Helping Survivors of sexual assault and sexual abuse in Ontario.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is the act of “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought to be known to be unwelcome.” (Section 10 of the Human Rights Code)

Using this definition, more than one event must take place for there to be a claim for sexual harassment. However, depending on the circumstances, one incident could be significant or substantial enough to be sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment can take a number of forms. It can be an unwelcome comment on your appearance by a co-worker; a sexual advance or request by your supervisor; an implication from the VP at your office; or jokes from your teammates that are encouraged by your shift supervisor. And it’s not just sexual advances – every person has a right to freedom from harassment in the workplace because of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression by his or her employer or agent of the employer or by another employee. Most actions that give rise to sexual harassment claims occur in the workplace, but they can also occur at home if you rent a property.

There are three keys to proving that you have suffered sexual harassment at work or at home:

  • That the conduct was harassing, which means, it was unwelcome,
  • That the conduct was sexual, meaning, it related to either your sex or gender, and
  • The conduct was either repeated and persistent or, if it’s only one instance, so extreme as to have caused significant distress

The common way a person sues for sexual harassment is by bringing a complaint to an appropriate human rights tribunal. We won’t go into too much detail about the entire process and function of the HRTO, but if you want to learn more about the tribunal, you can check out this video.

However, for the purposes of this article, we’ll say this: The human rights tribunal awards damages for ‘injury to dignity’. They are focused on protecting you from sexual harassment in the workplace and at home if you have a landlord. The HRTO can also hold your employer liable for the acts of your co-workers if the employer knew or ought to have know about the harassment and didn’t stop it.

Here is an example of a case that we won at the HRTO regarding workplace sexual harassment.

Now, let’s talk about slightly more serous situations where the criminal justice system is involved. When the criminal justice system gets involved, it changes from being a sexual harassment claim to a claim arising out of sexual assault.

What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault is defined as the intentional application of force that violates a person’s sexual integrity, without that person’s consent. There is no single act but rather a range of conduct that falls within this definition, from unwanted sexual touching to forced intercourse. Sexual assault may take place in a single isolated incident, and be perpetrated by stranger, but it is often perpetrated in a series of incidents over multiple years alongside other forms of abuse.

That description comes from Canada’s case law, meaning a series of court decisions, but, to put it simply, the major difference between sexual harassment and sexual assault is that sexual harassment does not normally involve ‘violent sexual touching’ – meaning, you were not violated physically – though touching and grabbing may fall into the ‘harassment’ category. Another more technical difference is that a sexual assault is a breach of the criminal code, whereas sexual harassment is a breach of the Human Rights Code.

Depending on when the assault happened and who committed the assault, there is a lot of difference in how a sexual assault claim proceeds. In short, in order to prove that you are entitled to compensation for sexual assault, you must prove three key things:

  • Force was applied
  • That force violated a person’s sexual integrity
  • That the assailant was actually the person who applied the sexual force.

The law recognizes that there are difference between various types of victims of sexual assault, in terms of the nature of the relationship with the perpetrator. In fact, there are three typical categories of victims.

  • The first kind of victim is if you were sexually assaulted as a child by someone who was not part of an institutional authority, whether by your parent, a family member, or a friend.
  • The second kind is if you experienced sexual abuse as a child by a person in a place of authority who is part of some kind of institution, such as a teacher, counselor, foster parent or religious leader. In these cases, the institution can also be held liable.
  • The last kind of victim is if you were assaulted as an adult. As an adult, the nature of the relationship still matters but is not as a big a factor as it is for the previous two kinds of victims. It primarily impacts on the amount of time you have to bring a claim after the incidents occur.

Compensation that can be won in court for sexual assaults victims are significant. It can include claims for lost income, loss of employment opportunities, medical and therapeutic care costs, in addition to claims for pain and suffering you will suffer for the rest of your life. The law recognizes that the impact of sexual assault is long-lasting and significant.

Family & foster abuse

The effects of sexual abuse by a foster parent, in a group home or by a family member can last a lifetime. In fact, the full extent of the psychological impact is often not even discovered until people are well into their adult years. The law recognizes this reality, so there is no so-called “statute of limitations”, or what lawyers usually call a “limitation period”. Legal cases can be filed holding institutions and individuals accountable decades after the events occurred. 

People who are in a position of trust and authority such as foster parents and care workers committ one of society’s highest forms of evil when they use that power to harm a child. In a post #MeToo world, sexual abusers cannot hide behind the silence of their victims anymore.

Although money can never undo the pain of this type of trauma, these civil claims can result in significant sums of compensation for survivors. Such funds can give survivors the ability to cover therapy costs, and reach their full potential in their careers.

Holding wrongdoers accountable and answerable for their actions can be healing and empowering for survivors. Where an institution was involved, such as a regional Children’s Aid Society, civil lawsuits also help prevent such abuse from happening to other people in the future. CAS simply cannot financially afford to allow abusers to run rampant within their systems. Therefore, they will generally do what they can to implement policies to protect children, but are more motivated to do so when survivors take legal action.

Abuse by clergy

Although most religious leaders in Ontario are generally law-abiding and hard-working people, no religious community is free from sexual abuse perpetrated by members of its clergy. This reprehensible behaviour has been discovered in nearly all communities, including the Islamic, Christian and Jewish communities. Our lawyers have experience representing victims of sexual abuse.

Male sexual abuse victims

Boys and men are sexually abused and sexually assaulted in Ontario and around the world, but they unfortunately do not have the same supports in society available to them, compared to women. There is a lot of societal pressure to remain silent about the abuse. Men feel they are expected to be emotionally tougher and stronger in dealing with the abuse compared to victims who are woman. Being a survivor of sexual abuse or sexual assault does not make men less masculine or less manly.