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Opinion Wynne’s plan to combat sexual violence is bold and hopeful

Brenda Cossman is a professor of law at the University of Toronto.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced on Friday her government's new three-year plan to combat sexual violence. Entitled "It's Never Okay", the initiative has multiple prongs, from public awareness to funding for sexual assault centres to legislative change. It's a plan about what can be done, right here, right now, on the ground, by her government. No more hand wringing, no more passing the buck to other levels of government, no more debating or studying whether there really is a problem.

"It's Never Okay" lets the statistics around sexual violence do the talking. "There are 460,000 assaults in Canada each year. For every 1000 sexual assaults, only 33 are reported to the police; 12 result in charges laid; only 6 are prosecuted and only 3 lead to conviction."

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There is clearly a problem. And the government does not pull its punches in bluntly naming the source of the problem: misogyny and rape culture. The plan even succinctly defines rape culture as "a culture in which dominant ideas, social practices, media images and societal institutions implicitly and explicitly condone sexual assault by normalizing or trivializing male sexual violence and by blaming survivors for their own abuse." Some won't like it. But, the government decided it was more important to get serious about sexual violence. You can almost hear them saying 'too bad, it is what it is, let's deal with it'.

The plan recognizes that there are no simple answers, and the responses must be as broad reaching as the problem.

There is the bold multi-media public awareness campaign, encouraging bystander involvement. The "Who will you help?" video spot shows a series of assaults in the making, with the attackers turning to the camera, saying "thanks for keeping your mouth shut," No, it's not subtle. It's hard to watch. That is the point – we are all implicated if we do not step forward and do something.

There are legislative changes – from eliminating the two-year statute of limitations on civil sexual assault claims and claims of sexual assault before the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board to allowing victims of violence to break their leases with less than 60 days notice. The government took a deep look at laws within its jurisdiction, and is fixing the ones that it can.

There is the pilot project to provide victims of sexual assault free legal advice, as they go through the criminal justice system. It recognizes that its hard – very hard – to be a sexual assault complainant, and it is going to see what it can do to make it a least a little easier.

There are the training initiatives – for Crown attorneys and other lawyers, police and educators, health care workers and others on the front line of dealing with victims of assault and harassment. It recognizes that despite the best of intentions, everyone on the front line could do a little better.

Colleges and universities will be required to adopt sexual assault policies, with clear complaint procedures and protocols. Many already have them, but they are going to have to get better, clearer and require student input.

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And the jewel in the crown: the province's new sexual education curriculum that will ensure that students learn about consent, respectful relationships and gender inequality, through grades 1 to 12.

Instead of simply focusing on punishing those who have offended, it is about teaching the next generation to be better sexual citizens. It's about nipping rape culture and misogyny in the bud. It's about stopping sexual assault before it ever happens. It's a hopeful statement of the power of education.

The plan sees a role for law in combatting sexual violence. But, it also recognizes that law alone is not the answer. While the criminal justice system could do a better job, the plan moves beyond a focus on punishment. It is as much about changing social norms. It is about prevention and education. It is about the future.

Finally, built right into the plan is the acknowledgement that it's not going to solve all the problems. It establishes an ongoing roundtable on sexual violence to review the initiatives and to keep coming up with new ones.

It's bold. It's humble. It's hopeful. It won't end sexual violence in three years. Sexual norms change slowly. I'm always one to find limitations – it's my job. But, it's awfully refreshing to see a government taking the lead on a complex social and legal issue, and seeing what it can do, right here, right now.

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