In October 2017, I was introduced to Harvey Weinstein through a story in The New York Times containing multiple allegations of sexual assault and harassment and, almost 4 years to the day since the Ghomeshi scandal broke, I expected very little would come of it. I watched with consternation as #MeToo appeared on my social media feeds, and then blew up online and in real life and in international news. I’d seen so many survivor’s stories shared, their pain briefly sensational, only to fade from view with the news cycle or pushed into the background of daily living. I worried that all of this would also add up to what felt like nothing.
But I was wrong. Ex-Mossad agents couldn’t prevent Weinstein from having to face consequences for some of his behavior in court (though whether those consequences include a conviction is yet to be seen) and #MeToo has been less like a tidal wave and more like the tide – a cyclic rise and fall of survivors, everywhere, from all walks of life, adding their voices to the chorus and returning public attention to the problem of sexual violence, again and again. Already we can see how this tide is shifting the sands of what’s permissible, and what’s possible.
Tarana Burke, who coined the hashtag a decade before it went viral, describes #MeToo as a survivors’ movement that is about healing and action. In an election year, she says, that action shows up in politics – at debates and in the ballot box. 2020 is a municipal election year in New Brunswick. Cities are where we live, work, play and, sometimes, are subject to unwanted sexual behavior and assault. The #MeToo tide touches here too. In Fredericton, the number of calls received by volunteers on the crisis line operated by Sexual Violence New Brunswick (SVNB, formerly Fredericton Sexual Assault Centre) has tripled in the last two years. The volunteers who answer calls on the line and the survivors and their supporters who call are among your constituents in Fredericton. We want to know your stance on sexual violence and what you plan to do about it. Why should we vote for you?
I want to vote for a city councillor who:
Names the problem. Statistics Canada reports in its initial findings from the Survey of Safety in Public and Private Spaces (SSPPS) that approximately 4.7 million women in Canada – or almost 30% of all women 15 years of age and older – reported that they had been a victim of sexual assault at least once since the age of 15. The prevalence of sexual assault among men is smaller but still significant: 1.2 million (8%) men reported the same. We know that trans and gender-diverse folks experience sexual violence at similar or even higher rates (analysis of the data for these populations in Canada is planned for release in a report forthcoming from the SSPPS this year). All of this adds up to a substantial population of survivors in our cities. As a city councillor you have a locally influential platform. Use it. We are all responsible for shaping an environment where sexual violence is named and unacceptable.
Understands the costs of sexual violence and looks for places where city policies meet them. Survivors may feel empowered by sharing their stories, but you don’t need to know the gory details to understand the economic, emotional, physical, social, and temporal costs of sexual violence. We’ve lost work time and friends; we grieve our sense of safety and belonging. It takes time to come to terms with harm, to heal, and to take a different route that doesn’t make you pass the place where – to borrow a phrase from President Trump – he grabbed you by your pussy.
City councillors have more power than most people when it comes to shaping public safety. One in three women and one in eight men in Canada experienced unwanted sexual behavior in public in the last 12 months (SSPPS). Can infrastructure planning help prevent unwanted sexual behavior in public spaces like parks, sidewalks, and public transportation? Both women and men most commonly cited a commercial or institutional establishment as the location of their self-reported most serious sexual assault in the past 12 months (SSPPS). How can the Council encourage bystander training for staff and promote a culture that doesn’t tolerate sexual harassment at the events, restaurants, and venues that shape our city’s lively cultural life?
Considers the city’s role in making criminal justice response to sexual assault a key part of public safety. Not all survivors choose to report to law enforcement but for those who do we can enhance the criminal justice response to sexual assault and minimize secondary wounding for survivors locally by providing ongoing evidence-based, victim-centered, and trauma-informed training for the men and women of our police force. City Council can commit our city to accountability by requiring periodic sexual violence case reviews, done in collaboration with community experts in the gender-based violence sector. These are best practices recommended by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police in the Canadian Framework for Collaborative Police Response on Sexual Violence they released in December.
Allocates funds to support survivors’ healing and restoration. I live in Fredericton where we are fortunate to have a sexual assault centre which runs a crisis line and provides counselling at no cost to the local survivors who use these services, but, like most things, these services are not cost free. Late last year, SVNB was forced to stop accepting new clients for counselling services because it doesn’t have funding to expand the centre’s counselling capacity to meet the demand. The only direct funding the centre receives for its counselling program, from United Way, is enough to cover the cost of one counsellor for one day per week. How can the Council support this vital program to make it sustainable?
Shows up. As Tarana Burke says, people engage survivors from a place of pity all the time. Can you engage us from a place of empathy, understanding our strengths? I would be heartened to see members of Council at the Take Back the Night March every September. I would love to hear through the grapevine that my city councillor is actively involved in the White Ribbon Campaign or visiting local classrooms to assist in delivering prevention programs about healthy identities, relationships, and consent. There’s no point fighting the tide, Councillors, and much to be gained from moving with it.
And to survivors and the people that love us: there’s a lot of us out here. We have more power than we know. The next stage of #MeToo is a call to action. What if we made it impossible for an elected official to not have a position on sexual violence? What if we asked questions about sexual violence at electoral debates and when politicians knock on our doors? What if we demanded that our candidates address survivors’ concerns with empathy? What things are possible now that didn’t seem possible before?
Kylie Bergfalk is an advocate for women in Fredericton. She has been volunteering with Sexual Violence NB (formerly the Fredericton Sexual Assault Centre) since 2017 and is presently employed by Sexual Violence NB as a project coordinator. She is recent addition to the editorial board of the NB Media Co-op.