Lise Gotell named new Landrex Distinguished Professor

Leading expert on sexual consent law in Canada seeks to bridge justice gap for survivors of sexual assault in Alberta

Donna McKinnon - 14 June 2018

Alberta has one of the highest rates of sexual assault in the country. In the most recentStatistics Canada General Social Survey (2014), over 24,000 incidents of self-reported sexual assault against adults occurred in Edmonton in a 12-month period. Young Indigenous women face an even higher rate, with one in five experiencing a sexual assault in the same period.

The pervasiveness of sexual assault, from harassment to violent rape, reached peak visibility with the advent of the #metoo movement last year, but acknowledging the magnitude of the problem is only the beginning. For many women, the criminal justice system fails to meet their needs as survivors, perpetuating discriminatory myths and often provoking the symptoms of traumatic stress. As a result, fewer survivors today are reporting their assaults.

Lise Gotell, a leading expert in sexual consent law in Canada and a professor in the Department of Women's and Gender Studies, will be researching the justice gap experienced by survivors of sexual assault in Alberta as part of her new Landrex Distinguished Professorship. She says that the gap between progressive laws and their application in practice appears to be especially wide here, stemming in part from a long history of troubling court cases.

"There are a number of egregious examples of mistreatment of complainants that we're seeing brought to light through high profile cases," she says. "The enquiry into the conduct ofRobin Camp - a provincial court judge; the improper and illegal jailing ofAngela Cardinal, a sexual assault complainant; and the absolute dehumanization ofCindy Gladue. There are other examples I could call on, but every time a bad example of a sexual assault trial hits the news recently, it involves an Alberta example."

Also troubling, the drop in reporting assaults which Gotell attributes, in part, to the chilling effects of cases like the Ghomeshi acquittal, adding that another key reason is that survivors may not recognize the seriousness of what happened to them, succumbing instead to denial and often, self-blame.

"Even though it may have met the legal definition of sexual assault, we have the enduring myth of 'real rape'," says Gotell. "That is, violent, stranger rape, and it causes many to people to minimize the more pervasive, everyday forms of sexual violence, which are committed by boyfriends, friends, acquaintances, and in the context of intimate partnerships."

Over the next five years, the Landrex Professor will seek to narrow the assault justice gap by improving criminal justice responses, as well as by developing innovative alternative justice approaches. Gotell says the overall objective is to foster strategies that address Alberta survivors' needs for "participation, voice, validation, and vindication and offender accountability."

Toward this goal, Gotell will be looking at restorative justice as a possible way of addressing the failures of the criminal justice system.

"Restorative justice is based upon an admission of responsibility, something survivors rarely get in the context of the criminal justice system," she says, adding that a well-designed restorative justice program would have very clear protocols about what kinds of cases would be considered, as well as clear protocols, risk mechanisms and wraparound support for both the survivor and also for the perpetrator.

"What the research is showing is that restorative justice actually does a far better job of addressing the justice needs of survivors," she says. "I want to build some support for a pilot project here."

Funded by U of A alumnus, Larry Andrews ('70 BA, '71 LLB), the Landrex Professorship provides a professor in the Faculty of Arts with an annual research stipend for five years, giving them the opportunity to expand their research while contributing to the community.

The project has the support of Andrews, who has long been interested in alternative forms of justice. "He practiced criminal law and saw firsthand some of the problems with the system," says Gotell. "He is very interest in restorative justice."

Another component will be the Alberta Justice Gap Symposium in the fall of 2019 which will bring together Alberta stakeholders, including women's and Indigenous women's organizations, provincial and municipal governments, Crown prosecutors, police and academic researchers to discuss the dimensions of the justice gap - building the collaborative networks necessary to successfully address the problem.

Lastly, Gotell will amplify her well-established interrogation of Alberta's criminal justice system by working toward improving courtroom conditions for sexual assault survivors. By examining trial transcripts, she will build a database of reported sexual assault decisions, identifying incidents of 'whacking' - which she explains is when defence counsel engage in aggressive forms of cross-examination and mistreatment, deploying discriminatory myths as a way of disqualifying complainant allegations.

"It's in contravention of the law, but continues on a day to day basis," she says.

Gotell is "somewhat optimistic" that we are moving in a forward direction, but cautions that these moments are often followed by backlash and regression. She sees the Landrex Professorship as an opportunity to draw on her extensive record of public engagement and policy-relevant advocacy - building on the momentum of the #metoo movement and, at the same time, forming new community-based collaborations that will drive change for survivors of sexual assault in Edmonton and Alberta.

"There is real work to be done," says Gotell. "It's a huge honour and a recognition of the kind of work I do, and will continue to do."