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Enough is Enough: Justice Reform for Sexual Assault Survivors

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Two months after a mistrial was announced in RNC officer Doug Snelgrove’s sexual assault case, a panel convened in St. John’s to demand action on justice reform for sexual assault survivors. In Newfoundland and Labrador, approximately half of all women and girls over fifteen will experience at least one incident of sexual or physical violence throughout their lifetime. It’s estimated that 90% of these assault survivors will never report the incident to the police.

On Wednesday, November 25—the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls—St. John’s Centre MHA Jim Dinn and the St. John’s Centre NDP District Association organized a town hall at the Royal Canadian Legion on Blackmarsh Road. The event, Justice for Survivors: A Panel Discussion on the Need for Justice Reform to Better Serve Victims of Sexual Assault, was also streamed online over Facebook Live.

Gerry Rogers moderated the panel. It was comprised of a mix of feminists, activists, legal professionals, and sexual assault survivors.

“Research and activism has shown violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread, persistent, and devastating human rights violations in our world today,” Rogers stated in opening remarks. “This evening is a perfect time to gather together to explore yet again what needs to change… and how we, together, can make it happen.” Each panelist offered their unique perspective on the state of the justice system for sexual assault survivors, followed by a question period and final recommendations. 

The Independent was in attendance, and we’ve gathered together this selection of highlights. Read on to find out the key points each panelist delivered at last week’s event.


Panelists, L-R: Heather Elliott, Lynn Moore, Janet Lee, Jude Benoit, Laura Winters.

JUDE BENOIT

Jude Benoit is a two-spirit Mi’kmaw and land protector, an activist for the queer community and all its intersecting communities, and co-founder of the Indigenous Activist Collective, the Trans March, and other groups and mutual aid efforts. They are a survivor of police brutality, sexual assault, and a justice system that was founded on continuing the harm and genocide of their people. Jude firmly believes in dismantling the police and complete justice reform as a crucial step in reconciliation.

On the current state of the justice system:

“Although I appreciate the words that we have a broken justice system, it was never working. It was created to harm Indigenous people… There’s nothing to be broken, because it was never created to work for us… Where I’m from, when there’s a crime you don’t call the police. When you’re sexually assaulted, you don’t call the police. And when the police sexually assault you—which they do—you don’t tell anyone.” 

“When you have [a police officer] who commits a crime—say they’re sexually assaulting Indigenous women in a community for several generations—and no one does anything about it, who should look into that? Should it be the police themselves? I don’t think so… When you have a police officer assault someone, it shouldn’t matter if he’s a cop or if he’s not a cop. He assaulted someone.”

On complete radical change:

“This is a systemic problem. You have to completely tear down the house and rebuild it. You can’t just keep building on the foundation that’s falling apart. It’s not going to work… Healing cannot happen while we are still being hurt. You can’t keep harming people and then expect them to heal. Healing and hurting do not coincide.”

“If you get anything from what I’ve said tonight, please take that change needs to happen—and not small change. It completely needs to be redone… I no longer want the RNC and the RCMP to look how they look. I no longer want to see our justice system look how it looks and operate how it operates. I want… complete radical change.”

On the urgent need for action:

“In the end I want my children to grow up in a world where it doesn’t look like this, where they don’t see people like them being shot by police officers when they’re called to a scene for somebody’s mental health. I don’t want to live in this world and I can’t just go to the moon, so this is the only one we have. I need it to change. I need it to look differently.”

“I feel like it’s too late for me in a lot of ways but it’s not too late for them. It’s not too late for your children and your grandchildren. If you think that the stories you heard tonight are just Indigenous girls—no. It’s your children and your grandchildren who are being assaulted, and they don’t know where to go. They’re not getting justice either. It’s all of us.”

“I truly feel like all of you can make a difference. I’m looking in a room with very important people and you can all make a difference. You just have to go there. Take a note from me: I should have been blacklisted years ago, but they’re still letting me talk. If I can do it, you can do it. I promise you.”


HEATHER ELLIOTT

Heather Elliott is a survivor, community activist, and graduate student in anthropology at Memorial University who studies gender in the maritime sector. She was so furious following the Snelgrove mistrial that she stood outside the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador in protest for eleven days, demanding the justice system do better for survivors of sexual violence who come forward.

On publicly protesting after Snelgrove’s mistrial:

“Standing down on the street for eleven days was incredibly eye-opening… By and large, the reaction I had was positive. I had strangers walking up to me telling their stories of how the justice system had failed them, how they had gone to the police, how they had gone all the way through court, and nothing had come of it. Some of them had recorded confessions, some of them had photographic evidence, and still nothing.”

“The stories that got to me the most were the amount of times I heard, ‘I didn’t bother,’ ‘There was no point,’ ‘I didn’t go to the police,’ ‘I didn’t go to court,’ ‘They weren’t going to do anything for me.’ Those stories resonated with me because… those stories are very similar to mine… I did not believe that the justice system was built to deal with cases like mine. I had been told, as many women of my generation were: if you get drunk and something happens, you are just as at fault as if you had been sober.”

On the importance of consent education:

“We need to look at how we are educating our kids… it’s very easy to have a conversation around consent with your kids when you talk about tickling. If you don’t want someone to tickle you, you can say no… that is so important because they need to be raised with that healthy understanding of what their boundaries are, and that they’re allowed to reinforce them, and that if somebody crosses them that’s not okay.”

“I was shocked to find out that we haven’t actually updated a lot of sexual education curriculum since the early 2000s… and there’s no discussion of consent. Anywhere. There’s really nothing, and that’s a problem. Because when you are dealing with kids who are coming up and are trying to learn how to navigate the world, how to navigate their bodies, how to navigate healthy relationships—they spend a lot of time in schools. That should be where they’re getting that information. If we’re not doing that for them, we’re doing them a disservice.”

On holding our representatives to account:

“The people in this room that are in positions of power—I’m looking at all of you that I can see—we actively need to do something. I need you people to do something. In Quebec, they did a cross-party initiative; in Nova Scotia they’ve done cross-party initiatives… There are literally hundreds of survivors in this province who need [you] to step up and make change, now.”

“You have community groups who are doing phenomenal work, doing this outreach and this research for you. Use them. Listen to us. Listen to our survivors. Listen to our marginalized communities. We have been screaming our lungs out for years. All of the knowledge is there. You don’t need to strike another committee… You need to listen to those who need your help.”


JANET LEE

Janet Lee is a legal support navigator with The Journey Project—a collaborative initiative of the Newfoundland and Labrador Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre and the Public Legal Infomation Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. The Journey Project provides support with the legal system for survivors of sexual violence. For over fifteen years, Janet has worked in the areas of violence prevention, community organizing, residential care, and alternative education programming. She believes each individual is the expert in their own life and experiences.

On supporting survivors via The Journey Project:

“The Journey Project was started in 2017… in recognition of the inherent re-traumatization that was happening to folks time and time and time again, as they were trying to access justice and were being repeatedly denied that access for a multitude of reasons. It’s a low-barrier, community-based system and is rooted in our belief and in our desire to enhance and strengthen supports for individuals that work for them.”

“For the province to extend our funding beyond March 31st would be helpful, because I would like to continue to do this work… [and] to resource the project so that we have the capacity to support individuals under the age of sixteen because they, in particular, deserve better.”

On mandatory training for NL judges:

“One of the things that The Journey Project is working on is mandatory training for provincial court judges. My expectation and my hope, should that training be mandated, is that it would move beyond sensitivity training to look at the neurobiology of trauma, the social context under which sexual violence continues to be perpetrated against individuals in our communities, and how to better support survivors.”

“[One thing on my wishlist] is the request and the call to respond to the letters that [the Journey Project has] submitted, the submissions that we have submitted, offering our services to do the training for provincial court judges and legal stakeholders in this province.”

On the need for healing resources:

“Recognizing that each individual’s definition of justice can be unique, what we do so often hear from folks that they’re looking for—in terms of justice—is acknowledgement, accountability, and healing. Often in the criminal system, we don’t even get that acknowledgement—let alone the accountability and healing that is so necessary for folks to move forward.”

“I hope that, through conversations like this one, there’s action moving forward that can increase the range of options for survivors because it’s certain that no single action or program will solve all of the issues. We need to build alternatives, like what was mentioned around transformative or restorative justice, while increasing supports within the existing system if that system is the option that an individual wants to pursue.”

“As a legal support navigator or any service provider, it’s not up to me what’s going to work best for the individuals that I support. It’s my job to listen to people, to believe them, and then offer support that works for them… We are grateful and deserving to be able to offer free legal advice to survivors, but we need more healing options. We need more accountability options. We need more support for individuals, because there’s so many people in this room that I work with on a consistent basis that are doing incredible work with very little resources. Survivors deserve better than that.”


LYNN MOORE

Lynn Moore is a feminist lawyer who represents people who have been sexually abused in civil cases, as well as a former Crown attorney who has held space for survivors of sexual assault for thirty years. Lynn was a Crown prosecutor in Newfoundland and Labrador’s specialized Domestic Violence Court and she contributed to getting that court reopened after it was cut for budget reasons.

On short-term reforms within the courtroom:

“Recently, Parliament unanimously passed a bill to require mandatory training for judges in the area of sexual assault. That’s important, because judges to our Supreme Courts and our provincial courts can come from any kind of background. They could spend twenty years doing corporate, commercial law and then be faced with a sexual assault trial and not have had any criminal experience. However, 95% of crimes in this province are dealt with in the provincial courts. That’s something I think that our province could very easily implement—mandatory training in sexual assault for the judges in our province.”

“It would be very nice to see a law which sets out acceptable conduct for defense counsel in the courtroom. Things like not being allowed to approach the witness… Things about limits on the decibel level that a defense lawyer can use. Yelling at a witness is not acceptable, shouldn’t be allowed. Asking the same question seventeen times, shouldn’t be allowed. There was one case in the 1990s in this province where a complainant was cross-examined for thirty days—shouldn’t be allowed. A person has a right to full answer and defense, there’s no question. The purpose of cross-examination is to test the witness, no question. But there should be limits on that, just like there are limits on many things.”

On the failures of the current justice system:

The justice system for survivors of sexual assault is fundamentally broken. There was a study in 2014 by the YWCA which said that out of every 1000 sexual assaults in Canada, approximately 33 are reported to the police; 12 have charges laid; 6 proceed to trial; and 3 result in conviction. So basically, it’s open season on women and children and boys and men.”

“What I think should happen, is we should just say shag the current system. It is not working. People are not coming forward. I don’t think that we can blame this on any one actor in the system. I think it is the fact that you have the requirement for proof beyond a reasonable doubt, you have the presumption of innocence, and you have conduct which sometimes occurs between people that they agree to it. No one is going to say, if you get your arm chopped off, ‘Well, you wanted them to chop off your arm.’ Because no one ever wants their arm chopped off. But sometimes people do agree to sexual activity, and that means that you’re in a courtroom where… all the accused has to do is raise a reasonable doubt.”

On expanding NL’s Family Violence Intervention Court:

“Expand the Family Violence Intervention Court to include sexual assaults. The Family Violence Intervention Court is a very different kind of court… If we could see that court expanded to include all forms of gender-based violence, as opposed to just family violence, that would be a good step.”

“There’s a lot of sexual violence that happens in date situations and those cases aren’t eligible for the Family Violence Intervention Court because there’s no significant relationship between the parties… And that process is a much better process for the person who’s been assaulted—and I think it’s also much better for the person who has done the assaulting, in terms of what they get out of it as well. I think that what survivors want, after they’ve been sexually assaulted, is an acknowledgment of the harm done and a commitment that it will not be done again.”


LAURA WINTERS

Laura Winters is the Executive Director of the St. John’s Status of Women’s Council and Women’s Centre with a long history of community work and activism. She holds a PhD in sociology and has worked with organizations like Iris Kirby House, End Homelessness St. John’s, and the Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP). Laura believes in the power of harm reduction, the importance of social justice, and the fact that women are the experts in their own lives.

On effectively empowering community work:

“Our organization tries to work from a trauma-informed, women’s centre, harm-reduction lens… Obviously, the system does not—and therein lies the problem. We are fundamentally at odds with that entire system on how women deserve to be supported and treated.”

“I would point to the Nova Scotia government as a shining example around gender-based violence. Essentially, their Status of Women has gone forward to the government and said, ‘Look. We don’t have a plan, but something needs to change.’ And they’ve gotten a lot of money to put towards that. Right now, there’s an initiative called Standing Together in Nova Scotia where the government has put a huge amount of money into the hands of the women-serving sector to say, ‘Go out and do research. Look at what’s evidence-based. Try things, and it’s okay if you fail.’ We’re not there in this province, but I think that’s one way forward to start to think about how we can bring together government researchers and to have that be funded in concrete ways.”

On closing the justice gap:

The ‘justice gap’ is around who has access to justice and what barriers are there. When we think about women who are racialized, people who are non-binary, women who are trans—we know these groups are not able to access justice at the same rates and we know that survivors of sexual assault are not able to access justice overall.”

“I have a long list of things that we don’t need. We don’t need another coloured ribbon. We don’t need another photo opp. We don’t need another soundbite. We certainly don’t need anymore proclamation signings. We don’t need another flag raising. That is not going to solve these issues. We’re not going to ‘committee’ our way out of this. We’re not going to ‘sensitivity train’ our way out of this—unfortunately, lots of research that shows that doesn’t work. And we’re not going to ‘government report’ our way out of this, and I think that’s very, very clear. We need evidence-based action at this point, concrete commitments, and systemic change.”

On getting government to acknowledge the problem:

I think we’re asking for structural change, and institutional change, and cultural change which are very, very big asks but it’s what’s necessary. The first step towards any of that is some acknowledgement that the status quo’s not working and I don’t even think we’ve gotten that… I think when we provide critique, what we get from the leaders of the day is defensiveness and a lot of forward-facing information about what they’re already doing and how wonderful it is. I think that needs to stop. We need to acknowledge that we’ve got a massive issue in front of us. It is a human rights issue. It’s not a women’s issue. This is an everybody and an every-department issue within government, and we need our government to view it that way.”

“We need to look at solutions that [are] beyond the four years of government… because we’re not going to have this solved next year. I think for me, that’s it. We just need to acknowledge where we’re at and really take this seriously as a province. We haven’t gotten there, and to me that’s the first step toward change here. The work is happening in [the] community. The work is happening—we are tired and we’re under-funded. We need more funding, obviously. But we also need for those in power to step back and do some reflecting and do the internal work that needs to happen towards cultural and institutional change.”


There is 24/7 support available via the Newfoundland and Labrador Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre, which operates from a feminist, pro-choice, trauma-informed, person-centered perspective where individuals with lived experiences are honoured for their unique strengths, needs, skills, and abilities. 

If you’re not sure where to turn, call 1-800-726-2743 at any time for caring, judgement-free support and/or information.

To donate to the Newfoundland and Labrador Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre, click here.

Photo by Ashley Macdonald.

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