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Ombudsman’s statement on Sexual Assault Awareness Month


May is recognized as Sexual Assault Awareness Month in Canada and as the Federal Ombudsperson for Victims of Crime, I would like to pay tribute to all the survivors of sexual violence here and across the world. It is a time to raise awareness about the devastating impact of sexual assault and focus on the measures to prevent violence and support survivors. 

While it is recognized that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men will experience sexual violence in their lifetime, experts observe that sexual assault and harassment are persistent forms of gender-based violence that are rooted in gender inequality. Since the vast majority of sexual assault is not reported to police, both police-reported data and self-reported data from social surveys help to establish its scope. Women self-reported 553,000 sexual assaults in 2014, according to Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey on Victimization.1 Data from 2016 and 2017 shows 9 of every 10 victims of police-reported sexual assault were female (89%).2

The impact of sexual assault is enormous; dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault costs Canadians billions of dollars every year. In 2009, dealing with sexual assault and related offenses cost the Canadian economy an estimated $4.8 billion.3

Sexual violence does not affect one single identity, or population, and my Office recognizes the disproportionate victimization of Indigenous racialized, and 2SLGBTQQIA communities. The self-reported rate of sexual assault of Indigenous women is more than triple that of non-Indigenous women.4  In 2018, 2SLGBTQQIA people in Canada were almost three times more likely than heterosexual people to report that they had been physically or sexually assaulted in the previous 12 months and more than twice as likely to report having been violently victimized since the age of 15.5 It is also important to note the lack of disaggregated data in Canada, particularly with respect to the rates of violence and sexual assault against Black women, including Black Trans women.

Sexual violence and misconduct is also prevalent within Canada’s top institutions, including the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). More must be done to protect the survivors/victims of sexual violence and provide them with meaningful justice. Within the CAF alone, there were 581 recorded incidents of sexual assault and 221 alleged assaults between the years 2015-2021. Given the growing numbers of survivors/victims of sexual violence within the CAF, I wrote to the Honourable Harjit Sajjian in March, expressing my concerns about the hostile sexualized culture within the CAF and recommended the creation of an independent oversight body for reporting allegations of sexual misconduct.

I have also been working to have coercive control recognized in Canadian criminal law and recently appeared before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights to push for the criminalization of coercive and controlling behaviours. The tactics of coercive control may include perpetrators making implicit or explicit threats, using physical or sexual violence, destroying the victim's personal property, and isolating or intimidating the victim by closely monitoring their behaviours and interactions with other people.6 Unfortunately, perpetrators face little to no legal consequences for coercive and controlling behaviours in Canada, as criminal justice responses focus on prosecuting single or isolated incidents and typically violent incidents.

During the month of May and beyond, I encourage all Canadians to take an opportunity to acknowledge and reflect on systemic sexual violence in our society. Without acknowledgment, no meaningful change can emerge and the voices of victims and survivors will remain silent.

Let us recognize that survivors need other options for support outside the criminal justice system, as less than 5% report to the police in Canada. We must change our culture to believe survivors, and reassure them that they are never to blame for what happened. Survivors also need to be connected to well-funded trauma-informed support services, with staff who understand the ways they cope and can offer culturally-safe services.

My Office remains committed to meeting with, listening to, and supporting survivors who have experienced sexual violence. There is a long road ahead working to end sexual violence in Canada, but if we invest upstream, in primary prevention programs that teach consent, respectful and healthy relationships, and bystander intervention, we can reduce sexual violence and harassment in Canada.

Heidi Illingworth
Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime