What Bill C-5 could mean for survivors of sexual assault

Click to play video: 'Sexual assault awareness bill aims to educate new judges'
Sexual assault awareness bill aims to educate new judges
The federal Liberal government re-introduced a bill earlier this week that would make sexual assault training awareness mandatory for new judges. The legislation aims to end stereotypes in the court room. Katrina Squazzin has more. – Feb 7, 2020

It’s meant as a push to empower survivors of sexual assault to come forward.

The Liberal party has breathed life into a previously tabled bill that would make newly-appointed provincial superior court judges receive training on sexual assault myths and law.

“This training will provide trauma-informed, culturally-sensitive training to aspiring judges,” said Minister of Women and Gender Equality Maryam Monsef on Thursday.

“So that when somebody has the courage to actually seek justice, they are treated with respect and with dignity.”

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Introduced on Tuesday, Bill C-5 is a tweaked version of a previous private member’s bill, C-377, put forward by former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose in 2017.

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Ambrose’s bill was unanimously supported in the House of Commons, but spent close to two years in the Senate, according to Monsef. When it was time for Parliament to get ready for an election, the bill died.

Monsef said with the bill not going forward, survivors of sexual assault had “missed a window” to benefit from judges having been trained, hence why the bill is being reintroduced.

“We decided that we would bring back this bill and support Rona’s work, because we want every survivor of sexual assault to feel confident to come forward to seek justice,” said Monsef

Bill C-5 would mean that newly-appointed Ontario superior court judges will join Ontario’s crown attorneys in being the the only ones trained in sexual assault in Ontario’s judicial system.

The bill will not make it mandatory for sitting judges in the lower court, the Superior Court of Justice, and the Supreme Court of Canada to take the training.  However, the training can still be provided to sitting judges if they choose to take it.

Monsef said it would be “problematic” for Parliament to impose any mandatory training on sitting judges because of the way that the Constitution of Canada works.

Under the Constitution, the principle of judicial independence dictates that only the National Judicial Institute delivers judicial education, and thus Parliament cannot intervene.

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While not reporting sexual assault might be a complex, difficult decision, it is not uncommon to hear that the reason behind a survivor’s silence is the fear of scrutiny and the failure of a conviction if the case were to make it to court.

According to the Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre, one in three women and one in six men will face sexual violence in their lifetime. Out of 100 sexual assault instances, only six are reported to police.

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According to the Sexual Assault Centre of the Hamilton Area, out of every 1,000 sexual assaults in Canada, only three lead to a conviction. 

“So many misconceptions, so much lack of understanding of neuroscience and victimization has come up in the court system that it’s vital that we begin this training for judges now,” said Lisa Clarke, executive director of the Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre (KSAC) in Peterborough.

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Some survivors have conveyed that a testimony can sometimes feel like they are reliving their trauma.

“It is very, very difficult,” said Clarke “Its hard, and it’s much worse when these myths about how short the skirt was that you were wearing, or how much you were drinking — all that myth that doesn’t bear out in the research — is brought up in the court.

“That’s what we want to stop. We want to stop that myth-making.”

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Often, according to Clarke, children who have been sexually assaulted have to withstand two trials, while adults only go through one.

Nevertheless, in either of those trials, sometimes the perpetrator is never called to testify, while survivors endure days of questioning,

Despite Ambrose being the leader to the official opposition party in 2017, the Liberals have still decided to reintroduce the bill.

“Canadians don’t have much patience for us playing politics with our lives,” said Monsef.

“They need to see that even in a minority government, we can work across party lines to provide effective solutions to address gender-based violence in this country.”

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The bill dictates that the modules used for the judge’s training be developed in consultation with sexual assault survivors and their advocates, as well as with experts, according to Monsef.

Bills needs to go before the House of Commons, and then the Senate, before getting final approval from the Governor General in order to become law.

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