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The Chatelaine Q&A: Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne

On her government's startling new ad campaign and how politicians can fight stigma with personal stories.

Kathleen Wynne, speaking at the Sexual Violence and Harassment summit.

Kathleen Wynne, speaking at the Sexual Violence and Harassment summit. Photo, Government of Ontario.

A woman spins around in her office chair and pledges to gossip about your “skanky” outfit. “It’s that part of the night where you repay me for dinner,” smirks the guy who drove you home after a date. These scenes, from the Ontario government’s newest ad campaign to end sexual harassment and violence, flashed for the first time before the crowd of 700 people at the province’s first summit on Sexual Violence and Harassment, held in Toronto on Thursday. Startling even to those whose life’s work is to end sexual violence, the #ItsNeverOkay public service announcements are effective, according to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, and just might be the secret weapon to shift perceptions of what constitutes sexual violence in Ontario and other provinces. Alberta’s #IBelieveYou campaign similarly encourages people to support survivors of sexual assault. In an exclusive interview with Chatelaine, the premier spoke about why these campaigns work.

Your government started with an ad targeting bystanders, which went viral. Six months later, 58 percent of people feel they have an obligation to step in if they witness sexual harassment. It was 37 percent in the spring. Now the government is trying to change people’s minds on what constitutes sexual violence, which seems more challenging.

First of all, let me just say I was absolutely thrilled to see the numbers were moving on people feeling like they had to take responsibility. You have to remember this is a conversation that’s been going on for a very long time. One of the reasons we acted so quickly was there was a moment, because of what went on with Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby, and I wanted to use that moment to good advantage. That we could put out an ad and begin a discussion with people in Ontario and, quite frankly, beyond the borders of Ontario and actually see some movement I think is just terrific. That has confirmed my belief that we have to continue to have a public education campaign.

You shared your own close brush with sexual violence earlier this year. This week, Alberta MLA Maria Fitzpatrick shared her experience with domestic abuse. What difference do you think it makes to hear politicians share their experiences?

I think it’s very important we find ways to tell our own stories, because that’s the only way to remove stigma from the experiences. The statistics show that there are thousands of women, if not millions of women in this country who have had these experiences. I believe I need to use this position to let people know what my full life experience has been in the name of normalizing discussion about issues that sometimes it’s hard to talk about.

Patty Hajdu, the new Federal Status of Women Minister, says her highest priority is getting a national inquiry into the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women off the ground. How will you help with that?

I’ve been supportive of the Chiefs of Ontario campaign Who Is She? to help raise money for an independent inquiry. And our officials will be working with the federal officials. A lot of it will be about sharing data, sharing information, sharing intelligence and pulling together the different cases. I don’t know exactly what the parameters will be, I think they’re going to consult on that. We’ll certainly do everything we can in Ontario to support that effort. We haven’t heard from them yet.”

In your speech at today’s summit, you said “the underlying disease” of sexism and racism are interconnected. This week, we saw a Muslim woman assaulted in Toronto, her hijab ripped off. It’s inherently a gender-related crime. Do you think your government’s campaign does anything to help her?

Well, that’s the intention. I’m actually going to have an opportunity to meet her this afternoon — she lives in my riding. We need to be aware that there are people who are more vulnerable than others in our society. This ad campaign is about touching the lives of as many men and women as we can to help them to engage in this discussion and, with luck, change their perception.

Watch the new #ItsNeverOkay ad:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnRsUqF5G70

Related: 
This politician’s account of abuse brought her colleagues to tears
Kathleen Wynne recalls her near miss with sexual assault
‘This changed me.’ The lasting impact of the Ghomeshi scandal