'Re-examine everything:' Halifax victims' advocate talks impact, next steps after Ghomeshi verdict
Avalon Sexual Assault Centre executive director Jackie Stevens sat with Metro Halifax for a candid chat about justice and sexual violence
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Nearly a week after Jian Ghomeshi was found not guilty of sexual assault and choking, a Halifax victims' advocate says there is no quick fix for the justice system.
"I think we all kind of anticipated it, but it was still disappointing,” Avalon Sexual Assault Centre executive director Jackie Stevens said Tuesday of the Ghomeshi verdict.
Changes within the justice system are complicated and won’t happen overnight, Stevens told Metro, and movement likely won’t begin by overhauling any laws.
“We have to re-examine our beliefs and how those beliefs impact how we respond to ... sexualized violence,” Stevens said. “We need to put more emphasis on prevention.”
Victims need to be supported and the first step is to believe them, she added.
“An acquittal doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”
A Q&A with Avalon Sexual Assault Centre executive director Jackie Stevens
Metro: What did you feel after the verdict of the Jian Ghomeshi trial?
JS: I think we all kind of anticipated [his acquittal] but it was still disappointing … I think a lot of people were watching this case, particularly because of the potential impacts that it would have on the legal process for victims and survivors of sexualized violence.
Metro: Do you agree with the verdict?
JS: An acquittal doesn’t mean it didn’t happen … What I think I was more disappointed in was the way in which the judge chose to outline that verdict … Focusing on their actions after the assault sets back victim’s rights … Lucy Decoutere was chastised for becoming a victim’s advocate and that was seen as her creating a name for herself, or for furthering publicity for herself, not as part of her healing process or trying to find a voice in all of this.
Metro: What do you think about the level of public outcry and conversation this has sparked in Canada?
JS: A lot of people who maybe haven’t been talking about this issue before, are. And that is important because more people are recognizing that it is a serious social and systemic issue … There is also backlash and so certainly there are other voices coming out even stronger to try to silence people who might be speaking out … Both show the level of complexity around this issue and the need for change … There are ways to assure that people are innocent until proven guilty without causing further harm to victims and without discrediting and silencing people who come forward ...I think the biggest thing that stood out for people was the judge’s comment that there is a myth that victim’s always tell the truth. That’s never been a myth.
Metro: What do you think of the reaction of women?
JS: This particular case focused on a certain group of women, but it has illustrated that if it was difficult for women, and particularly women who have their own celebrity or their own sense of security, and this is what’s happened to them - what are the barriers, what are the challenges for people who are marginalized and who have limited access to certain services and supports? … People have been triggered by this and a lot of sexual assault centers have seen an increase in people accessing services, contacting them in crisis.
Metro: Do you think it’s causing conflict between those with different opinions?
JS: I think it’s human nature at any situation for people to immediately pick sides … I think it’s easier for people to side with the accused because you don’t have to do anything … When you believe victims of sexual assault, you are then making a commitment to supporting them, to believing them and it’s a long-term process … We all kind of have to re-examine everything we know as normal, and that’s a difficult thing to do.
Metro: Who should the fight be against?
JS: It’s more around examining our laws and legal system and how this is implemented. It isn’t necessarily that we have to overhaul the laws, but we have to re-examine our beliefs and how those beliefs impact how we respond to the issues for sexualized violence … We need to look at what supports are in place either in the community or through the legal process to ensure offenders don’t keep re-offending … People were saying for years and years and year that [Ghomeshi’s] behaviour was being questioned or that it was being overlooked within CBC, so what is the responsibility of institutions, of businesses of the community? … Most people’s responses is not to challenge and confront those predatory behaviours, but to question why people would “allow themselves” to be victimized when you know what this person is like.
Metro: Is this an important conversation to have no matter how heated or uncomfortable it may become?
JS: It’s unfortunately taken a lot of serious harm to people and to the community to get people to this place of being willing to talk about it and to do something about it … To have a provincial strategy, and to have on a provincial level sexualized violence being addressed and talked about, and have money and programs being implemented that weren’t there 20 years ago … We to continue to have these conversations, regardless of how difficult they are.
Metro: Does the verdict of the Ghomeshi trial diminish the small rise in reporting of sexual assaults?
JS: People will be looking at this case and ... question whether or not there would be any point in reporting, or not wanting to go through what they’ve seen these people go through … Does the justice system really protect or serve victims of sexual assault?
Metro: What does this mean for victims who want to come forward?
JS: People need to have a clear understanding of the reporting and the legal process, and the criminal justice process, and the court process, and that they need supports to go through that … Is it looking at specialized sexual-assault courts … is it looking at more effective training for police, Crowns, judges, other law and legal professionals? … Ontario is looking at providing free legal advice for sexual assault victims prior to a trial. Out west they are looking at time off work for people who have experienced intimate partner violence and sexual assaults … We don’t focus on the long-term outcomes … That’s something we need to start examining more effectively.