Alberta Premier Rachel Notley says more initiatives to combat sexual violence are on the way and will include teaching the concept of consent in schools.
“We’ll be looking at some work at all grade levels. How do we talk about consent as early as kindergarten and moving all the way through to Grade 12?” Notley told a news conference Tuesday.
“We need everybody to learn what consent is and how fundamental it is to relationships between people. They need to learn that at a very young age and be comfortable talking about it.”
Education Minister David Eggen said teaching consent is part of the government’s ongoing curriculum review.
He said consent is already being taught in some schools but not in others, and a consistent approach is needed.
“The safety of our children is paramount. It’s very important to have boundaries that students know about, (and) being able to say no,” said Eggen.
At the younger levels, he said, it’s more about basic respect around personal space, “saying that you have to ask permission to touch and hug somebody (so that) even little kids understand that that is their right as well.”
Notley made the comments as she proclaimed May sexual violence awareness month.
She also announced that officials from 10 government ministries and community organizations are to meet to build on previous provincial initiatives to combat sexual violence. It will be headed by Stephanie McLean’s Status of Women Ministry.
The department said a number of strategies are to be rolled out this year, including a project related to how police services respond to sexual assault offences.
The province will also be giving out seven grants to community organizations to address sexual violence. Community and Social Services will be rolling out grants for community agencies.
The Labour Ministry is expected to announce new rules on how workplaces address sexual harassment and assault.
The province has already made legislative changes to allow sexual violence survivors more latitude in filing civil claims and in getting out of leases without penalty.
The government has also allocated an extra $8.1 million to provide more police and court support along with more counselling.
Lise Gotell, a professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Alberta, said Notley’s announcement is a good first step, but the program needs benchmarks, details and dedicated funding.
“I don’t believe we can effectively intervene in this incredibly pervasive and complicated social problem with no budget commitment,” said Gotell.
She said there are still long waiting lists for counselling and supports, particularly for residents in rural areas and for Indigenous people.
She said Alberta needs to do more on the justice side of the issue akin to projects in Ontario that provide four hours of free legal advice for anyone who has experienced sexual violence and is considering going to the criminal courts.
“I know they’re thinking about it and that’s good, but we need to be doing more,” said Gotell.
The province estimates sexual assault is the most under-reported crime in Canada. Just one victim in 20 comes forward to report assaults to police.
Debra Tomlinson, head of the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services, said it’s important to focus on an issue that has been ignored for decades.
“Nobody wanted to talk about this issue. Nobody even wanted to say the words ‘sexual violence’ because they were just too ugly,” said Tomlinson.
“And so survivors lived in secrecy and shame and silence. The abuse and the assault continued and the health and the safety of our communities were left to suffer.”