The march on March 24th. Nathan Chan/The Varsity

Content warning: discussion of sexual assault, suicide

Following the conclusion of Jian Ghomeshi’s trial, which ended with an acquittal, hundreds of people rallied and marched in support of survivors of sexual assault. 

The rally was entitled ‘We Believe Survivors,’ illustrating the march’s intent to support and stand in solidarity with survivors of sexual assault and the women who came forward in the months leading up to the trial. The rally and subsequent march were organized weeks before the announcement of the trial’s verdict.  

“We wanted to make sure no matter the outcome, that there was a space for survivors to recognize and support the women who bravely came forward, all the survivors who couldn’t, and the many more survivors in our community that have been sexually assaulted, and you know just to make sure that they know there is a community backing them and supporting them in this process,” said Jennifer Hollett, a political activist and one of the organizers of the event.   

The rally began around 6:00 pm in the rain and below freezing temperatures.  Supporters were given sheets of paper with chants and messages printed on them. From blocks away, hundreds of people could be heard chanting ‘we believe survivors’ and ‘the system isn’t broken, it was built this way.’   

Influential activists and supporters came to speak to the crowd, including Glen Canning, the father of Rehtaeh Parsons. Parsons completed suicide in 2012, after photographs depicting her sexual assault surfaced and led to her being harassed and bullied. Canning voiced his support for the women who testified in the case and called for an end to victim blaming.   

When Lucy DeCoutere was introduced, she was met with thunderous applause and chants of ‘we believe you’ from the audience. DeCoutere was the first woman to publicly accuse Ghomeshi of sexual assault. DeCoutere said it would be “bad manners” for her to be in the area and not attend the rally, and thanked the audience for their support.   

Following DeCoutere, a woman who only wished to be known as Witness #1, took to the steps in front of Old City Hall. This woman was the first to testify against Ghomeshi in the trial, and she too thanked the audience for coming out to show their support despite the inclement weather.   

The contingent walked north on Bay Street to meet with Black Lives Matter-Toronto at the Toronto Police Services headquarters, where demonstrators have camped out for the past week. As the march passed, cars honked in support and onlookers clapped and stood in solidarity. 

When asked about whether the verdict changed the organizers’ outlook on the demonstration, Hollett stated, “Unfortunately I don’t think today’s verdict surprised anyone. Most people who’ve followed had a front row seat to see the injustice of our justice system when it comes to sexual assault, and a lot of us were hoping for the best, but it’s a flawed system, and it’s just about impossible for survivors to navigate… this is why so many women don’t come forward in the first place, because the women are put on trial, and it’s more about what happened after the assault rather than consent and the violence at the heart of the case.”   

Those at the rally called for legal reform and new rhetoric in the conversation surrounding sexual violence. They also stressed that the courts judge cases where survivors are scrutinized more harshly than the assailants. According to Hollett, ending the stigma surrounding sexual violence “starts as a conversation, but I think it’s a conversation that we need to bring in lawyers and politicians and activists and I know that that work is already starting as a result of this trial.”

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