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People take part in a demonstration to denounce sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence in Montreal, on July 19, 2020.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Hundreds of people gathered in a downtown Montreal park Sunday to demand action against sexual violence after a wave of online testimonials sparked a provincewide conversation about abuse, harassment and assault.

One of them, Marlihan Lopez, had a simple message for survivors of sexual violence who have been sharing their experiences on social media in recent weeks:

“We believe you,” said Lopez, with the Federation des femmes du Quebec.

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“We need to remind the government that the fight against sexual violence is also systemic and that we need to go beyond denunciations and hashtags and have specific public policies.”

Demonstrators, many of whom held signs saying “Stop sexual harassment” and “Victims we believe you,” planned to march to the Palais de justice.

The first denunciations were shared online in early July, accusing members of Quebec’s tattoo industry and its arts and entertainment scenes of abuse.

Several well-known actors, musicians and entertainers have since been accused of sexual harassment, coercion, abuse and assault in relation to incidents that sometimes date back years.

Some alleged perpetrators have acknowledged and apologized for their behaviour. Others have denied the accusations and criticized the fact that their names were being shared online anonymously.

The reports go beyond well-known figures. Scores of Instagram accounts specific to Quebec cities and regions – from Montreal, Joliette, Sherbrooke and Shawinigan to the Monteregie and the Laurentians – have been launched. Some testimonials name the alleged perpetrators.

“It’s really a cry for an end to impunity,” said Marie-Christine Michaud, co-ordinator of the Crime Victims Assistance Centres, a network of victims’ rights organizations.

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That cry intensified after Safia Nolin, a popular Quebec singer-songwriter, accusing actress Maripier Morin on Instagram July 8 of unwanted sexual advances and of biting her thigh at a Montreal bar in May 2018. Morin has since apologized. Michaud said Nolin’s post gave others the courage to speak out.

Kharoll-Ann Souffrant, a protest co-organizer, said in an open letter published this month in La Presse that an adult in authority in sports had assaulted her when she was a minor. The doctoral student at the University of Ottawa said the Black Lives Matter movement had inspired her to speak out.

“I wrote that letter to defend myself, in fact, but also to share my story and put a face to Black women who experience sexual violence in Quebec, because we don’t talk about that much,” Souffrant said in an interview.

In 2014 and 2017, the #BeenRapedNeverReported and #MeToo movements shook Quebec but Souffrant said those speaking out now are young and unafraid to name their alleged abusers. The COVID-19 pandemic and recent protests against anti-Black racism had raised awareness around issues of injustice and inequality, she said.

Sophie Gagnon, a lawyer and executive director of Juripop, a legal-services organization, said the group had received a barrage of calls since July 5. Juripop, which had increased its phone capacity, said it was referring between 25 to 50 cases of alleged sexual violence to lawyers each day.

While many people were asking about the legal consequences of publicly accusing someone, Gagnon said Quebec courts had not clearly defined when the public interest might justify harming someone’s reputation.

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“A lot of people have also already received cease-and-desist letters from the person they’ve identified publicly on social media, so they seek assistance,” she said.

Laurie Fradette-Drouin, a sexologist with the Universite du Quebec in Montreal, said posts on social media may raise concerns about false allegations or defamation but bogus claims of sexual violence are rare. Focusing on the impact on the alleged perpetrator, she said, can mask the real issue: the prevalence of sexual violence.

The current movement is only the tip of the iceberg and many victims still suffer in silence, she said.

“We need profound changes to our system to make it easier for victims to report, and for crimes of a sexual nature not to go unpunished so often,” Fradette-Drouin said.

On July 8, Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette acknowledged those victims who had come forward. He also pointed to a law passed in June that eliminated time limits for sexual assault lawsuits.

The provincial government last year also created an expert committee to evaluate how the justice system deals with victims of sexual assault or domestic violence. The committee is expected to release recommendations this fall.

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