People and Places

Women are targets of violent crime and Julie Lalonde wants to talk about it

“I’m telling you, violent crime is happening in Canada, women are the overwhelming targets, men are the overwhelming perpetrators, and we need to talk about it,” Julie Lalonde emphatically advocates. The Ottawa activist and educator has become a leader in the field of bystander intervention (if you see something, say something) and sexual assault prevention, and she doesn’t mince words. That’s made her a target for Internet trolls and even the people who hire her, as was the case at the Royal Military College when she was harassed there in 2014. Nevertheless, despite receiving death threats — and her personal experience with harassment that lasted 10 years — she persists. As the University of Ottawa hockey scandal continues to make headlines, the Ottawa police adopt a new model for investigating sexual assault cases, and the LRT reaches completion (creating more potentially unsafe spaces), Lalonde — who is part of Walrus Talks Disruption on October 24 —talks about how to make these issues a priority.

Julie Lalonde. Photo: Jessica Deeks
Julie Lalonde. Photo: Jessica Deeks

The Ottawa Police Service is adopting the Philadelphia Model as a response to sexual assault investigations. What is it, and why is it considered to be the gold standard?

The Philly Model is the gold standard because it creates civilian oversight for an issue that has traditionally been mishandled by the legal system. Allowing external experts to review “unfounded” cases has been proven to decrease the number of unfounded cases, increase transparency, increase conviction rates, and ensure that survivors and victims are properly informed about their cases.

Why hasn’t OPS instigated something like this before?

Police don’t like being investigated by people who are not their own, just like how campuses and military don’t want external experts. It is a classic case of “we don’t want people looking at what we’re doing.”

Do you think the buck stops with Chief Bordeleau?

I think this is absolutely at Chuck Bordeleau’s feet and it’s up to him to decide whether or not he wants to be a leader. When you’re looking at … a hierarchical organization, you cannot underestimate the power of leadership [when it says] “We’re condemning our past behaviour and we commit to doing better in the future.”

Julie Lalonde. Photo: Jessica Deeks
Julie Lalonde. Photo: Jessica Deeks

Following a sexual assault investigation involving two members of its men’s hockey team, Ottawa U took serious heat when they suspended the team for a year. Now the suspended players are suing the university. Do you think the administration overreacted?

Absolutely not. The fact that the players feel entitled to play hockey over that woman’s right to a proper investigation is ludicrous. I think this is the most clear-cut case of male entitlement I’ve seen in a long time. Most of the people paying attention to this story don’t understand that in Canada, if you’re playing hockey at the university level, you’re not going to the NHL. And these players are purposely misconstruing it and acting as though they’ve been denied an NHL career because they weren’t able to play hockey for one year. That’s a bold-faced lie. They know it, and they’re hoping that we don’t know it.

In the spring, Bar Robo on Somerset joined the Ask Angela campaign, a bystander intervention program for bar and restaurant staff where women can discreetly signal staff to help in a potentially unsafe situation. Is this a step forward?

I am familiar with the Ask Angela campaign, and I think it’s an interesting stop-gap measure for addressing dating violence, especially in light of the increase in folks using online dating apps. It is putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound in many ways and it still puts the onus on the woman, but if it makes people feel safer to go on dates at bars, I’m all for it.

The LRT will soon be completed. This will create a number of new, potentially unsafe spaces for women. Given your experience dealing with OC Transpo and sexual harassment prevention, do you know what steps are are being taken in order to make the LRT safe for women?

I approached OC Transpo in February 2013 to work together on addressing harassment of women on transit. They were incredibly resistant, but eventually we wore them down and they saw the light. Since late 2013, Hollaback! Ottawa has been meeting on a regular basis with OC Transpo to address harassment and gender-based-violence issues. This work has resulted in the Let OC Transpo Know campaign and the creation of Canada’s first anonymous reporting mechanism. We continue to meet with OC Transpo and have our sights set on LRT 2018. For the first two years of LRT, OC Transpo will have a monopoly on advertising, and so we’re working with them to ensure their safety messaging is gendered and reflective of the reality that women traditionally experience underground transit much differently than men. We’re also working with them on issues like lighting and emergency telephones. We plan to sit at that table indefinitely and commit to being a voice for women in the city.

Julie Lalonde. Photo: Jessica Deeks
Julie Lalonde. Photo: Jessica Deeks

In 2014, you were giving a workshop on sexual harassment prevention at the Royal Military College in Kingston when you were sexually harassed. When you went public, it went viral. Why such interest?

I’m there to talk about how you can step up when you see something happening, and people saw something happening and said nothing. I think that’s what made it so hard for people to handle. After RMC, I had over 100 emails, and some of them were six paragraphs long, detailing how I should kill myself. One of the delightful things about being bilingual is that I get death threats in both languages [laughs].

Beyond what you experienced at RMC, do you encounter resistance when you give workshops in schools and workplaces?

In Canada, we have really subscribed to the myth of gender equality, so people get really uncomfortable when you tell them that’s not true. They get really uncomfortable when you talk about sex in any context. People get angry, and people get hostile. That is literally my life: going into spaces where I’m not welcome, where no one wants to be there, and I have an hour to convince them to get on board.

So how do you get people engaged?

For me, it’s about giving really practical tools and really practical examples. I run a campaign called Draw the Line, and we have over 30 different scenarios, like “Your favourite singer assaulted his girlfriend. Are you going to download his single next time? Are you going to go to his concert?” And people have conversations about it — I’ve had conversations with teenagers for a whole hour just on that topic.