When Sabrina Comeau took to Instagram on July 2 to publicly accuse someone of sexual assault — fighting tears as she told her story in a live video — her intention was to warn others, to prevent it from happening to someone else.
The 21-year-old Montreal woman didn't anticipate a swarm of Quebecers would follow in her footsteps, denouncing their alleged abusers by name for all forms of sexual violence and harassment.
These people, mostly young women, are using social media to create their own form of justice, Comeau said.
"We're doing this because [the government is] not giving us resources or helping to denounce our aggressors without being pointed at," she said.
Since early July, several Instagram accounts have been created for victims of sexual violence and misconduct to tell their stories online, bypassing the well-established but often difficult process of filing a police complaint and going through the court system.
So far, the movement has not reached beyond Quebec, which Comeau attributes to the language barrier and the fact that higher-profile people who have been called out for misconduct — such as celebrity Maripier Morin and singer Kevin Parent — are known mainly to Quebecers.
Most recently, anonymous allegations of sexual misconduct have surfaced against Yves-François Blanchet, leader of the federal Bloc Québécois.
"The justice system is not for victims," Comeau said. "There's not a lot of protection. Even if I go to the cops, the chances of something actually changing is so small. And the wait — in three years, will I feel like facing this person in court? No."
There are Instagram pages for Montreal and the Montreal South Shore, Gatineau, Quebec City and other regions, as well as pages specific to different groups — from the restaurant and music industries to the tattooing and academic communities.
Some have shared their online testimonies anonymously on group pages, while others, such as Comeau, shared their stories on their personal accounts.
A new form of justice?
Many of these people are naming their alleged abusers. This has led several of those called out to send cease-and-desist letters or threaten to sue for defamation. The low-cost legal clinic Juripop has been offering legal advice to the people who posted their accusations.
In the case of the Bloc Québécois leader, involving an alleged incident in a Montreal bar in 1999, Blanchet has denied all claims, saying he "invites the person who published the allegations to complain to competent authorities."
He said he hopes justice can always be served to protect "real victims" of criminal acts.
When victims of sexual violence come forward with a police complaint, they often feel shamed, disbelieved and intimidated by police, said Carrie Rentschler, an associate professor at McGill University in Montreal who teaches feminist media studies and has been monitoring online feminist movements since before the launch of the #MeToo movement.
She said victims turn to social media, where spaces focus on survivor support, to achieve some sense of justice.
"Part of that is an ability to name behaviours that people have suffered from over time ... and then raising a question: What might responsibility look like? It might not necessarily be a police case," Rentschler said.
The movement is pushing people to think of different ways to hold others accountable for their actions.
Some of the people publicly named have lost their jobs over online allegations of misconduct. Some, including Parent and Morin, have apologized publicly. Others have committed to starting therapy to change their behaviour.
Francine Pelletier, a prominent Quebec feminist commentator, writer and filmmaker, understands the reasons behind the online allegations but is concerned about the methods being used.
Pelletier said the movement is problematic compared to its predecessor, #MeToo, because the women are remaining anonymous and naming the accused.
"They're accusing men, they're giving names, they aren't giving the facts and they themselves remain anonymous. It looks like they're taking justice into their own hands," she told Radio-Canada's 24/60.
"Yes, these women should express themselves but justice needs to proceed in a democratic way."
Changes on the way
In response to the online outcry, Quebec Premier François Legault said while he has confidence in the justice system, Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette is working on making the process less onerous for victims.
"I salute the people who denounced, whether online or not," Legault said. To those being denounced, Legault said, "Come on guys, show some respect."
Last year, then-justice minister Sonia LeBel assembled a group of experts to come up with ways to make it easier for victims of sexual assault to navigate the justice system.
Comeau said she'll believe the commitment to change when she sees it.
"I don't believe in words, I believe in action," she said.
The only way to achieve systemic change is to address systemic problems, said Marlihan Lopez, program and outreach coordinator at Concordia University's Simone de Beauvoir Institute in Montreal who is also a Black Lives Matter activist and has worked with rape crisis centres.
"A lot of people can't take to social media to disclose," such as victims of domestic violence, Lopez said. Education and prevention, she said, are the first steps in eliminating ingrained sexism in society.
On Sunday, a demonstration protesting sexual violence is planned in Montreal.
#BlackLivesMatter 'a social justice springboard'
The online call-outs come as the anti-Black racism movement, sparked by the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police in the United States, spreads worldwide.
"It wouldn't be the first time that an anti-racist movement acted as a social justice springboard for other struggles," Lopez said.
Different forms of systemic oppression — racism, sexual violence and others — are all tied together, said Nathalie Batraville, a Black feminist scholar at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute.
"People felt compelled to also share other forms of systemic oppression that are present in our society, specifically gendered violence," Batraville said.
She said this moment fits into the larger conversation of shifting funding away from police and toward resources that prevent violence and create conditions where accountability is possible.
"All of these things are really important and can only happen if there's a massive shift in how we think of justice."