Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was met with a pressing question during his town hall stop in Fredericton last Tuesday: What is the federal government doing to protect Canadian citizens from sexual assault?
Laura Shaw, a University of New Brunswick student, appealed to the prime minister with a shaky voice, reminding him of the recent Maclean’s Magazine rankings which placed Fredericton in the top three for most sexual assaults per capita in the country.
“I’m about to finish my university degree here and I know that there are a number of people in my life who have experienced sexual assault … I read an article where someone who was a victim of sexual assault at York University. Their perpetrator received the maximum sentence that the judge can give and it was a year and a half. That’s not enough.”
Trudeau responded to Shaw’s question by thanking her for her voice on the issue and “for bringing forward an issue that unfortunately we don’t talk about nearly enough in society.”
He told the crowd his very first volunteer experience when he was attending McGill University was with the student society’s sexual assault centre.
“I was one of the first men to be trained as a facilitator for the outreach program which basically went around to residences, to fraternities, to sororities to talk about sexual assault, to try and bring it forward,” he said.
“One of the issues, though, was the Sexual Assault Centre at the McGill Students’ Society because 25 years ago institutions didn’t want to recognize that there was a problem around sexual assault, so it had to be the students’ organization [who dealt with it].”
Trudeau said unfortunately, 25 years later, “there has been progress made but not nearly enough.”
Trudeau said this is one of the reasons his cabinet has been working hard to empower former Status of Women minister Patty Hajdu and now Maryam Monsef in order to face these systemic problems.
“There’s things we can and need to do around our criminal justice system to strengthen it, but that’s not the only solution,” Trudeau said.
“We need to do much more around education, how we raise kids, how we support families, we need to do a lot more so our workplaces are free from harassment.”
After the town hall, Shaw said she was pleased with the Trudeau’s response and thought it was genuine.
“It was nice to hear that he had experience working with a sexual-assault centre and that it was something that was a priority to him even 25 years ago. It’s a systemic problem, and he recognized that,” she said.
Shaw said it was an important question to ask knowing the rates of sexual assault in the city. She said after the consultation, a woman approached her and thanked her for bringing up the issue as she had seven friends who had been sexually assaulted.
“This is something that forever affects the victims of these crimes, but often the perpetrator goes unpunished for a variety of reasons. We need systemic change,” Shaw said.
The town hall came just days before a survey from the University of New Brunswick was released reporting 21 per cent of students who responded had been sexually assaulted since arriving at the campus.
That’s around 252 of the 1,200 students who completed the anonymous online survey. Sixty-six per cent of respondents were female.
The protection and services available to women in the Fredericton area have been a point of concern for several years. Even with the re-opening of Clinic 554, formerly the Morgentaler clinic, as the only private abortion clinic in the province, getting support from the government has been an ongoing fight.
The clinic also offers publicly-funded health services such as contraception, cancer screening and pregnancy options. Despite this, Reproductive Justice New Brunswick’s Allison Webster said there has been little involvement from the federal government.
“I think it’s reasonable to expect, especially for a prime minister that ran on such a pro-choice platform, that the federal Liberals would support our fight to have services fully funded at Clinic 554,” Webster said.
She said so much optimism has been drawn from the gender-balanced cabinet and Trudeau’s famous “Because it’s 2016” line, but it’s hard to see if much has really changed.
“I think because it is a stigmatized procedure and because people can be vulnerable when they’re trying to access the service, it makes it easier for the government to just turn a blind eye.”
Other topics directed towards Trudeau during the town hall included electoral reform, disability tax credits, implementing the UN’s Declaration on Indigenous Rights, the Phoenix payroll system, medical marijuana, the Energy East Pipeline, immigration and what his 8-year old daughter wants to be when she grows up.
To that, the Trudeau responded, “I impress on my daughter she can be whatever she wants. I also impress upon her brothers she can be whatever she wants.”
Trudeau said Canadians need to make sure the power dynamics and abusive behaviour that has become prevalent in the world is stopped.
“We need to support survivors, we need to be there to show that this is unacceptable, we need to raise our kids to understand this is unacceptable, we need to address the huge challenges that exist within our patriarchal systems … We need to continue to have strong people standing up and challenging me [and] institutions to do more to take this more seriously,” he said.
“Because if we want to be a truly equal country where everyone’s rights are respected, we have to understand that the violence against women and girls that continues far too often is underreported, under-acknowledged and not dealt with the way it needs to be.”
Webster said the voices of advocates and those who participate in conversations and events like the recent Women’s March on Washington are in solidarity with women and all people’s human rights.
“We really need to stand together and stick up for each other, have each other’s back and, I mean, I guess that sort of sounds simple but if we can help amplify the voices [by having] other people speak out about this, it gives more power to the movement.”
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