Lawrence Hill is the author of 10 books, including The Illegal and The Book of Negroes, and is a professor of creative writing at the University of Guelph. This is an adaptation of his remarks at the McMaster University convocation, where he received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree.
As a volunteer with Book Clubs for Inmates, I have visited with women inmates in book clubs in federal penitentiaries in Ontario and Quebec. I will do so again soon in Saskatchewan and B.C. Sometimes, the kindest thing to do for a person is to sit with them behind bars, forget what they did, and focus on what they think about that book which is open in their hands, listen to them dream and talk about the lives they would like to live when they reintegrate into society.
I have also been a volunteer for 35 years with Crossroads International, which promotes grassroots community economic development for girls and women in Africa.
In Swaziland, for example, which has one of the world's highest HIV prevalency rates as well as rates of sexual assault, I recently mentored young girls who were aspiring writers. I asked them to write about their lives. More than one wrote about living with sexual assault, or fending off sugar daddies. One girl wrote about being sexually assaulted while walking to school, only to be disciplined at the school doors for arriving late.
There is so much more work to do to reintegrate offenders into Canadian society and to help girls and women live in peace in Swaziland and elsewhere.
Here on the richest continent of the world, we are witnessing a rise in hostility to women's rights, safety and equality. Domestic violence against women continues to be a major problem – in this country and elsewhere.
In the United States, the president-elect has bragged about his own sexually predatory behaviour. Astonishingly, it didn't hurt him at the ballot box.
In Canada, women brought forward allegations of sexual harassment and violence against Jian Ghomeshi, our most celebrated radio host. Ultimately, he was acquitted, but the complainants themselves endured public ridicule.
And in Canada, as well, Steven Galloway, one of our most famous writers was recently dismissed from his teaching position at the University of British Columbia. Some of his female students who brought forward complaints during the course of a formal university investigation have been vilified in social and mainstream media. In the last days, dozens of Canadian writers have risen to this writer's defence.
I am not one of them.
I don't know what truly happened in the case of this writer and his accusers. The matter is still under review. I hope that the facts come to light and that justice is served. The process must be fair to all. To the writer, and to his accusers.
But I refuse to join any social movement that silences and hurts women who have brought forward complaints related to harassment or assault – where they study, work, walk or live.
When a woman steps forward to say that she is not safe or has been ill-treated in her university studies or in the office with her boss or at home with her partner, there can only be one response: You are welcome to speak. We will investigate and you will be safe.
No wonder that women are hesitant to step forward to call out sexual harassment and violence. No wonder that few women report rape to the police. In our judicial and parajudicial systems, every accused person has a right to a vigorous defence.
But complainants – women included – have a right to be heard. They have a right to be respected. And they have the right to carry on with their studies, their work and their lives without fear of censure if they speak up about their fundamental human rights.