WARNING: This article contains references to sexual abuse and may affect those who have experienced abuse or know someone affected by it.
Five years ago, Alyssa Milano put out a call.
In the wake of sexual assault allegations against film executive Harvey Weinstein uncovered in a New York Times investigation, the actor posted a message on Twitter urging others to come forward with their own stories.
"If you've been sexually harassed or assaulted write 'me too' as a reply to this tweet," she wrote, using a phrase first coined in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke to highlight the impact of sexual violence in racialized communities.
Milano's tweet kicked off an international movement that changed the culture of silence around sexual assault and harassment, leading to scores of accusations against powerful men. And although it opened the floodgates to countless people coming forward and many institutions making structural changes, survivors and advocates acknowledge there's still much more work to do.
"It had huge impacts on us, and we're seeing those impacts to this day," said Farrah Khan, manager of Consent Comes First, in the Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education at Toronto Metropolitan University.
This week Weinstein is facing a second criminal trial on sexual assault charges in Los Angeles, almost five years after an investigation from journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey at the the New York Times uncovered his behaviour.
He has pleaded not guilty and is also appealing his 2020 conviction in New York for committing a criminal sexual act and third-degree rape that saw him sentenced to 23 years in prison.
Uncovering a systemic problem
In Canada, the #MeToo movement was preceded years earlier by sexual assault charges laid against former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi in 2014, Khan said. Ghomeshi was acquitted of all charges.
"I think that was our watershed moment," she said.
When the #MeToo movement took off on social media, it sparked further conversations in Canada that sexual violence is a systemic problem.
"We're seeing conversations about system-wide harm that is happening, the ways in which organizations and institutions collude and actually uphold rape culture," Khan said, pointing to the recent Hockey Canada scandal as one example.
Janice Rubin, a longtime employment lawyer in Toronto who specializes in workplace investigations, said she has noticed stark changes in the way workplaces deal with sexual misconduct complaints, including conducting investigations right away and treating complainants with more respect.
"There is no comparison [to five years ago]," Rubin said of the changes she's seen. She also notes that more companies have a zero-tolerance policy for bad behaviour.
"The change is ... enough to make me optimistic."
Statistics Canada reported a 25 per cent increase in reports of sexual assaults in the three months after the hashtag #MeToo first went viral, from October to December 2017.
Between 2020 and 2021, the agency said there was an 18 per cent increase in reports of sexual assaults across Canada. Khan attributes this to more people feeling comfortable coming forward.
Victories have also been recorded in the justice system, like in Prince Edward Island, which earlier this year became the first province to pass a bill stipulating that non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) can only be part of a settlement in a discrimination or harassment case, including sexual misconduct, if the person bringing forward the allegation wants it there.
Supporters of the bill hailed the legislation as a key step in allowing survivors to speak about their experiences. Weinstein's use of NDAs was cited by the reporters who uncovered his behaviour as being key in allowing him to silence women, which meant he could continue to abuse others.
There are some high-profile examples of sexual assault allegations resulting in charges in Canada. Fashion mogul Peter Nygard is facing sexual assault and forcible confinement charges in Toronto for alleged incidents dating back to the late 1980s. He is also facing extradition to the United States, charges in Montreal and a class-action lawsuit in the U.S. involving 57 women. He has denied all allegations.
Recently, Jacob Hoggard, former frontman for the Canadian rock group Hedley, was sentenced to five years in prison following his conviction on one count of sexual assault causing bodily harm after raping an Ottawa woman in 2016. He was released on bail hours later as he waits for his appeal to be heard.
Despite these victories, there have been setbacks in the justice system, too. Khan said one of those was seen recently in the way actor Amber Heard was vilified in a highly publicized civil libel trial involving her ex-husband, actor Johnny Depp.
"We pick and choose who takes accountability," said Khan, who has spoken in the past about what she called the "meme-ification of domestic violence" surrounding the Heard-Depp trial.
Historically, she said, if survivors do come forward, it takes time, often years before they feel comfortable reporting what happened. And she notes that if a case does make it to trial, survivors are often forced to relive what happened to them.
This is even more of a concern in marginalized communities, said Ellie Ade Kur, a board member of Maggie's Toronto, a sex worker support organization. She also founded a survivor-led student group at the University of Toronto called Silence is Violence. It released a report on students' experiences and understandings of sexual violence at the university's three campuses in 2019.
"Over the last five years, we've watched the experiences of Black women, queer and trans women, of working-class women, of sex workers be entirely swept under the rug," she said, adding that people from these communities don't feel comfortable sharing their experiences or reporting to police.
An impact on Canadian campuses
The impact of the movement continues to reverberate across Canadian campuses as well.
Western University student Ziyana Kotadia has long advocated for more support from the school administration, especially after allegations of sexual assault on the London, Ont., campus surfaced in 2021.
"It's frightening. It's disappointing. It's overwhelming," Kotadia said, noting that students shouldn't be taking on the sole responsibility of advocating for themselves.
Last year, thousands of Western students walked out of class to support survivors of sexual violence and protest misogyny and rape culture.
This fall, Kotadia and other students from 20 post-secondary institutions and organizations released Our Campus, Our Safety, a national action plan urging schools to implement mandatory sexual violence prevention training for all students and to re-examine complaint procedures and academic accommodations for survivors.
So far, Western students say they have not received a response from administrators.
"There's still so much work that needs to be done," Kotadia said.
LISTEN | Ziyana Kotadia explains the Our Campus, Our Safety action plan:
Grey areas and restorative justice
There are also gaps in education around consent, according to Jessica Wright, an associate professor in the sociology department at MacEwan University in Edmonton, where she teaches gender-based violence prevention and consent education.
A survivor of sexual violence herself, Wright was involved in advocacy work with University of Toronto student group Silence Is Violence.
Wright said there is still a huge amount of work to be done to educate the public on the "grey areas of consent," which include instances where a woman feels pressured into having sex but doesn't want to.
"This is one of the huge unresolved pieces," she said. "We need change on a micro level as well as on a macro level. And the micro-level changes are so much more ambiguous."
Both Wright and Khan said they don't actually believe the court system is the ideal way for survivors to get justice.
Not only is it often traumatizing for survivors to participate in trials, Wright said, but she believes the criminal justice system doesn't truly work to help perpetrators understand their actions.
Instead, she advocates for restorative justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of perpetrators through reconciling with survivors, which means creating cultural and societal change.
"Our society is not well equipped to do that right now," Wright said.
Khan said communities need to look at ways to work with offenders so they don't continue to harm others, something she says is harder than simply sending them to prison.
"Maybe that's why we're not there yet."
Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. If you're in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.