My name is Marie‑Hélène Ouellette, and I am a coordinator and case worker at a help centre for victims of sexual assault, the Centre d'aide et de lutte contre les agressions à caractère sexuel, or CALACS, in the Upper Laurentians, in Quebec. I have worked there for nearly 20 years.
CALACS works with women and teenage girls who have been sexually assaulted, providing prevention, counselling and advocacy services.
I listened to what many of the witnesses who appeared before the committee had to say, and I wondered how I could bring a fresh perspective or add value to what you've already heard. I'm not an expert in law. My expertise is in survivors of sexual abuse.
The overwhelming majority of the women who reach out to us do not report the abuse, so they aren't officially recognized as victims of crime. Many of those who actually did file complaints had harrowing experiences, but a few were fortunate enough to have an easier time.
For more than 20 years, CALACS has helped an average of 60 to 80 women a year. When an attacker is convicted or found guilty, it's cause for celebration at the centre. I can count on one hand how many times our clients have been able to celebrate. It's a rare occurrence.
Those who have experienced sexual violence have limited access to justice. Our research shows that barriers to access to justice are inherent to criminal law, occurring on a human or social level.
I want to focus on some of the inherent barriers in criminal law that are significant. If the government's true intent is to support victims of crime adequately, it needs to take a hard look at how criminal law works.
The principles underpinning the presumption of innocence—the “beyond a reasonable doubt” threshold and the burden of proof on the Crown—give rise to unfairness in how the two sides are treated. The system is designed to prevent the conviction of innocent people, and that's great, but it has unintended consequences: the rights of accused lead to guilty people going free and victims getting a raw deal.
Sexual violence is a crime that's committed all the time, usually in private. From the outset, then, proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the attacker is guilty is an onerous undertaking for the Crown. Sexual violence is seldom reported, and when victims do report what happened, rarely do they come out of the experience feeling satisfied. I'm not talking about the sentences perpetrators receive. One way to really address the unfairness in the system's treatment of the two sides would be to reverse the burden of proof in cases involving sexual violence, so why not do it? I'm throwing that out there.
At the top of the list of human or social factors that impede access to justice are the sexist and racist biases of those who work in the justice system, biases that tend to be unconscious. Social biases are plentiful, significant and inextricably linked to violence. The people who experience the most sexual violence are those who suffer under the weight of those biases, which are the result of a number of systems of oppression.
There is no addressing victims' rights without addressing social and gender inequality. Victims of sexual violence are victims because they are women, because they have a disability, because they are lesbians, because they are trans, because they are Black, because they come from a first nation and the list goes on. Usually, they are assaulted by people who enjoy more advantages than they do and who benefit from power dynamics. Those people continue to be in a position of privilege thanks to the legal system and the rights they enjoy. The justice system is not immune to those power dynamics.
Add to that the fact that those who work in the justice system have no understanding of how the brain works in the face of a traumatic event—I'm referring to the neurobiology of trauma. The way victims are treated within the system can be deeply traumatizing. Take, for example, a very difficult cross-examination that goes on for hours. That can be incredibly stressful for the victim and cause them to give confusing testimony. They aren't trying to lie. Their brains are simply responding to the traumatic experience. This traumatic response can cause victims to forget things, to become unsettled or to doubt themselves. The legal principle of “beyond a reasonable doubt” can, in and of itself, prevent justice at the time of testimony.
People respond to traumatic events in a wide variety of ways. Some victims experience memory lapses or memories that are sketchy, while others have incredibly vivid, clear and detailed memories.
Victims who have trouble recalling certain things are often criticized for not having a clear enough memory of what happened, and those who recall the events vividly, even too vividly, are suspected of making things up because how could they have such a clear memory of what happened?
Canada's justice system has to look inward and examine the beliefs of those who make up the system. The idea that the legal system is cold and objective cannot prevail. Those beliefs impact the administration of justice.
The victim is considered a witness of a deeply intimate crime, the crime of sexual violence. The burden is on the Crown to prove that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and that accused already enjoys a lot of rights throughout the process.
I repeat, my expertise is in survivors of sexual assault, a serious crime that is committed regularly. Those victims are under-represented in the group of people formally recognized as being victims.
What is clear from survivors' stories is that criminal law and the administration of justice present numerous barriers to justice for victims.