Ontario is proposing new legislation aimed at stopping sexual violence and harassment, as part of a $41-million, three-year plan.
Premier Kathleen Wynne said the plan, It’s Never Okay: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment, tries to change behaviours and challenge social norms, adding sexual violence is rooted in misogyny.
Wynne and Tracy MacCharles, minister of Children and Youth Services and minister responsible for Women’s Issues, made the announcement at a news conference at the YWCA Canada on Elm Street on Friday morning.
The plan is a roadmap to taking action to ending sexual violence by raising public awareness, helping survivors and strengthening laws to protect workplaces and campuses, and for the latter to publish incidents of sexual assault.
Wynne announced in December that such a plan would be accelerated after several women came forward to say they’d been harassed or sexually assaulted by former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi — who has denied the allegations — but never reported it.
“These are things that needed to be done in any case. We’re not doing this because of those incidents that happened in recent months,” Wynne said. “It created a moment, created an awareness, created a reaction of shock and outrage.”
Wynne is promising stronger workplace safety legislation requiring employers to investigate and address workplace harassment, including sexual harassment.
“Harassment at work can undermine a person’s dignity and help keep them from doing their jobs effectively and can compromise their ability to earn a living,” Wynne said.
“All employees, no matter where they work, are entitled to a safe and healthy work place.”
The plan also includes legislation, which if passed, would eliminate a two-year limitation period for civil sexual assault claims and an “enhanced prosecution model” tailored to sexual assault cases.
“We all have a role in stopping it,” Wynne said of sexual violence and harassment.
“Every time one of these stories breaks, we once against start to talk about the problem and then very little or nothing changes … well, time is up.”
The plan also includes a public education campaign, with an ad that calls on bystanders to intervene. (Please note: the video contains graphic material that may be triggering to some survivors of sexual assault, viewer discretion is advised).
“As hard as it is to watch,” Wynne said of the video, “it’s much worse to experience.”
Wynne said a permanent roundtable on violence against women will also be established.
The premier said the reality is many women in Ontario do not feel safe, and that one in three women will experience some form of sex assault in her lifetime. However, sexual assault victimization rates are five times higher for women under 35.
Also, 28 per cent of Canadians say they have been on the receiving end of unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, or sexually-charged talk while at the workplace.
“Most telling: the degree to which people were saying, I can’t believe this is happening. Well I can believe it. We can believe it. Certainly every woman in this room knows these are things people deal with all the time,” Wynne said of the fallout from the Ghomeshi story.
At its core, the plan is aimed to change behaviours and challenge social norms because the problem of sexual violence and harassment is rooted in deeply-held beliefs.
“These are learned behaviors, which means they can be unlearned, or better yet, never learned in the first place,” Wynne said.
“Sexual violence is rooted in misogyny, which is deeply ingrained in our culture often in unconscious or subtle ways,” Wynne said, adding “ending misogyny means changing the way we talk about sex, gender, consent, power and equality.”
“As a woman, ending sexual violence and harassment is a cause I feel very strongly about. And as a leader, I know it’s right to take this action for Ontario.”
She hopes the plan will start raising awareness, and she is asking everyone to “step up and help end sexual violence.”
Wynne pointed out that for change to take root, it needs to start early.
“Parents and teachers play a critical role in combating misogyny and inequality. That’s in fact why we’ve updated the health and physical education curriculum to help students develop and understand the root causes of gender inequality and from an early stage understand healthy relationships and consent,” she said.
“Our action plan is the start of that change, not the end,” Wynne said.
A key part of the action plan is to have more training and professionals because survivors need “a sensitive, informed, and appropriate response is crucial in that moment.”
The province is looking to increase funding for community-based sexual assault centres, and will be working with the Ontario Public Service to raise awareness.
In February, the Liberal government unveiled a new sex-ed curriculum that will teach children in Grades 1 to 12 about consent and healthy relationships.