“I find Mr. Ghomeshi not guilty.”
The highly anticipated ruling, delivered by Ontario Court of Justice Judge William Horkins on the morning of March 24, cleared Jian Ghomeshi, former CBC radio host, of four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking. The judge stated that the complainants, two women who remained anonymous and former Trailer Park Boys actress Lucy DeCoutere, were “less than full, frank and forthcoming” in their testimony and could not be considered credible.
While Ghomeshi walked, hundreds gathered outside the wet, icy stairs of Toronto’s Old City Hall yesterday afternoon for the #WeBelieveSurvivors rally and march, supported by multiple organizations at Ryerson University, Women in Toronto Politics, Steelworkers Toronto, White Ribbon and others. FLARE attended the rally and spoke to the women gathered to get a sense of the mood on the ground: anger, sadness and disappointment were heavy in the air.
“I’m not surprised by the verdict, because I don’t see our criminal justice system at this time being a place for justice for sexual assault survivors,” said Farrah Khan, coordinator of Sexual Violence Education and Support at Ryerson University. “We have so much more work to do.”
Her thoughts were echoed by Lenore Lukasik-Foss, chair of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres and one of the event’s supporters, who told FLARE, “The court is not about truth necessarily. It’s whether there’s enough evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. So, for us, it’s really important that we’re getting the message out there that we believe survivors. Period.”
That hashtag, frequently chanted at the rally, was particularly meaningful for participants like Hannah Kurchik, who was sexually assaulted during her first year of university. “It’s important for all survivors to come together to support the women in this case as there was a huge injustice today.”
The crowd put Kurchik’s words to action when two of the Ghomeshi complainants, DeCoutere and Witness Number One, who remained anonymous by staying covered in a winter coat with a large hood and dark sunglasses, took the mic to thank the crowd.
“This was phase one of a conversation,” said DeCoutere, admitting she was overwhelmed, which prompted the participants to shout “thank you” and “we love you”. “It’s not going to end here,” she declared bravely.
As the growing mass of supporters listened to the speakers—which also included Toronto City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam and the father of Rehtaeh Parsons, the high school student who took her own life in 2013 after being abused and ridiculed—the sense of camaraderie and indignation over the injustice was palpable, with more than a few attendees wiping tears from their cheeks.
In her speech, Wong-Tam called out the bigger problems with sexual assault cases that Ghomeshi’s trial underscore: How much support and information are provided to survivors during their cases? Are they made aware of the realities of an adversarial system before deciding to press charges? Are they warned about what it will feel like to be cross examined and subjected to vigorous questioning? Do they fully appreciate the Crown’s duty of full disclosure? Or the high standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt?”
“These are all questions that need to be asked and they need to be answered,” Wong-Tam said in a very powerful conclusion to her speech. “One thing is certain: the status quo is not working.”
Participants then marched up Bay Street, hoisting signs and reciting “We Believe Survivors” to applause from bystanders and honks of support from commuters. The march ended at Toronto Police Headquarters where it merged with Black Lives Matter advocates, together chanting, “The system isn’t broken, it was built this way.”
“This is an opportunity to say the work continues,” said Jennifer Hollett, one of the rally organizers. “We need to create a justice system that welcomes survivors of sexual assault to come forward and right now, it’s a chilly day outside and it represents the chilly climate for survivors of sexual abuse.”
Studies estimate that 460,000 Canadians are victims of sexual violence each year, and yet, according to Statistics Canada, 88 percent of sexual assaults experienced by Canadians over the age of 15 are not brought to police. Though the rally and march were in direct response to the Ghomeshi trial, organizers stated that it was intended to support all survivors of sexual violence, who have or have not reported, and serves as a call to action.
While this case is closed, Ghomeshi will be back in the courtroom, and the headlines, in June facing another charge of sexual assault from an alleged workplace incident that occurred in January 2008 while he was hosting Q. Another march or rally is not yet planned, however, Khan told FLARE that their message does not stop today. “We have a plan to keep believing survivors.”