Alison Brewin: 100 years of International Women’s Day and glacial change in Canada

After the announcement that sexual assault charges were laid against men using his organization’s emergency services, Rev. Ric Matthews of First United Church was quoted as saying, “Some women put themselves at risk because of the way they dress or undress or move around the building drawing attention to themselves.”

In Manitoba, Justice Robert Dewar sentenced a man convicted of sexual assault to house arrest and not jail time on the basis that the young woman in question was wearing a tube top with no bra, high heels, and lots of make up, that she and her friends wanted to party, and that there was “sex in the air”. Dewar called the convicted man a “clumsy Don Juan”, blaming the woman for creating “inviting circumstances”.

In Toronto at an Osgoode Hall Law School discussion, a police officer said to a small group of students: “You know, I think we’re beating around the bush here. I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this, however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”

This all occurred in 2011.

In response to Rev. Matthews’s comments, the executive director of WISH, Kate Gibson—an incredible and tireless advocate for women on the streets in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside—was quoted as saying, “I think that kind of attitude is taking us back 40 years....Women are sexually assaulted because people are perpetrating violence against them.”

Well said, Kate. But the painful truth is that the comments of these three men only takes us back 12 years. That’s right. It has only been 12 years since the Supreme Court of Canada established once and for all that what a woman wears is not an acceptable reason for a man to commit sexual assault. The case is called Ewanchuk and was decided in 1999.

It has only been 20 years since the Seaboyer case (1991) made it unacceptable for a woman’s sexual history to be considered in defence of a man charged with sexual assault.

It is only 30 years since it was legally okay for a man to rape his wife (1983).

So is it any wonder the ease with these three men fell back on the concept that sexualized violence of men against women is something women bring on or attract by their behaviours? The idea that men can control their sexuality is a very recent concept in Canadian law.

At West Coast LEAF we have a youth program based on Ewanchuk—youth teaching kids about how firm the law is in this regard. We talk to teens about the Supreme Court’s clarity that consent requires active work on the part of the person seeking sexual activity and can not be implied by the person’s clothing or behaviour. A young man who had participated in our No Means No program as a high school student asked me, “Why do you use such an old case in that program? Why don’t you use a more recent one?”

Because we shouldn’t have to. The Supreme Court of Canada is supposed to be the final word. And most importantly, because the Ewanchuk case is not that old!

Sadly for those of us who tend toward glass-half-full, we need to let go of the idea that the rights we win are here to stay. Let us remember that the neoconservative is a creature much newer than the feminist. In fact in 1982 the writers of the charter didn’t even contemplate the possibility that neoconservative ideologies might take hold in Canada at all.

One hundred years after the first International Women’s Day, we ought to be celebrating. I don’t want to ruin the party, so I would like people to consider celebrating the amount of public outrage at the three comments, and the number of people who understand why the comments are not okay. For example, Justice Dewar has been removed from hearing any cases involving sexual assault until further notice—something that would never have occurred in 1995 when Justice John McClung (yes, ironically, the grandson of suffragist Nellie McClung) made similar comments in lower court iterations of the Ewanchuk case.

It makes it hard to celebrate success when these 2011 examples remind us that positive change for women is sometimes a tad superficial and still very young. Instead perhaps we can celebrate the fact that it might have taken 100 years, but Canadians don’t question women’s right to vote anymore. Do they?

Alison Brewin is the executive director of West Coast LEAF.