Under a new Progressive Conservative premier who has promised to scrap and replace the updated sex education curriculum and lower taxes, women’s rights advocates in Ontario are bracing for massive cuts to their sector that they say could jeopardize women’s safety.
Doug Ford campaigned on promises to slash $6 billion from the provincial budget by doing away with “inefficiencies” in part through an immediate “outside audit” that would probe what Ford describes as “reckless” spending under the previous Liberal regime.
While Ford hasn’t said exactly what those “inefficiencies” are — and in a statement pledged general support for those working to end violence against women — those who work in the sector are fearing for the future. Their fears are largely rooted in what happened under the last conservative government, defeated 15 years ago, that implemented deep cuts to social services including ones that worked with women. Subsequent Liberal governments boosted their resources. And now women’s advocates are figuring out how to hang onto the funding they were able to win back.
“There is a fear that with the call for austerity, that services such as violence against women shelters and legal counsel for sexual assault survivors will be clawed back,” said Farrah Khan, manager of Ryerson University’s Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education and co-chair of Ontario’s Roundtable on Violence Against Women. Khan spoke to VICE News from the G7 Summit in Charlevoix, Quebec where she addressed world leaders as part of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s gender advisory council.
Khan has worked with women who have used an Ontario government $2.8 million pilot project launched under the Liberals in 2016 to provide victims of sex assault with free legal advice. That's part of a broader three-year $41 million "It's Never Okay" initiative dedicated to curbing sexual assault. It’s initiatives like these that Khan worries could be on Ford’s chopping block, especially given policy decisions on women’s rights programs under the previous provincial Conservatives, elected in 1995 under then-Premier Mike Harris.
“Services across Ontario have talked about having a 100 percent increase in calls for resources for sexual assault in recent years,” Khan continued. “And they most certainly won’t be able to meet that demand under austerity.
As part of Harris’ “Common Sense Revolution” that included cutting taxes and balancing the budget, the government reduced provincial funding for a range of women’s groups including the Disabled Women’s Network of Toronto and the Ontario Advisory Committee on Women’s Issues. There were also deep cuts to social assistance and healthcare.
A spokesperson for Doug Ford did not answer questions from VICE News about whether the new government would maintain current funding levels for the anti-violence against women sector, but said in a statement that "Doug Ford and his team are committed to the safety and well-being of all Ontarians. Violence of any nature is a serious offence, and is taken seriously by the PCs. We are committed to working with women, educators and crisis workers to stop violence against women, and we will continue to assist those working in the sector.”
In the wake of high-profile sex assault cases and the #MeToo movement, some rape crisis centres in the Greater Toronto Alone alone have reported an exponential increase in wait times for counselling services, with some as high as 15 months. And these centres receive the majority of their funding from the province.
“If those things don’t continue and expand to meet the needs of women, we will see women staying in violent relationships, because there was nowhere for them to turn … no shelters, no affordable housing, no stable jobs. I’m fearful about the gains that have been made,” said Khan.
Early on in his campaign, Doug Ford vowed to scrap and replace the sex-ed curriculum introduced in 2015 by the previous Liberal government under Kathleen Wynne.
“Our schools have been turned into social laboratories and our kids into test subjects for whatever special interests and so-called experts that have captured Kathleen Wynne’s ear,” he said in May.
Ford has yet to say exactly how his government will replace the curriculum, but has promised to “consult” with parents on the matter. The new curriculum, which hadn’t been updated since 1998, was revamped to include information about cyberbullying, sexting, masturbation, and gender identity. It was met with outrage and protests by a number of parent and religious groups who accused it of being inappropriate for children.
The curriculum also discusses consent and healthy boundaries — material that has garnered less attention, but is crucial for Julie Lalonde, an Ottawa-based women’s rights advocate who conducts consent education workshops in schools across the province.
As someone who was stalked for over a decade by an abusive partner she met in high school, Lalonde says she and her peers at the time could have benefitted from such a curriculum.
“I sense a lot of heartbreak and a lot of people feeling gutted to see that we’ve made some progress and now we’re going to have to fight to maintain the level that we’re at, and the level that we’re at is one in three Ontario women being sexually assaulted and a woman killed every two days [across Canada],” Lalonde said in a phone interview. “Here we were, feeling like we were heading in a positive direction with all the incredible work out of #MeToo and the Unfounded research … to now feeling like we’re back to 1995 is really devastating.”
Lenore Lukasik-Foss, who worked at a women’s shelter in Hamilton in the 1990s under Harris’ conservative government and now serves as the chair of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres, is also worried about a repeat of those years.
“We are seeing signs that there are similar if not further worrying ideological tones that would suggest that social services are not a priority,” she said.
While it’s unclear what cuts, if any, the Ford government will pursue when it comes to ending violence against women, his commitment to revoke the curriculum is a troubling sign, Lukasik-Foss explained.
“If you are demonizing a curriculum that is so clearly leading to prevention and addressing the issues of sexual violence, then that would suggest you’re not in line with what our work is.”
But Ginny Movat, a senior consultant at Crestview Strategy in Toronto who’s been analyzing the Progressive Conservatives’ campaign, said that’s a tenuous link.
“I think it comes from a broad-based opposition to right-of-centre politics,” Movat told VICE News. “There were 26 female MPPs elected in the Conservative caucus, so the bogeyman of women’s issues is misguided.”
Further, she said, Ford did not get elected with a mandate to cut social services, as Harris did 15 years ago. “There’s a whole laundry list of waste and expenses that Doug Ford was able to point to that didn’t have to do with social services … I don’t think that’s ever been in the context of a reduction of service.”
But those in the sector are nonetheless gearing up to defend their services for women. “We don’t know what this new government will bring … but any sector will work with the government in power, because violence doesn’t stop,” said Khan. “The movements for change don’t stop with whoever is in power.”
Cover image: Ontario premier-designate Doug Ford walks out onto the front lawn of the Ontario Legislature at Queen's Park in Toronto on Friday, June 8, 2018. (The Canadian Press/Frank Gunn)