Upcoming budgets must have sustained funding to combat sexual violence

There has been much debate lately over what constitutes a truly feminist government.

With this in mind as the federal and provincial budget announcements approach, I hope we will see substantial support for organizations providing front line services aimed at combating sexual violence in Canada.

Last week, MeToo Movement founder Tarana Burke, was at a Toronto event hosted by the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) and Consent Comes First, Ryerson’s Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education.

In her remarks, Burke succinctly reminded the audience that, “A hashtag doesn’t heal you.”

Awareness is an important piece of the puzzle, but so is sustainable funding to give survivors the necessary wraparound supports to heal and rebuild.

Sexual Assault Crisis Centres in Ontario are currently adapting to a drastic change in direction following the 2018 election, which resulted in a substantial decrease in their expected operational budgets. What was meant to be a 30 per cent increase in base funding was subsequently reduced to a one-time commitment of $1 million in the next fiscal year — a quarter of what was previously assured.

Funding uncertainty makes it difficult to co-ordinate and deliver adequate and needed front-line supports in an effective way. We can do better — and should, when lives are on the line.

Too many of these front-line organizations are running on shoestring budgets. If government wants to be helpful, while consultation and coordination are great, sustainable financial support is what is truly needed.

It’s essential to facilitate collaboration and avoid duplication of efforts between governments, the private sector, non-profit partners and survivors — which can be difficult within a highly polarized political environment.

The Centre to End Human Trafficking is in the process of launching a Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline aimed to provide confidential, multilingual, around-the-clock services for victims and survivors of both labour and sex trafficking. The hotline is modelled after the Polaris Project in the United States (and similar initiatives in Mexico and the U.K.). In its decade of operation, the Polaris Project has fielded more than 100,000 interactions that identified over 30,000 cases of human trafficking.

Human trafficking is a complex crime taking place in urban and rural communities across Canada. It is the most vulnerable women among us who are at risk and in need of support, including those on the economic margins, newcomers, Indigenous women, youth and children.

It’s difficult to measure the true prevalence of sex trafficking in Canada. Of those reported, 95 per cent of human trafficking victims between 2009 and 2016 were women.

It’s easy to get caught in the consultation loop on these issues. The federal government has just completed a consultation in the development of their upcoming human trafficking strategy, and the provincial government in Ontario is about to embark on one of their own. One would hope that information could be shared so front-line service providers can focus on their work. Consultation for the sake of consultation is not always the best use of government resources. At some point we must act.

The federal government has a role to play, in collaboration with provincial counterparts, on the national strategy to replace the first national Anti-Human Trafficking Action Plan that expired in 2017.

Municipalities can do their part too, by enacting and enforcing policies to ensure bylaw officers are properly resourced to regulate licensed and unlicensed establishments where individuals are being trafficked.

Banks and credit unions can contribute in both prevention efforts and supports available to assist survivors. Private institutions and philanthropic organizations can look for opportunities to help fill funding gaps left as the political pendulum swings.

These are issues that cross partisan lines and require true partnership between all levels of government. There is no reason for organizations working to support survivors of sexual violence to do so without funding security.

In the words of Tarana Burke, “We come to the work because we are the work.”

This International Women’s Day I offer kudos to the women and men tirelessly serving on the front lines to eliminate sexual violence and sex trafficking in Canada and ensure survivors are sufficiently supported. The services you deliver are essential — and in 2019, government funding decisions should reflect that.

Tiffany Gooch is a Toronto-based Liberal strategist at public affairs firms Enterprise and Ensight. She is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @goocht

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, March 10, 2019)