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On Thursday night in Toronto, allies and survivors gathered on the steps of Old City Hall to support victims of sexual violence.
The rally and march was organized by several Toronto-based groups, including the Centre for Women and Trans People at Ryerson University, the Canadian Federation of Students and Interval House, in response to the verdict in the Jian Ghomeshi trial delivered Thursday morning.
Ghomeshi, the former broadcaster who was fired from the CBC in Fall 2014, was charged with four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking against three complainants. Justice William B. Horkins acquitted him of all charges in a ruling that is quickly proving to be controversial.
Jennifer Hollett, a political activist and former NDP federal candidate, was one of the rally's organizers. She said the idea for the event came up as she and other activists were discussing when the verdict of Ghomeshi's trial was revealed.
"A few weeks ago we were talking about the day the verdict would be delivered and how important it was to claim space for survivors of abuse," she said, "and we wanted to say to survivors everywhere: we believe you."
The rally was intended as an "opportunity for survivors and community leaders to come forward to share their stories, to speak out, and to demand reform in the criminal justice system," Hollett said.
A large group of people gathered in the freezing rain to hear from activists and survivors. City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam drew attention to imbalances in the justice system that lead to the extremely low rate of convictions for sexual assault.
"Mr. Ghomeshi's trial sent a clear message that there are serious flaws in the way we deal with sexual assault cases," she said.
"We cannot expect survivors to trust our system of justice when it is not easily accessible to them, if they do not know how to use it, and if they do not know who to turn to when they are in need."
Two of the complainants in the Ghomeshi case also spoke. Lucy DeCoutere, the only one of the three complainants to be named publicly, spoke to chants of "We Believe Lucy." She said she hopes that the public conversation the Ghomeshi trial has started about sexual violence is only the "first phase" in a bigger dialogue.
The first witness in the case -- whose name remains sealed -- also spoke at the rally and thanked the crowd for its support.
Participants echoed Wong-Tam's comments about imbalances in the criminal justice system.
One woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she was not surprised by the verdict, but "what was more shocking was the judge and his choice of words, the typical victim-blaming and mansplaining."
Horkins's decision cited the victims' contact with Ghomeshi as damaging to their credibility, and said that courts need to be vigilant against the idea that "sexual assault complainants are always truthful."
When asked what needs to change, the woman said she wasn't sure, but "showing solidarity and showing support and taking away the stigma" of sexual violence would be a good start.
Omar, a father and male ally who attended the rally, said that "men need to be taught more about consent from an early stage in their lives. The education system has to include conversations about sexual assault in the classrooms." But, he, like many others, conceded that change will be difficult. "I don't have much faith in the system," he said.
The rally concluded in a march up Bay Street to Toronto Police Headquarters, where Black Lives Matter Toronto has been protesting the decision not to press charges against the officer who fatally shot 45-year-old Andrew Loku in July of 2015.
Claude Boulanger, from the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre/Multicultural Women Against Rape, spoke at Police Headquarters.
"I don't assume to know everyone's story. Survivors who are sex workers, who have different abilities, who are trans, non-binary, living with precarious status, all need different things," Boulanger said.
"The only thing that is the same with all survivors is that we want to be believed."
Christina Turner is doctoral student in the department of English at the University of Toronto. She was rabble's books and blogs intern from 2013-2014.
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