Ontario’s Plan to End Sexual Violence and Harassment

Alexis Mulvenna and Leah Bowes

On Monday, August 10, Beyond the Headlines, the School of Public Policy and Governance’s student radio show, will be airing an episode entitled “Women in Public Policy” that will discuss the role of women in leadership positions in government and the public service. The guests will discuss a wide range of topics, including the metrics that could be used to evaluate whether women are being treated equally in government and society more broadly.

The role of women as leaders in government has been in the spotlight since Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s election victory in 2013. Her government has since launched one of the largest woman-centric policies to emerge in Ontario in recent years, entitled “It’s Never Okay: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment.”Announced in March 2015, the three-year plan devotes $41 million to ending sexual violence and harassment in the province, behaviour that Premier Wynne believes is “rooted in misogyny.”

In Canada, 460,000 sexual assaults take place each year. However, sexual violence continues to be one of the most underreported crimes in the country due to barriers that many sexual assault survivors face when attempting to report these acts. According to Ontario’s Action Plan,

“for every 1000 sexual assaults, only 33 are ever reported to the police; 12 result in charges laid; only 6 are prosecuted and only 3 lead to a conviction.”

This shocking disparity between the number of acts and reports of sexual violence is further exacerbated by stereotypes and harmful attitudes regarding female sexuality that are used to blame survivors and palliate criminal behaviour. Such attitudes are pervasive and have become structurally instilled in many Canadian institutions. The recent claim made by the Chief of the Defense Staff Gen. Tom Lawson that men are ‘biologically wired’ for sexual misconduct exists as a prime example of the sexism that has become embedded in many Canadian institutions. As a result, political and societal institutions often reinforce these harmful sexual assault myths and alienate survivors. This normalization of sexual violence that excuses perpetrators and blames survivors is known as “rape culture” and is reinforced through social practices and popular media. Through identifying and combating rape culture, and the underlying misogyny that supports it, Ontario’s Action Plan aims to reduce sexual violence and empower survivors.

By this time, many Ontarians have seen some of the ads that are part of the Action Plan’s public awareness campaign, which depict various forms of sexual violence and harassment. This includes a man slipping something into a woman’s drink at a bar, and a male massaging the shoulders of a visibly uncomfortable female co-worker. The clear message of these ads is that standing by and doing nothing when witnessing sexual violence and harassment is an active choice that supports perpetrators and harms survivors. By expanding the burdens of responsibility and culpability to observers, the ads critique the notion that bystander are merely “passive observers”. While these ads represent only a small part of the comprehensive plan, they are reflective of a shift in the public discourse around sexual violence that signals a more nuanced understanding of responsibility, sexuality, and violence.

The Action Plan in its entirety does much more than just raise public awareness about sexual violence and harassment. It also attempts to: ensure that survivors of sexual violence who are going through the justice system have more choices and better outcomes; increase help and community support for survivors; strengthen laws so that workplaces are free from sexual violence and harassment; create safer campuses; and create generational change in attitudes and behaviours towards women.

Under each of these objectives, the plan lays out concrete actions through which the desired outcomes will occur. For example, to create safer campuses and eliminate rape culture on campus, the government commits to introducing laws that require universities and colleges to have a sexual assault policy in place, to report publicly on incidences of sexual violence, and to implement sexual assault prevention programs.

While the government’s plan is highly comprehensive, it does appear to tackle sexual violence from a safety perspective, as large components of the Action Plan are focused on improving women’s safety through actions such as strengthening occupational health and safety legislation. Although it is important that Ontario be equipped with strong survivor support and response mechanisms, such actions can fail to address the underlying misogyny and attitudes that perpetuate sexual violence. However, the plan does successfully identify structural causes of sexual violence and survivor alienation. While many of the plan’s actions are safety focussed, it lays the groundwork for continued policy development aimed at dismantling rape culture.

Thus far, many women’s groups, such as METRAC, are optimistic about the plan’s ability to deliver on its promises. These groups will no doubt closely monitor the Action Plan as it rolls out over the next three years. A Ministerial Steering Committee on Violence Against Women has also been established to monitor the implementation of the plan. One key area to monitor will be the consultation that occurs with diverse women, in continuing discussions about sexual violence and harassment. The Action Plan successfully points to the role of intersectionality—how being a female member of a marginalized race, ethnicity, or social class can aggravate the effects of sexism— in shaping women’s experiences of violence and sexuality. This is particularly important given that different policies, supports, and services will be required to protect all Ontarian women from these terrible acts.

Overall, there appears to be a large amount of confidence in the government’s Action Plan to end sexual violence and harassment. The plan successfully defines and diagnoses rape culture and provides both immediate safety actions as well as a framework for future cultural change through gender-focussed policy. Premier Wynne’s government has seemingly put women and gender issues high on the political agenda, raising awareness of these important topics.

As we wait to see how the action plan unfolds, be sure to tune into CIUT 89.5 FM on Monday, August 10 at 11AM (EST) to hear further discussions about women and public policy.

Alexis Mulvenna and Leah Bowes are two of the Directors of the Gender and Public Policy Initiative at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. The group aims to promote and facilitate discussions on public policy’s role in addressing gender inequality and discrimination.

Alexis Mulvenna is a 2017 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance, and a 2017 Juris Doctor candidate at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. She holds a Bachelor of Management and Organizational Studies from Western University, where she completed a double major in business management and psychology. Alexis has a keen interest in the intersection of law and policy, and is passionate about social policy.

Leah Bowes is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance, specializing in Sexual Diversity Studies. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from Queen’s University, where she focussed on social history. Leah is passionate about social policy, particularly as it relates to equity and intersectionality.