By Maddie Binning
Two of the complainants from the Jian Ghomeshi trial joined hundreds of supporters in freezing rain to rally in support of all survivors of sexual assault and to call for changes to be made to the criminal justice system.
The rally, hosted by Ryerson’s Centre for Women and Trans People and the Office for Sexual Violence Support and Education, was held at Old City Hall on Thursday, just hours after former CBC broadcaster Ghomeshi was acquitted of four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking. One of the complainants, Lucy DeCoutere, an actress known for her role in Trailer Park Boys, made an appearance at the event alongside the first complainant, whose identity is protected by a publication ban and who wore a fur-hooded coat and sunglasses to maintain her anonymity. After representatives from various groups and the complainants spoke, the crowd marched to Toronto Police Headquarters to meet protesters from Black Lives Matter T.O., the Toronto branch of the larger Black Lives Matter movement.
“Everybody I know is either a survivor or a supporter of a survivor,” said Farrah Khan, the organizer of the event and the sexual violence education and support coordinator at Ryerson. “We wanted to use this as an opportunity to come together, knowing that a lot of times with sexual crimes, people feel alone.”
Khan came to the Centre for Women and Trans People with the idea for the rally earlier this year and while the trial was the inspiration for the event, the focus remained on the survivors of these crimes, said Leizl Yance, a program coordinator for the centre.
“One thing that we really wanted to do was, even though it was created it light of the Ghomeshi trial, it was really for all survivors,” said Yance, “so that they would know as a reminder that people in society do hear them and are listening to them and that essentially we believe them.”
Gallery photos by Maddie Binning
Yance added that the rally was an attempt to change the “narrative [of sexual assault] from rape culture to a consent culture” while also calling attention problems with the courts.
“The Ghomeshi trial was a case that was very high profile,” said Yance, “and it really spoke, I hope, to a lot of people about how the judicial system is working and how the judicial system, like a lot of other systems within our society, [work] in favour of people who already have power.”
Ghomeshi’s acquittal was an example of failures in the criminal justice system, said member of provincial parliament Cheri DiNovo.
“It shows that we really haven’t come very far in these many decades in terms of women suffering from assault,” said DiNovo, who has personally dealt with sexual assault. “How many women does it take for a man who’s in power to be able to actually speak the truth?”
The acquittal led Viktoria Bitto, an advocate for the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, to work on creating the Sexual Assault Action Coalition with fourth-year social work student, Jenna Davies. Bitto used the rally as a chance to spread the word about the group which had been formed earlier that day, but she attended the rally as a survivor of sexual assault as well.
“I was sexually assaulted in October and I reported it 10 minutes after the assault had occurred, thinking that I was doing the right thing,” said Bitto.
After months of working on the case, the Crown decided to drop the charges, she said.
“Because there was no DNA proof and it was in an alleyway where there was no surveillance [and] there were no other people around, it was basically my word against his,” said Bitto, “and they chose his.”
Stories like Bitto’s are one of the reasons that Khan organized the event to show support for survivors and highlight problems surrounding how sexual assault cases are handled in court.
“We wanted to make sure people remember that we believe survivors,” said Khan, “[and] that we have a system that is built broken and that doesn’t support survivors. We can do better and we need to do better.”