The system is broken — but it's not fair to ask victims to fix it

Imagine a family member was missing or murdered and the police say it's unsolvable. Your family struggles to cope and find answers. Later, a possible tip turns up - but there's still insufficient evidence to act.

#MeToo, MMIWG, laundry list of accused men … instead of hitting ‘retweet,’ it’s time for allies to lend a hand

Ashley Geddes says she misses her sister, Amber Guiboche, every day. (CBC)

Imagine a family member was missing or murdered and the police say it's unsolvable. Your family struggles to cope and find answers. Later, a possible tip turns up — but there's still insufficient evidence to act.

When the story comes out in the press, readers debate it, some asking whether a woman "brought it on herself." If a victim's family thinks justice has not been served, they sometimes have to speak out to get justice.

That's what Amber Guiboche's family had to do: they had to go to the press and hold a vigil for her, six years after she went missing. Only then was her case taken on by Manitoba's missing and murdered taskforce, four days after the vigil. 

Never mind losing a close relative while the killer gets away with the crime. The Guiboche family, like many others, was  forced to mourn in public, using publicity to champion legal system reform and fix inequities.

This public campaign is preposterous, but it happens every day — to families of homicide victims, and also to victims of sexual assault and sexual interference, as seen in too many news stories of late. 

Speaking up

In democratic countries, we theoretically have a fair justice system. Yet our system often fails because of power imbalances and systemic bias. The current status quo often allows powerful men to take advantage of those in less powerful positions, often with impunity.

This power imbalance forces victims to go elsewhere if they want to speak up. This can be seen in the tidal wave of response to the #MeToo hashtag, which has empowered sexual assault victims to speak out in the news media and in real life. It's a good measure of how much unreported sexual assault takes place.

So why don't victims go to the police? Because no matter how good the proof may be, many say it's not worthwhile to go through the scrutiny, shaming and time that pressing charges requires. More resign themselves to getting over it on their own. Perhaps because fighting the power inequities in the legal system isn't personally worth it. Or worse, they think they somehow deserved it, so don't report it.

This approach is reinforced by the media and the justice system. How many times have women decided to come forward with stories of underage assault or inappropriate behaviour, only to find themselves belittled in the spotlight? Roy Moore, a prominent conservative U.S. Republican, comes to mind. He allegedly 'dated' teenagers as young as 14 while he was an attorney in his 30s.

These women are now speaking out. What they're hearing back is, "Why didn't they say anything sooner?"

One immediately sees the power differential. Who believes a teenager who speaks out against an adult, particularly an important official?  Now, while some Republicans are calling for Moore to step down from his Senate campaign, others accuse these women of playing politics.

#YouToo can fix the system

A recent opinion piece in the Winnipeg Free Press by Carl DeGurse suggests we change the system so victims feel they can seek redress through means other than social media. But then DeGurse indicated the #MeToo campaign's surge of energy should be used to fix the system.

Once again, this is asking sexual assault victims to do the work to fix the legal system themselves.

Those in power preyed upon these people. Yet, when those like Rona Ambrose and MLA Nahanni Fontaine ask for judges to be better educated in cases of sexual assault, their concerns are ignored.

Others respond that they "respect the judiciary's independence." That means we have judges tell assault victims to "keep their knees together," in one case, and in another, jail a victim to force her to testify.

People in power obligate victims or those in disadvantaged positions to do advocacy to get what they need. This absolves them of the responsibility to acknowledge the injustice or deal with this advocacy.

Start with the basics

If people want to be allies in the #MeToo campaign, or take care of those who are victimized, they must do more than say "it's too bad this happened." Allies have an obligation to make changes to promote equality and eradicate the systemic inequity.

It starts with the basics. Don't re-victimize those who have been wronged. Teach kids to ask first before touching someone else. Show survivors and victims' families they have value and give them reason to trust the system.

It's wrong to force more responsibilities and obligations on those who already carry heavy loads.  If you aren't carrying the load — please shoulder the burden of advocacy for those who can't carry any more. Speak up. Change the system.

Joanne Seiff is the author of several books, as well as a mom and a freelance writer, designer and educator.

About the Author

Joanne Seiff is the author of several books, including Knit Green, about textile sustainability. She works in Winnipeg as a freelance writer.