Heritage Matters

Heritage Matters – Spring 2018

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Page 33 of 43

Heritage Matters 32 Practices and attitudes die slowly: Sexual assault legislation and activism in Canada By Allison Ward In 1967, during a decade of social change and revolution, the federal government launched the Royal Commission on the Status of Women to address the growing feeling that progress on gender equality had stalled. They aimed to provide practical solutions that the government could implement to ensure that all Canadians had equal opportunities. Their 1970 report identified crucial areas where changes were needed – including family law, income inequality, lack of political representation and the Indian Act. It poignantly noted that, "The stage has been set for a new society equally enjoyed and maintained by both sexes. But practices and attitudes die slowly." This 50-year-old observation continues to resonate for activists working for women's equality, especially those involved in the fight against sexual violence. For most of Canadian history, it was difficult for women to press charges for sexual assaults. Survivors of sexual assault were thought to be unreliable and untrustworthy witnesses. Their testimonies were not considered sufficient evidence to prove that a crime had occurred; the prosecution either had to provide independent evidence or another witness. This hurdle made it almost impossible to try most sexual assault cases. In the 1970s, women's organizations, legal professionals and academics began to place increased pressure on the federal government to reform sexual assault laws to reflect the seriousness of these crimes. In 1983, Canada's legal system began to catch up with these demands. Bill C-127 reformed sexual assault legislation to broaden the definition of sexual assault, including removing an exemption for spouses. It included legal changes to value survivors' testimonies. The federal government of the time hoped that these changes would increase conviction rates and help reduce the shame and stigma that survivors of sexual assault faced when they came forward. Trying and convicting sexual assault cases, however, continues to be a challenge in the Canadian legal system. Many survivors of sexual assault still experience obstacles reporting these offences to authorities and getting resolutions to their cases. In spite of gains that women have made in society, the risk of sexual violence continues to impact their lives. Additionally, 60 per cent of students enrolled in post-secondary schools are women. Yet, women's increased presence on campus has not made schools safe places for women. Approximately one in five students will experience some form of sexual assault while they are attending university or college, but schools have struggled to resolve complaints that they receive about sexual harassment and violence experienced on campus. In the last five years, these experiences have led students and advocacy organizations to voice their frustration at a system that never seems to be improving. In Ontario, this outcry led to the mandatory implementation in 2017 of sexual assault policies at all post- secondary institutions. Once these policies have become an established part of campus culture, they aim to reduce the likelihood that students will have to worry about their personal safety on campus and enable them to contribute to the shaping of a more positive culture for dealing with sexual violence on campus. As legislative changes slowly occurred, women across Ontario realized that collective

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