2016 a 'turning point' in sexual assault dialogue in Toronto

From Jian Ghomeshi's trial to an alleged incident at a Little Italy bar, sexual assault has made headlines throughout the year. Some say that marks a shift in public consciousness about sexual assault.

From Jian Ghomeshi's trial to alleged incident at Little Italy bar, sexual assault stayed in the headlines

Viktoria Belle, co-founder of the Sexual Assault Action Coalition, says she's a survivor of sexual assault herself. (CBC News)

This time last year, Viktoria Belle was talking to police about a sexual assault she said she'd experienced a few months earlier.

The process dragged on for nearly half a year, involving multiple follow-up conversations with police and lawyers, viewing police line-ups, and enduring the he said, she said nature of sexual assault cases.

Then, in March 2016, Belle learned the stranger she said followed her home after the bar one night was walking free.

"I went in and had my session with the crown who said, 'There are no witnesses, no DNA proof,'" recalled the Toronto resident. Belle has since co-founded the Sexual Assault Action Coalition — which staged a protest Friday night outside a Little Italy bar where an alleged sexual assault recently took place.

While Belle's own story didn't make headlines in 2016, plenty of others have.

#IBelieveHer wrote one protest attendee in a note of support to sexual assault survivors posted on the front window of a Little Italy bar, the site of a recent alleged sexual assault. (CBC News)

'Survivors have reached a breaking point'

The not guilty verdict in Jian Ghomeshi's high-profile trial in March triggered outrage, and local Uber drivers came under fire after women recounted stories like a driver allegedly offering to accept sexual favours as payment.

And, most recently, the Little Italy bar that was allegedly the site of a 24-year-old woman's confinement and sexual assault made headlines and prompted outcry from activists.

Jian Ghomeshi leaves court in Toronto in March with his lawyer Marie Henein. Ghomeshi was acquitted on all charges of sexual assault and choking following a trial that sparked a nationwide debate on how the justice system treats victims. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Some say these high-profile local stories — alongside stateside incidents like the Brock Turner sexual assault case and the numerous allegations against Bill Cosby — have marked a shift in public consciousness about the systemic issues surrounding sexual assault and its ramifications.

The past year was a "turning point," said Shauna Pomerantz, a sociologist at Brock University.

"I think all of the high-profile cases...were the catalyst for these discussions in Canada and the U.S."

Erika Szabo claims her Uber driver told her she could not pay if her phone was off and asked for sexual favours as a substitute. (Jon Castell/CBC )

Belle agreed sexual assault has "become more visible to the public." 

"Survivors have reached a breaking point," she added. "They no longer want to stay silent or complacent with the current fractured system."

Still, she said, "systematically nothing has changed in our judicial system."

Justice system 'needs an overhaul'

Human rights consultant Akio Maroon agreed the justice system "needs an overhaul" when it comes to sexual assault, but believes progress is being made.

She sits on Ontario's Roundtable on Violence Against Women, and said sexual assault has been made a priority of the provincial government through the It's Never Okay action plan.

It generated the award-winning #WhoWillYouHelp campaign video that's been viewed millions of times.

The next steps, Maroon said, are making sure judges and others within the justice department understand violence against women and how certain cultures view sexual assault and consent, and ensuring the system is "survivor-centered."

"The public needs to be educated on the fact that sexual assaults don't have to do with sex assaults, or the sexuality of the people involved," she added.

"It has to do purely with power."

A 'hopeful beginning' to 2017

Going forward, Belle hopes women can build a "unified voice against this type of oppression and injustice."

While the past year was an "eye-opener" for many people, she said many questions remain: How will Bill 132, the province's Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act, be enforced? Where are the anti-violence and anti-harassment protocols in bars, restaurants, and other spaces?

Still, she said this moment — following all the high-profile sexual assault cases of the past year — offers a new opportunity for change, in Toronto and beyond.

Attendees posted notes of support to sexual assault survivors at a Friday night protest held by the Sexual Assault Action Coalition. (CBC News)

"I think last night's demonstration was a really hopeful beginning to the new year, with messages of support and people braving the cold to stand outside and share their stories as survivors and allies," Belle added.

"I don't know if that would have happened before."