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Sex assault survivors livid with Ontario over delays to proposed justice bill

Cait Alexander, an advocate for sex assault survivors, is photographed at Queen’s Park in Toronto, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

TORONTO — Sex assault survivors and the opposition are livid with the Ontario government for what they call procedural games over a proposed justice bill. 

Government House Leader Paul Calandra sent a proposed NDP sexual assault justice bill to committee on Tuesday, thereby cancelling a debate on it Wednesday. More than 100 survivors and supporters were set to visit Queen's Park to watch the debate as a way to push the Progressive Conservative government to take action to improve the "retraumatizing and cruel" justice system.

Instead, they said they feel silenced.

Catherine Fife's private member's bill, called Lydia's Law, would compel the province to provide statistics on how sexual assault cases are doing in court and mandate progress reports on implementing recommendations from the auditor general.

The bill is named after a young Ontario woman who was sexually assaulted and embroiled in lengthy and difficult court proceedings.

Cait Alexander, a sexual assault survivor who used to live in Toronto, had flown in from Los Angeles to watch the now-cancelled debate as part of her efforts to advocate for change in the justice system.

"We don't need more studies, we don't need more committees, we need the governments who listen and pass the bills," she said. 

"This government should stop playing childish games and take sturdy, actionable steps to truly deliver what everyone deserves as their human right safety."

The bill had been tabled and was set for second reading debate, but the government voted to send it to committee beforehand to be studied.

Fife said the Progressive Conservative government is effectively killing the bill by sending it to committee to languish and never become law.

"You can't blame us for not trusting the government and based on the legislation that does get sent to committees, private member's bills, they languish there, and they die there," she said.

Fife said 1,171 sexual assault cases have been stayed in 2023 and 1,326 cases were stayed the year before.

"We don't know why, but we deserve to know why," she said. 

"The bill would have compelled the attorney general to prepare a public progress report detailing criminal cases, pending disposition, and analyze the reasons for the delays, complete with data and including a breakdown for reasons why these court cases are thrown out."

Criminal courts across Ontario are extremely busy and understaffed, leading to delays and tossed cases. Jails across the province are over capacity and that's expected to get worse with Crown attorneys directed to challenge bail on every serious case, putting further strain on the justice system.

Calandra, however, took issue with Fife's characterization of the legislative procedure.

"It's not killing it like they're saying, absolutely not, it's expediting it into committee," he said of the bill.

The government said it is thoroughly examining the issue of sexual assaults through a committee headed by Jess Dixon, a PC backbencher who is a former Crown attorney.

"There's some very good parts of this particular bill, and that's why we expedited it to committee," Calandra said. That committee will return with recommendations on how to reform the justice system for sexual assault survivors.

Last month, Calandra said the government would also support another NDP bill that would declare intimate partner violence an epidemic. He reaffirmed his government's position on making that declaration.

"We want to have results, right. So declaring something, an epidemic – unless it comes with actual results, that we can accomplish something with – then there's no point to it," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 15, 2024. 

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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