics Canada also found that in 2007, Ontario was among provinces with the lowest rates of reporting sexual assault to police. One in every three women, the document goes on to note, will experience some form of sexual assault in her lifetime.

“Many women in our province do not feel safe. That’s the reality,” Wynne said during her announcement of the plan March 6. “And as a woman, mother, grandmother, and as the premier of the province, I have a problem with that.”

Then Versus Now

This isn’t the first time the Ontario government has addressed sexual violence. In 2011, another Action Plan, dubbed “Changing Lives, Changing Attitudes,” [PDF] vowed to improve services for women affected by sexual violence and to “strengthen the criminal justice response.”

The 2013 auditor general’s report, however, criticized the $18-million plan for its shortcomings. “The Ontario Women’s Directorate should ensure that the commitments contained within the action plans have measurable goals or targets attached to them,” the findings read.

The Plan

This time around, the Ontario government will devote $41 million to the implementation of a three-year plan. Within the plan are 13 different ways the government proposes to address sexual violence and harassment against women, including:

  • A public awareness campaign of ads depicting the various ways bystanders can help women prevent, or survivors cope, with sexual violence. The commercial, which was first shown during Wynne’s announcement of the plan, covers sexting, date rape, consent, and workplace harassment. It is accompanied by the hashtag “#WhoWillYouHelp.”

  • Legislation that will address sexual violence in workplaces (through stricter enforcement laws and implementation of codes of practice against sexual harassment), on college and university campuses (including the implementation of sexual violence policies and prevention tools), and in housing.

  • Inclusion of concepts, such as consent and rape, in Ontario’s updated sex-ed curriculum
  • Improved support for survivors, including availability at treatment centre facilities and nuanced training for front-line health-care workers
  • Creation of a pilot program to provide free legal counsel to survivors proceeding in criminal trials, along with an “enhanced prosecution model” to help survivors navigate their trials. The plan also includes legislation that will eliminate a two-year limitation period for civil sexual-assault claims.
  • Creation of a permanent roundtable to address women’s issues.

The document also provides in-depth definitions of words like “rape culture,” “consent,” and “sexual violence,” along with a contextual briefer on the way institutional and systemic factors play into sexual violence against women for those unfamiliar with the concepts.

What are politicians and advocates saying?

To Wynne, “It’s Never Okay” is a “road map to end sexual harassment.” It’s part of a struggle she says she has been part of as a mother, leader, and woman.

NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo agrees Wynne’s plan is a “step in the right direction.” But she expresses concerns over where exactly the $41 million invested in the initiative will be spent. As a survivor of sexual assault, DiNovo says she would prefer to see more funding for front-line health-care workers and victim services, which she says are “grossly underfunded.” She adds: “I just want to make sure the money flows to the right people.”

Farrah Khan, an advocate at the Barbra Schlifer Clinic who introduced Wynne and MacCharles at the plan’s unveiling last Friday, echoes DiNovo’s sentiments. She says in 2010, the clinic saw a dramatic increase in the need for front-line services, and hopes the three-year plan will help fulfill those needs. Still, Khan is “cautiously optimistic” about the plan’s success, but says she’s content to hear government officials address issues like rape culture and misogyny. Thanks to the new proposed legislation, “it’s a plan we can actually see changes out of,” she says. (Khan will be sitting on the roundtable the Action Plan has established.)

A PC MPP could not be reached for comment at the time of publication.

What are other people saying?

Though some organizations have criticized the plan for focusing on violence against women, MacCharles and Wynne both stress that men also play a role in the initiative.

“This cannot move forward without men,” MacCharles said during the plan’s announcement.

Khan is also interested in seeing how “the plan plays out through different communities.” For instance, how will police officers treat sex workers who have been assaulted? Will LGBTQ women or women will disabilities face discrimination?

“We know violence doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” she says. “We have to address systems.”