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Victims of violence heal together through commemoration ceremony

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In honour of the victims.

The phrase flashed across the big white screen at the front of the room. Soft music played in the background.

On Sunday morning, victims of crime, their families, service providers working with survivors of violence and the general public sat together in the University room at the Courtyard Marriott Hotel in Toronto for the annual victims’ commemoration ceremony.

Every year, victims of crime in Ontario mark the anniversary of the Proclamation of the Victims' Bill of Rights, proclaimed as law on June 11, 1996.

The Act includes a set of principles that guide how justice system officials should treat victims at different stages of the criminal justice process.

The Act also states that a person convicted of a crime is liable for damages to the victim for emotional distress, and bodily harm resulting from the distress.

This year’s ceremony was organized around the theme "From Victim to Survivor" and was held in french and english.

For Veronica, it’s been a long, arduous journey from victim to survivor. Over the years, she’s been subjected to discrimination, violence, sexual and physical abuse. 

But she’s worked hard to resolve her issues and is now able to speak publicly about her ordeal.

Her abuse began when she was a child and continued through her adult life. It led to addictions, losing her children temporarily to the Children’s Aid Society and 19 years living on social assistance.

“After experiencing abuse as a child you continue to go back to the same types of people until you learn better,” said Veronica.

“It becomes a cycle because we keep everything inside and don’t learn how to stop those abuses.”

After finding “great excitement within herself”, Veronica was finally able to transition from victim to survivor. 

She’s now working as a peer support worker, public speaker and role model for her children.

“I’ve been able to show my own children that by persevering and fighting for your rights, you can have a successful life and relationships,” she said.

Every day, untold numbers of people like Veronica are subjected to many forms of violence.

“But some groups are more vulnerable than others,” said Tonia Richard, a counsellor at the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre.

“We know first-hand that when the rights of an individual have been violated, in the pursuit of justice, entire communities can be affected and can lead to loss of faith in the criminal justice system furthering the silence and isolation of victims.”

Suzanne Kernahon, a detective with the Toronto Police Services sex crimes unit, admitted that even though the police response to sexual assault crimes has changed over the years, followup with victims needs improvement.

“We’ve learned a great deal over the years,” said Kernahon, “and we still have a long way to go.”

Four years ago, Kernahon formed a committee to promote a coordinated, improved and effective response to sexual assault investigations.

And last year, it created a guidebook that not only provides victims with referrals and resources, but also an understanding of the court process.

“Which is a very difficult and challenging process to go through,” she said.

As a result, a victim liaison officer, a newly created position within the sex crimes unit, maintains regular and consistent contact with victims.

“We know that this is working and has been successful.”

City councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam said the Victims' Bill of Rights passed in 1996 was a turning point for victims of violence.

“We often don’t take the time to stop and reflect on those who’ve been harmed by acts of violence,” said Wong-Tam. 

Or those who’ve fled abusive situations in their home countries to have them repeated here in Canada.

When Asha was a child in Somalia, she was forced to live with her abusive aunt until she arrived in Canada 12 years later.

“When she couldn’t hit me, she would abuse me verbally,” said Asha. 

With no one to turn to for help, Asha kept her emotions bottled up inside her. In 1994, when she came to Canada, Asha thought she had left the abuse behind her.

But her father, who had sponsored her to come to Canada, picked up the abuse where her aunt left off. 

Three years later and pregnant, she finally left him too, bouncing from shelter to shelter.

After she gave birth, she lived for a time with the the father of the child. But he abused her too.

Finally, she got the counseling she needed to help get her life back on track. In 2009, she graduated from the George Brown College apprenticeship baking program and is also a recent graduate from a public speaking program.

Her daughter, now 14, will graduate from Grade 8 at the end of June.

“My daughter was also impacted by the abuse I went through” said Asha. “Foster care and all that stuff.”

Asha credits her recovery to the many social service agencies (now facing possible budget cuts) that helped her along the way and the strength to get back up after she’s been knocked down.

And she’s no longer “attracted” to abusive partners. 

“I thought I could change others,” she said. 

“But I was wrong. I can only change myself. I can never change someone else.”

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