SHORTLY AFTER the much discussed, and rightly much derided Graham James two-year sentence for sexual assault, I had a conversation with a journalist who is ghost writing the memoir of a sexual abuse survivor. Why, she asked me, do these abusers get such light sentences?
I’ve written an amount on the topic of institutional abuse myself, and it happens that these crimes against children are at the core of a book I’m writing at present. I can’t answer the question posed above, but I can cite many reports urging a change of course, all of them languishing in closets. Abuses of children in past decades, particularly but not exclusively in state-run institutions, first came into the Canadian public consciousness over thirty years ago, in the early 1980s. The work of establishing policies and laws advancing the welfare of children occurred alongside other consciousness-raising struggles, particularly the effort to transform domestic violence from a private matter into a public one requiring prevention, intervention, and prosecution.
In Canada, the work of pursuing the sexual crimes of the past and preventing these crimes in the future has been a stop-and-go effort. To be sure, advocacy groups have been steadily chipping away the veneer of apathy and ignorance — but as the James trial reveals, sexual predators still get deferential treatment. Violence against women and children is met with universal disgust, and yet there appear to be structural impediments to translating that disgust into the necessary concrete measures: not only stronger sentences, but meaningful and effective rehabilitation and restitution. For years, highly experienced and informed observers have been calling for reform, and in the 1980s the work was underway — but in the sputtering, on-and-off fashion already mentioned.
The abuse of children first appeared as a public issue in the context of other crimes and injustices, and were addressed in a similar manner. In 1983, the Royal Commission on Equality in Employment, chaired by Judge Rosalie Abella, looked at the economic barriers and discrimination routinely faced by Canadian women in the work force. Bill C-31, which received Royal Assent on June 28, 1985, addressed gender discrimination in the Indian Act. Canada in 1980 established the Committee on Sexual Offenses Against Children and Youths, tasked with a national fact-finding study published in 1984 and known as the “Badgley report.” Later in the decade, the Mount Cashel orphanage of Newfoundland became the first high-profile case in Canada of institutional abuse, leading to public inquiries and compensation for victims. Disclosure of the abuses committed by the Christian Brothers at Mount Cashel was very soon followed by other news reports of a similar nature.
One particularly chilling disclosure was the Jericho Hill Provincial School for the Deaf, in Vancouver. An investigation of Jericho Hill’s forty-two year history, led by Justice Thomas Berger, confirmed widespread abuse and noted the “increased vulnerability” of children who “usually did not have the ability or the means to communicate … about sexual abuse.” The Jericho Hill School lawsuit, L.R v. British Columbia, was joined by others — such as Bazley v. Curry and Jacobi v. Griffiths — in establishing the Canadian legal precedents invoked during the later Indian residential school sexual abuse trials.
Gradually, the volume of abuse cases concerning children made an impression on the public. It came to seem as if no depravity was impossible. Muir v. The Queen in the Right of Alberta disclosed that forced sterilization, in the cause of “raising and safeguarding the purity of the race,” had been applied in Canada between 1928 and 1972 by the Alberta Eugenics Board. According to the author Olena Hankivsky, by 2005 there had been twenty-three institutions in the provinces of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia at which residents were physically, sexually, and psychologically abused. To these, one could add the crimes committed against thousands of children in over 130 Indian residential schools.
Nor have we reached the end of the disclosures, as forced adoptions and the issues identified thirty years ago, in the 1981 Kimelman Inquiry into Manitoba’s First Nations child welfare system and the “Sixties Scoop,” are only now finding their way into the public’s consciousness.
The first comprehensive study of the legal issues surrounding child abuse was published in 2000 by the Law Commission of Canada. Titled Restoring Dignity: Responding to Child Abuse in Canadian Institutions, the 462-page report examined the entire range of “government-run, government-funded, or government-sponsored” institutions and recommended approaches to redress harms and provide for the needs of those abused. The Law Commission’s work complemented the findings and recommendations of other, related reports, looking into organizations and clubs and associations where sexual abuse of children often occurred. All underscored “the need for … involving the community,” as the Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission phrased it. By 2000, the call for broad, victim-driven reform was in the air.
What happened? The Law Commission of Canada saw its funds withdrawn and its work brought to a halt. Many other consciousness-raising and practically-oriented agencies met a similar end. Most of the problems identified — basic things like inadequate collection and sharing of information between agencies — went unaddressed, and children continued to be abused while abusers continued to escape detection or, when detected, capture. Over and over again, Canadians are learning that the most vulnerable among them have been violated in brutal and disgusting ways, and that the violations have been going on for years. We’re not at the end of the revelations, and we’re only at the beginning of grappling with the reforms that might make future abuses less likely.
Discouragingly, but also realistically, the Law Commission of Canada “insisted” that “stopping child abuse is not so much a question of knowledge as it is a question of will. […] Although child protection laws have been extended over the years, their primary focus remains on abuse arising in the home and family environment, not institutional settings.” Institutional settings include things as diverse as orphanges, the Boy Scouts, and the NHL. And the “question of will” includes not only public awareness, but the political backbone to address the needs of victims and to do more to prevent future abuses.