Ontario introduces new legislation to stop sexual violence

Here's what will change if the Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act becomes law.

Eight short months after the release of its ambitious plan to tackle sexual violence and harassment, the Ontario Liberal government has taken the first step to make those recommendations the law.

The Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act hit the floor of the legislature Tuesday afternoon and, should it become law, would make a series of changes that remove barriers for survivors seeking justice and trying to flee dangerous situations. It also has a strong focus on preventing violence and harassment in post-secondary institutions and workplaces.

“It’s really remarkable how quickly this has moved, and I would say it’s a credit to our stakeholders giving us great advice, and it’s also a credit to many ministries working together to bring it to fruition,” said Tracy MacCharles, the Minister Responsible for Women’s Issues. The government fast-tracked work on the action plan, which would spend $41 million over three years, shortly after the Jian Ghomeshi scandal broke last fall.

“I think there’ll be general consensus around this” as it makes its way through the legislature, she said.

“The idea that a government is saying words like ‘rape culture,’ ‘supporting survivors,’ and recognizing aboriginal or indigenous women experience high rates of sexual violence — just talking about the breadth and depth and the intersections of it — that’s been very moving for me,” said Farrah Khan, co-chair of the province’s roundtable on sexual violence, and a survivor herself. “The legislation is showing leadership, which is what we need…. I’m cautiously hopeful for this work to have teeth.”

Related: Six years after Col. Russell Williams attack, not enough has changed

Here are the highlights of the Act:

• Every publicly assisted college and university and private career college will be required to have a stand-alone sexual-violence policy and review it — with student involvement — once every three years. While many post-secondary schools are working to address sexual violence, very few have an individual policy for dealing with it, and certainly not one crafted with student input.

• Public and private employers must ramp up their sexual harassment prevention programs and will have to ensure that incidents and complaints are appropriately investigated.

• Right now, a sexual assault survivor has up to two years to take legal action against his or her attacker before it’s considered “too late” in the eyes of the law, unless the abuse occurred during childhood. This new legislation would remove that limitation period for all sexual-assault cases. This is significant because it “resolves an element of uncertainty and risk for victims who want to focus on their recovery before moving forward with a claim,” said Gillian Hnatiw, a partner at Lerners LLP who argues sexual assault cases in civil court. It will similarly drop the two-year limitation period for survivors trying to get financial compensation through Ontario’s Criminal Injuries Compensation Board.

• The time it takes to end a tenancy agreement will be shortened for people experiencing sexual or domestic violence to make it easier for survivors to flee abuse. This is significant because it removes a barrier for people who are “in that situation and can’t get out of it,” said Todd Minerson of the White Ribbon Campaign, an organization that helps men end violence against women.

“Hopefully [the Act] is met with good democratic debate,” said Minerson, “but also hopefully it’s passed quite quickly…. It’s definitely going to make the lives of survivors better and safer.”

Related: Kathleen Wynne recalls her near miss with sexual assault

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