Nova Scotia politicians at odds over how to respond in wake of taxi driver acquittal

Click to play video: 'Halifax sexual assault centre calls for funding changes'
Halifax sexual assault centre calls for funding changes
WATCH ABOVE: Avalon Sexual Assault Centre says the province’s policy changes in response to the acquittal of a taxi driver two weeks ago are a good first step. But the centre is calling for more changes and better funding models. Marieke Walsh reports – Mar 14, 2017

In the wake of the controversial acquittal of a man accused of sexual assault, Nova Scotia’s political parties can’t agree on what – if any – policies and laws to change or how to change them.

Bassam Al-Rawi was acquitted on March 1 after Judge Gregory Lenehan ruled the Crown failed to prove a lack of consent. The 40-year-old man was charged after police found a woman, in her 20s, passed out and naked from the breasts down in his cab in the early hours of May 23, 2015.

The crown is appealing the acquittal.

Last week the government announced a number of changes to try and make the justice system more sensitive and accessible to sexual assault victims. For example it will audit how police handle sexual assault cases and hire two new special prosecutors for sexual assault cases.

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The opposition parties agree with those steps but many are in their infancy and they’re calling for additional measures.

However the government has shut down both their proposals.

Tories proposing a committee to draft new legislation and an inquiry

The Progressive Conservatives, led by Jamie Baillie, have called on the government to set up an inquiry into Lenehan’s controversial comments during the trial and for an all-party committee to draft legislation to protect victims of sexual assault.

But citing the constitutionally protected separation of powers between the courts and government, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil flatly rejected the proposal for an inquiry last week. “Mr. Baillie should know in constitutional governance there’s a separation between the judiciary and government, you shouldn’t always be looking for political points,” McNeil said.

The provincial court act sets out the process a complaint should follow within the judiciary — several have been filed against Lenehan.

READ MORE: Protesters of Halifax cab driver’s acquittal call for justice for sex assault victims

Baillie’s proposal for an all-party committee to draft new legislation has also fallen on deaf ears.

“That is not what is going to help the woman, or the man, or anybody who has suffered through sexual violence throughout Nova Scotia,” Community Services Minister Joanne Bernard said. “That is not going to help them one bit.”

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Baillie’s ideas for what the legislation could cover are mostly things that are already in place or the federal or provincial governments are acting on. For example, he suggested victims should get free legal advice — something the government is already asking for from the federal government. He also said the province should mirror the legislation his federal counterpart Rona Ambrose is introducing. But her office says her bill — which would require judges to give written decisions in sexual assault cases — also applies to provincial judges.

Another proposal to require universities in Nova Scotia to have sexual assault policies appears to replicate the memorandum of understanding signed between the government and universities last year.

Still Baillie said provincial legislation to underpin the new policies is needed to bring more accountability.

“Giving the force of law — particularly a bill that all parties have voted for unanimously — sends a strong signal to survivors of sexual assault that we’re putting confidence back in the justice system,” he said.

NDP want immediate boost to funding for sexual assault services

The NDP have said they will look at any bills the Tories bring forward but they aren’t committing to joining an all-party committee. Instead leader Gary Burrill says an immediate infusion of cash for the province’s sexual assault centres will do the most good.

He says an extra $1 million should go to sexual assault and women’s centres and another $1 million should be put towards doubling the number of sexual assault therapists in the province.

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“The critical thing the government needs to do is dedicate resources​,” Burrill said.

READ MORE: Halifax investigates taxi licence process after driver acquitted of sex assault: ‘Women are scared’

Bernard said Burrill’s idea reflects the “naiveté of the NDP.” Citing a consultation done three years ago she said people in communities across the province said they weren’t accessing the services at the centres. She also said the centres, especially in Halifax, are “tremendously” supported by the government.

Last year Avalon Sexual Assault Centre launched a crowdfunding campaign to support its services. But Bernard said the government provides “ample core funding” for the centre’s counselling services.

The centre’s executive director Jackie Stevens told Global News the crowd funding was used to help pay for the salaries of two counsellors who were also partially funded by the province. She says she is waiting to hear whether they will be fully funded by the government next year.

“When we speak out about this it is so that people know that they should call, and they should access services,” Stevens said. “We want to be situated so that we can respond to the best of our ability.”

Avalon is also hoping to get multi-year funding so that the services provided are more sustainable. That funding model was promised under the province’s sexual violence strategy launched two years ago. Bernard said that model of funding will likely start in another year.


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