Finding Solutions: Improving the Reporting, Charging and Prosecution of Sexual Assaults against Adults


Notes for an address by
The Honourable Jody Wilson-Raybould, PC, QC, MP
Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada

To the
Justice Canada Knowledge Exchange 2017: The criminal justice system’s responses to sexual assault against adults
Hilton Lac-Leamy, Gatineau, QC: March 8, 2017

As Delivered

Good morning, everyone. Gilakas’la, thank you for having me here this morning to speak at this incredibly important and very timely forum or knowledge exchange. I want to recognize everybody in the room and not to point out any people in particular but I’m going to just acknowledge one of my amazing Parliamentary Secretaries, Marco Mendicino, who is here today.

Thank you to Roberta [Della-Picca] for the welcome to Algonquin territory.

I am so pleased that the Department of Justice is hosting this knowledge exchange in an incredibly important time – a very timely discussion. The issue of sexual assault and how we deal with sexual assault in the criminal justice system is something that I’m deeply committed to addressing, as is our Prime Minister and our government.

I would like to thank the Policy Centre for Victims Issues for inviting me to speak and to thank Gillian [Blackell] for the kind introduction. I would also like to take some time or this opportunity to acknowledge the incredible work that so many of you, all of you in this room, are doing to address sexual assault. We have – over the course of today and yesterday, as I understand – an incredible lineup of speakers and presenters and I know we’ll all appreciate hearing the knowledge and experience that you bring to this issue – this shared issue of importance.

Our government has been clear that sexual assault is unacceptable and wrong. We are unwavering in our commitment to ensure that victims of sexual assault and gender based violence are treated with respect and dignity.

This knowledge exchange provides a timely opportunity to discuss how cases of sexual assault are reported, charged and prosecuted in Canada. It will look at issues from the perspective of victims, the judiciary and criminal justice professionals.

It will also consider best practices with a view to strengthening the criminal justice system and how the criminal justice system responds to these horrific crimes. I’m grateful for the chance, at least in part, to participate in this important forum and stress my commitment to making sure the criminal justice system is more responsive to the needs of victims of sexual assault.

I am incredibly honoured to be the Minister of Justice and understand the responsibilities that I hold in my office. I bring, as was mentioned, a background in prosecution, and certainly recognize and have been confronted with victims of sexual assault, not only in my capacity as a former prosecutor but certainly in my capacity as the former Regional Chief of the BC Assembly of First Nations.

While anyone can be a victim of sexual assault, this gathering on International Women’s Day serves as a poignant reminder that victims and survivors of these crimes are disproportionately women. This crime has a gender impact and, unfortunately, myths and stereotypes continue to surface at all stages of the criminal justice system. For Indigenous, transgendered, two-spirited, disabled and other marginalized survivors of sexual assault, gender can be compounded by additional myths and stereotypes, creating further barriers to justice.

I understand that these initial obstacles were discussed last night in an armchair discussion. Here as in other countries, the vast majority of sexual assaults against adults, as we know, are not reported to police. We also know that charging, prosecuting and conviction rates in these cases are significantly lower than other types of violent crimes.

Sexual assault is certainly not unique to Canada. What is somewhat surprising, as was mentioned, is that our country’s comparatively robust criminal legislation has not led to the rates of reporting, charging and conviction that most Canadians would hope to see.

Our Criminal Code is clear. It prohibits sexual assault in all its forms. The law provides a definition of consent and clearly sets out circumstances where no consent can be given.  In addition, important amendments were made to the Code to protect complainants of assumptions based on myths and stereotypes about how victims of sexual assault are expected to behave. The panelists today will explore some of the measures in more detail. 

Despite this robust legislative framework and the Supreme Court of Canada cases that have expanded upon it, we know that victims of sexual assault still face significant barriers in reporting to police and in testifying in court. According to Statistics Canada – as we are probably all familiar with in this room – only five percent of sexual assaults in 2014 were reported to police. In 2015 only 43 percent of sexual assaults reported to police resulted in a criminal charge. Only 43 percent of those charged were actually ultimately convicted.

This means that for every 100 sexual assaults in Canada, less than one percent of those accused are convicted. That, as I am sure you know, represents the lowest conviction rate for any type of violent crime in this country and this is completely unacceptable.

This problem is not new. My recent media reports have highlighted a few significant concerns, namely the number of cases deemed by police to be unfounded remains unacceptably high and this varies across the country.

Recently, some of these stories touched on why these cases were deemed unfounded.  As articles noted, harmful myths and stereotypes remain the greatest barrier to charging and prosecuting sexual assault. Clearly, then, having strong laws on the books is not enough and we need to look at new approaches. We must look beyond changes to the letter of the law for solutions and examine why the law is not being applied and enforced as it should be.

As Minister of Justice, I am incredibly concerned about the barriers to access to justice for victims of sexual assault. If victims of sexual assault do not report because they fear they won’t be believed or they lack the confidence in the criminal justice system, then the integrity of the whole system is called into question. When victims cease to turn to our criminal justice system, perpetrators are not held to account for their actions. That is a problem and I know that is a concern for everyone in this room.

How can we ensure our laws are effectively enforced? One place to start is ensuring that we do what we can to provide every professional working in the criminal justice system with the necessary tools to understand and apply the law. This means specialized training on sexual assault law for police and Crown prosecutors. It means encouraging police colleges, law schools and the judiciary to provide training as well.

It also means making sure that our practices in dealing with victims and survivors reflect an understanding of how trauma affects the brain and the ability to recall events.  There are, of course, broader societal forces at play that also influence attitudes and the prevalence of gender-based violence. Our government is committed to tackling ongoing gender inequality and sexism in all of its forms.

What we hope to focus on here today are, as was said, some of the promising practices, approaches and mechanisms being used both at home and abroad to improve the criminal justice system’s responses to sexual assaults. We are very fortunate to have many experts in this room who are going to talk of these promising practices.

Without a doubt, the Philadelphia model is one of the most exciting policing initiatives in this area, and it has received some recent attention in the media. This model of external oversight of police practices was designed to address the high rates of sexual assault cases deemed to be unfounded in the city in the 1990s. We are very fortunate to have two presenters here with us today that will speak about this model.

We’re also going to hear from representatives from Ontario and Quebec who will describe the criminal justice elements of their sexual violence action plans. Of particular note is the project in Ontario that offers up four free hours of legal advice to victims of sexual assault.

For my part, I am currently working – as you probably know – on a wide-ranging review of the criminal justice system. Among other things, the review is looking at the changes in the system and in sentencing reforms over the past decade to ensure the current provisions align with the objectives of the system. The ultimate goal of my review is to improve public confidence in the criminal justice system.

I want to make sure that the system treats victims with compassion, that it better meets the needs of vulnerable populations, that it takes a more integrated approach to addressing and preventing crime. My vision is of an effective criminal justice system that will respect victims and hold offenders to account. It will address the needs of vulnerable populations, including Indigenous peoples. It will also address the root causes of criminality and inspire public confidence.

I’m particularly interested in exploring the use of restorative justice approaches. I know this is one of the topics that was discussed last night and will be discussed today.

I’m also working very closely with my colleague, the Honourable Maryam Monsef, Minister of the Status of Women, in support of the development of a federal strategy against gender-based violence.

This strategy will build upon the work that our government has undertaken to launch a national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, which we launched last September. In addition, given the important role of the provinces and territories in the administration of criminal justice, I am working with my counterparts to explore practices, policies and legislative approaches for improving access to justice for victims of sexual assault.

More specifically, last October the federal provincial and territorial Ministers responsible for justice and public safety tasked a working group of senior officials to explore these issues and to bring recommendations to our attention. I know there are many of these representatives in the room.

We know that sexual assault takes its toll not only on victims and survivors but also on their families and loved ones. As we will be exploring today, understanding the impact of trauma is critical to properly addressing this issue.

In this respect, through the federal Victims Fund, our government is supporting community-based, culturally-grounded and trauma-informed support for families of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. We are also assisting families in gathering the information they seek about their loved ones through funding for Family Information Liaison Units. This is a concrete step and help for families affected by sexual violence and homicide.

Moreover, last fall my department made up to $12 million available over three years for projects designed to improve the criminal justice system’s responses to sexual assaults against adults. The funding is available to provinces and territories, municipal governments, First Nations governments, criminal justice professional organizations and non-governmental organizations.

I’m happy to say this funding is already supporting pilot projects for some very promising practices that you will hear about today. These projects include an initiative in Newfoundland and Labrador to provide free legal advice to victims of sexual assault and funding to enhance the Ontario project I spoke about earlier. These resources are also supporting a project in New Brunswick to provide specialized training for Crown prosecutors and other criminal justice system professionals in dealing with victims of sexual assault and interpersonal violence.

In addition, our government is funding more than two dozen projects run by non-governmental organizations. One of them will look at the Philadelphia model and see about adapting it to the needs of a particular community.

Sexual assault is a serious problem in Canada. It crosses social and economic barriers, affects communities right across the country, and has devastating consequences for individuals, their families and their communities. It is a significant barrier to women’s equality. Indeed, it represents a clear violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of women, something I know we are all reflecting on this International Women’s Day.

Gatherings like this – with so many professionals committed to getting at the root causes, committed to improving our criminal justice system to properly and appropriately address the needs of victims of sexual assault – are so important.

I very much look forward to hearing of your discussion, and I very much look forward to hearing your solutions and how we can employ them together.

Gilakas’la. Thank you for listening.

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