The Facts About the #MeToo Movement and its Impact in Canada

In October 2017, the hashtag #MeToo made headlines internationally, prompting women from around the world to publicly share their experiences of sexual assault or harassment.

The #MeToo Movement has been called a watershed moment in the advancement of gender equality, giving a powerful platform to women and demonstrating the extent of sexual assault and harassment across society.

In Canada, the Movement has had implications not only for survivors, but also for support service providers, educators, law enforcement, employers, and the government. As just one example, there has been a sizeable increase in demand on Canada’s sexual violence support services; calls to the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre increased 100% during the last year alone.

The Canadian Women’s Foundation is encouraged that more women who have experienced sexual assault or harassment are coming forward, and that conversations around these issues are taking place across Canada. Yet, the Movement has also revealed how much change is needed.

Why is ending sexual violence so urgent?

Frequently asked questions about the #MeToo Movement and its impact in Canada

The “me too” movement was first established in 2006 by American activist Tarana Burke, after her own experience of sexual violence. Burke saw a need for better support, funding, and resources for those impacted by sexual violence, and was particularly focused on helping young women of colour from low-income communities. Her dream was to “build a community of advocates, driven by survivors, who will be at the forefront for creating solutions to interrupt sexual violence in their communities.”

In 2017 the hashtag “#MeToo” gained momentum after sexual assault allegations were made against film producer Harvey Weinstein. On October 5, 2017, the New York Times published a story containing multiple allegations of sexual assault and harassment against Weinstein. Within weeks, more than 50 allegations were made. 2020 update:  In February 2020, Weinstein was convicted of two out of five sexual assault charges after a trial in New York, and had further charges pending a trial in Los Angeles.

On October 15, 2017, actress Alyssa Milano called on people to share their experiences of sexual assault and harassment using the hashtag #MeToo, prompting women around the world, from many walks of life, to do just that.

In response to the #MeToo Movement and the Weinstein allegations, Hollywood celebrities formed a movement against sexual assault and harassment in the entertainment industry, and established a legal defence fund for survivors known as Time’s Up.

#MeToo went viral in Canada and around the world. The Canadian Press named the public conversation around sexual assault and harassment the story of the year. TIME magazine named their 2017 Person of the Year story “The Silence Breakers”, recognizing women involved with the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.

It should be noted that even before the #MeToo Movement started in Canada, various news stories had drawn national attention to the systemic barriers that stand in the way of addressing sexual assault and harassment. In February 2017, the Globe & Mail’s Unfounded investigation revealed that police dismiss 1 in 5 claims of sexual assault as baseless, and prompted an overhaul of how police approach these cases.

In the years before #MeToo, many women had spoken out about sexual harassment and discrimination in Canadian institutions, including the military and the RCMP. Canadians had also watched high-profile cases, including that of Jian Ghomeshi, play out in court. Against this backdrop, the Movement has started new conversations among Canadians and increased the sense of urgency for progress toward long-term change.

Several high-profile Canadian actors have spoken out about their experiences of sexual assault or harassment in the entertainment industry. The #MeToo Movement has also prompted women across Canada to share experiences of sexual assault, harassment, or discrimination in a rage of fields including: politics, theatre, journalism, music, comedy, sports, food and wine, and the airline industry.

On December 2, 2017, hundreds of people gathered in downtown Toronto for the #MeToo March. Participants called for meaningful change in the behaviours that surround sexual assault and harassment, and advocated for improved services for survivors of sexual violence.

Since survivors of sexual assault and/or harassment are often silenced by people in positions of power, social media movements like #MeToo and #BeenRapedNeverReported provide an accessible platform for voice and visibility.

There are many barriers to reporting sexual assault and harassment, including fear of reprisal, re-traumatization, or negative impacts on career and livelihood. Less than 5% of sexual assaults in Canada are reported to police, according to 2014 statistics. For particular groups of women, including racialized women, women with disabilities, 2SLGBTQI+ people, and those living on a low income, the barriers may be more complex.

In the context of these systemic barriers, the #MeToo Movement has made it easier for some survivors to share their stories and have confidence that they will be believed. It has given survivors a collective and powerful platform that has raised awareness, demanded accountability, and challenged workplace, legal, and political systems that allow for abuses of power.

Social media movements can also trigger memories or shift someone’s understanding of what happened to them, and break down the isolation and stigma so that people are more willing to speak up and ask for help.

According to a Plan International Canada survey, about two-thirds of Canadians said that they believe #MeToo and Time’s Up are empowering women and girls to share their experiences, and prompting men to re-evaluate their behaviour toward women. Thirty one per cent agreed the movements have changed how they think about sexual assault.

While the #MeToo Movement has provided a positive platform for many, it’s import to remember survivors don’t owe anyone their stories. Disclosing isn’t the answer for every survivor – it can be retraumatizing. The path to healing is unique for each person. Some may choose not to speak out. Some may choose not to involve the justice system. Some may look for alternative ways of healing, like restorative justice options, or therapeutic support.

Sexual assaults remains one of most underreported crimes (Adam Cotter, Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety Statistics, Statistics Canada, 2019). But there are indications that rates of reporting of sexual violence did increase following the viral moment.

On a national level, Statistics Canada noted a 13 per cent increase in police-reported cases of sexual assault between 2016 and 2017. It linked the increase in reports to both the #MeToo Movement and to the Globe & Mail’s Unfounded investigation. Published in February 2017, the investigation revealed that police dismiss 1 in 5 claims of sexual assault as baseless. Since its publication, police services across Canada have begun to implement reforms, and unfounded rates have dropped.

There were also regional indications of increased reporting. Montreal police services noted a 22.9% increase in sexual assault reports in 2017, and a hotline for reporting sexual assault received upwards of 460 calls between October 19 and November 6, 2017. Police said the spike in reports and calls could be correlated to the emergence of new high-profile cases.

Calgary Police Service noted the need for more detectives due to increased caseloads in its sex crimes and child abuse units. The CPS noted that the number of sex crimes investigated increased from 296 in 2016 to 391 in 2017, recognizing that the 32 per cent increase could be linked to #MeToo and Time’s Up.

In Winnipeg, police services reported a 36% increase in sexual assault reports in 2017 compared to the previous year, and saw a 142% increase from October to December 2017, as compared to the previous year.

Across the country, centres have reported a greater demand for support services. The Toronto Rape Crisis Centre says they were flooded with calls, and the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic in Toronto reported an 83% increase in requests for sexual assault counselling in 2017.

The Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton reported wait times of 9 or 10 months, up from their usual 6-month waiting period, and attributed increased demand to the #MeToo Movement and changing conversations around sexual assault.

Crisis centres in Halifax and across Atlantic Canada reported an increase in first-time callers in 2017. They noticed that people were not waiting as long after experiencing assault to seek help.

The Quebec Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres reported that, between October 16 and 26, 2017, they saw the volume of requests for assistance triple.

However, most programs did not have increased funding to meet the increased demand. “This is a definite shift in culture where survivors are feeling safer to come forward and we need to be able to respond,” Deb Tomlinson, CEO of the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services, told Huffington Post Canada. “We are not responding the way we need to right now.”

In Saskatchewan, the Battlefords and Area Sexual Assault Centre (one of the only crisis centres for residents of northern Saskatchewan) was forced to shut down their 24-hour hotline due to a lack of funding in June 2018.

On International Women’s Day 2018, Vancouver’s Women Against Violence Against Women Rape Crisis Centre submitted a petition to the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia that called for the restoration of $1.7 million in core funding for women-serving organizations, which was cut in 2004.

In response to calls for increased government funding, the Alberta government designated $8.1 million in funding to the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services.

In the wake of #MeToo, a stream of public accusations of sexual assault and harassment has led to swift consequences for the accused. In some cases, high-profile reputations and careers have been damaged, and some companies have been called out for inaction. This has prompted questions about whether the Movement has gone too far, about accusers’ motives, and about what has happened to due process along the way.

In a Maclean’s article on #MeToo, Toronto criminal lawyer David Butt likened the situation to a dam bursting. He said: “We’ve known for years that in excess of 90 per cent of sexual violence or mistreatment goes unreported to authorities … So it was no surprise there was immense pressure on the dam. But it’s always a surprise when the dam actually bursts.”

While due process should be respected, the #MeToo Movement has helped to demonstrate that systemic and long-term change is needed for it to fairly serve all parties involved in cases of sexual harassment or assault. Public accusations have emerged online because existing processes and protocols have not adequately served those who report experiences of sexual harassment or assault.

Research shows that there is a mistaken belief that women falsely report sexual assault. A Globe and Mail investigation showed that police dismiss 1 in 5 sexual assault reports as “unfounded” — meaning that about 5,000 cases each year go uninvestigated, “dropping out of the system … long before a Crown prosecutor, judge, or jury has a chance to weigh in”. This does not mean that these assaults did not occur. It could mean that the police did not believe there was enough formal evidence to lay a charge. A review of various international research on false reporting of sexual assault suggests that false reporting happens in 2 per cent to 8 per cent of cases.

In November 2017, Bill C-65, was tabled to change the regulatory structure for sexual harassment in federally-regulated workplaces. Though the announcement of the bill came amid a surge of public debate about high-profile sexual assault and harassment allegations, the legislation had already been in the works. Bill C-65 was fast-tracked and came into effect January 2021.

The federal government referenced the #MeToo Movement in its rationale for particular sections of the 2018 Federal Budget, which was historic in that it was developed with a gender-based analysis. In the Budget, the government also expanded the Strategy to Prevent and Address Gender-Based Violence.

An Angus Reid survey on the #MeToo Movement found that:
  • 52 per cent of Canadian women say they have been subject to sexual harassment in the workplace during their lifetime;
  • 28 per cent of Canadian women say they have experienced non-consensual touching in the workplace;
  • 89 per cent of Canadian women say they have taken steps to avoid unwanted sexual advances at work.

Human Resources Professionals and employment lawyers have noted increased reports of sexual harassment in the workplace in the months since #MeToo.

According to the Canada Labour Code, every employee has a right to a workplace free of sexual harassment. The Canada Labour Code defines sexual harassment as:

“…any conduct, comment, gesture, or contact of a sexual nature that is likely to cause offence or humiliation to any employee; or that might, on reasonable grounds, be perceived by that employee as placing a condition of a sexual nature on employment or on any opportunity for training or promotion.”

The Code requires all workplaces to have a policy in place that defines sexual harassment in a similar way, while also informing employees that they will make reasonable efforts to ensure the workplace is free of sexual harassment and discipline offenders appropriately.

Employers must also detail their workplace’s complaint process (which must be confidential) and inform workers of their right to make a complaint under the Canadian Human Rights Act. These policies must be written and posted where all workers can read them.

In addition, employers are obligated to create workplace environments free of harassment and discrimination by provincial and territorial Occupational Health and Safety Laws, Human Rights Codes, and Employment Standards Codes.

The increased focus on sexual assault and harassment in the workplace has prompted many employers to re-evaluate their sexual harassment policies and look for education opportunities.

The Human Resources Professionals Association and Benefits Canada are among those who have made recommendations for how employers can improve their sexual harassment policies and procedures in the wake of the #MeToo Movement.

There have also been various industry-specific initiatives aimed at improving how workplaces address these issues.

  • In response to a number of allegations, members of Canada’s creative industries have joined together and developed a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault and harassment, as well as a framework for reporting and resolving complaints. Announced by the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) in March 2018, this agreement is sponsored by 24 groups and professional associations in Canada, including the Writers Guild of Canada, TIFF, and the CBC.
  • In response to sexual assault and harassment in politics, a Toronto-based organization called the Young Women’s Leadership Network has developed an online tool kit and services aimed at helping political parties — and the many young people who volunteer for them — to prevent and address sexual violence on the campaign trail. The organization provides equity and inclusion training, sexual violence support training, policy consultation, and anti-harassment support for events.
  • In the hospitality industry, the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association has developed the “It’s Your Shift” Sexual Violence & Intervention Training Program, designed to teach and protect workers in the hospitality industry. Created in collaboration with Tourism HR Canada and the Ontario Tourism Education Corporation, the program has been incorporated into courses and programs offered by Centennial College‘s School of Hospitality, Tourism and the Culinary Arts.
  • In October 2018, Ryerson University hosted  Let’s Get Uncomfortable, an event that addressed issues including inequity and sexual harassment in the travel industry.
  • Other industries and individuals have responded to the #MeToo Movement in different ways. For example, Me Too Mining was launched to provide support for women working in the male-dominated mining industry.

While the #MeToo Movement has raised awareness about sexual assault and harassment, it has also highlighted the urgent need for education about healthy relationships and consent.

In May 2018, the Canadian Women’s Foundation conducted a survey asking Canadians about consent and issues related to sexual harassment, in light of the #MeToo Movement. It found that Canadians’ understanding of what constitutes consent has actually decreased:

  • Only 28 per cent of respondents fully understood all the components of consent, compared with 33 per cent in 2015. Consent should always be enthusiastic and ongoing, involve a clear “yes,” affirmative words, and positive body language.
  • Half of women who responded to the survey have felt pressured to consent to unwanted sexual activity at some point;
  • 44 per cent of Canadians said that education was the most crucial next step in the #MeToo Movement.

A February 2018 survey by the Angus Reid Institute found that millennial men (aged 18-34) were the most likely to believe that sexually suggestive actions and behaviours are acceptable at work.

Twenty-seven per cent of millennial men said that telling “off-colour” jokes at work was “acceptable,” while only 13 per cent of millennial women agreed. The survey also found that older women and men are more likely to find suggestive behaviour at work unacceptable.

When asked about how they felt during conversations about the pervasiveness of sexual assault, participants in Chatelaine’s #TheManSurvey responded that 25 per cent of them felt “nothing,” 42 per cent felt “sad,” 32 per cent felt “angry,” and 12 per cent felt “bored.”

Last Update: November 22, 2021

Data Snapshot

30%
of all women age 15 or older report experiencing sexual assault at least once

3 times
The rate of sexual assault against Indigenous women is approximately three times higher than among non-Indigenous women

2 times
The rate of sexual assault against people with disabilities is about two times higher than those with no disabilities

Only 1 in 3
people in Canada understands what it means to give consent to sexual activity

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