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Canadian academics call for sexual assault law reform

BY MOIRA FARR | JUN 08 2009

When Daphne Gilbert was a law student at the University of Manitoba 20 years ago, she and all her female cohorts walked out of a class taught by a professor whose approach to teaching sexual-assault law struck them as outrageously sexist. Now an associate professor of law and vice-dean of the English law program at the University of Ottawa, Professor Gilbert sees the complex and emotionally charged subject from a teacher’s and administrator’s perspective. And she is determined not to repeat mistakes of the past. Today, the course curriculum on sexual assault law informs students about existing law but also “takes an explicit stance on the need for reforms.”

Professor Gilbert made her remarks during a panel discussion about sexual assault on campus, at the University of Ottawa in March. It was part of the conference “Sexual Assault Law, Practice and Activism in a Post-Jane Doe Era,” marking the 10th anniversary of the famous Jane Doe case, where a Toronto woman who had been raped by a stranger at gunpoint in her apartment successfully sued the Metropolitan Toronto Police for violating her Charter rights in their negligent treatment and investigation of the crime.

Feminist scholars, students, lawyers and activists gathered from around the world to celebrate the breakthrough case – decided ultimately by the Supreme Court – and what it represents in law reform. Participants also critiqued the current state of sexual assault law in Canada and internationally. Jane Doe, who still uses the pseudonym in public, has continued her activism and wrote The Story of Jane Doe: A Book About Rape. She presented on “the impact of police rape warnings on women’s choices, activities and agency.”

The Honorable Claire L’Heureux- Dubé, in opening remarks to the conference, highlighted how far law education and practice have come in the last few decades. At 82, the retired Supreme Court justice recalled being barred from lectures on rape law at Université Laval, presumably to protect her from the graphic details, when she was the only female law student in the late 1940s.

The curriculum, gender and attitudes in law schools are dramatically different today: Professor Gilbert regularly invites Jane Doe to speak in first-year law classes dealing with social-justice issues.

“It’s a transformative moment when Jane Doe speaks in class,” said Professor Gilbert. “She arrives in October. The students have had a lot of theory, and suddenly there’s a real woman before them. Her victory is inspiring and there’s always a raucous response.”

Others on the panel spoke of the need for universities to develop better policies surrounding sexual assault incidents on campus. Sociology professor Elizabeth Quinlan, student advocate Joanne Horsley and graduate student Allyson Clarke, all from the University of Saskatchewan, criticized the way recent sexual assaults on that campus were handled and outlined their own efforts to spur changes in institutional approach. These included a petition for an external security audit (the university eventually agreed), a public forum to gather community input on how the university could best handle the issue, and getting a student advocate appointed to the sexual assault services. They have formed a network with activists at other western Canadian universities that they hope will become national, and they plan to lobby Maclean’s magazine to include campus security issues in its annual issue on Canadian universities.

Fellow panelists Emily Rosser and Naoko Ikeda, PhD candidates in women’s studies at York University, criticized the handling of recent sexual-assault cases at York. Their actions included “guerilla postering” with the message “Don’t Rape,” and sending an open letter to students to counter what they viewed as the sexist tone of police warnings to women.

Approaches at American universities were also addressed. Lori Sudderth, professor of sociology at the University of Quinnipiac in Connecticut, reported on a study of “experiences of intimate violence on a college campus.” The study revealed that sexual assault incidents are severely under-reported by students, who often feel guilty, think they won’t be believed and who aren’t aware of reporting protocols and support services. “These incidents take an outrageous toll on the mental and physical health of students,” Dr. Sudderth said.

Throughout the two-day conference, people repeatedly voiced the need for more legal reform and public education about sexual assault. Ms. Gilbert said in the classroom that means both informing and inspiring students. “Students must be taught that it’s up to them to carry out the vital work of transforming the law.”

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