Rape crisis centres say no progress after meeting with Attorney General Caroline Mulroney

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Almost a year later, and they are no closer to getting an answer.

Despite a recent meeting with the attorney general, Ontario’s rape crisis centres say they have no idea if additional funding will come through — and they are now simply asking the government to provide them with a timeline of when they might find out.

As the centres “wait for information from the ministry, survivors of sexual violence, meanwhile, continue to wait for services,” said Nicole Pietsch, co-ordinator of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres, noting that yearly calls have shot up to more than 50,000 from 30,000 a decade ago.

The Feb. 6 meeting with Attorney General Caroline Mulroney and her staff “was disappointing — we feel we are in the same place we were last October, which was the last time we spoke to policy advisers,” Pietsch said.

Mulroney, she added, “offered appreciation for the important work folks in our sector are doing. But she didn’t give any new information; she didn’t have anything to share about a gender-based violence action plan.

Mulroney spokesperson Jesse Robichaud repeated an earlier statement on the issue, saying “our government is committed to providing victims, their families and witnesses of violent crimes with the supports and services they need, in the communities where they live.

“Our staff have met with the coalition and we will continue to engage with it on these important issues.”

Ontario’s English and French-language rape crisis centres had been counting on the 30 per cent increase over three years — announced by the previous Liberal government — which they now realize will likely not materialize for this fiscal year which ends next March.

Some still have the same staffing levels they did in the 1990s, and had been hoping to use the money to hire more front-line full-time and part-time staff, given the huge demand.

The Liberals had pledged $14.8 million over the three years as part of a gender-based violence strategy.

Even in Mulroney’s own York Simcoe riding, the sexual assault centre serving the entire York Region has not been able to keep up with demand given the area’s booming, diverse population.

“What we’ve been receiving from the ministry just hasn’t been enough for so long,” said Jacqueline Benn-John, executive director of the Women’s Support Network of York Region, where there is a wait-list of three to six months.

“We are the only rape crisis centre serving all of York Region,” said Benn-John, adding it took 2,129 crisis calls alone last year.

“The outreach is challenging in a region of our size, and there’s the added complexity of the regional diversity — geographically, there are very rural and urban areas, and we have parts with no bus service” which limits access to services.

The centre has been applying for provincial grants to help narrow the funding gap, and provide programs specifically for survivors of human trafficking or women who are in need of housing.

“I think it bothers every sexual assault centre that we haven’t received the funding,” Benn-John said. “And that’s because the need is there — the need has been there, and it has been demonstrated by research independently undertaken by the province.”

Pietsch said the meeting with Mulroney on Feb. 6 was supposed to be face-to-face, but inclement weather forced a conference call instead, one that also included representative from the French-language rape crisis organizations.

The coalition of 37 centres is hoping to speak to ministry representatives in the future to outline the incredible demand they are dealing with amid the #metoo and #timesup movements.

Increased awareness about sexual assault and consent has seen “so many people stepping forward, but we have received the level of funding to deal with the increase in referrals,” said Benn-John.

The rape crisis centres also want to be involved in any new plans to address violence against women.

“We’ve asked to meet again,” added Pietsch, “because we want to see some progress on this.”

MPP Suze Morrison, the NDP’s women’s issues critic and a sexual assault survivor, said the government is “forcing front-line workers to beg for funding that was already promised and allocated, and we’re less than two months away from the end of the fiscal year.”

The rape crisis centre serving the Muskoka area had been counting on $89,000 this fiscal year to hire more front-line counsellors to deal with three times the caseload — it currently has the same staffing levels as the 1990s.

The Toronto Rape Crisis Centre/Multicultural Women Against Rape had been allocated $159,000 to help deal with an 18-month wait list.

Counsellor deb singhhas said “services could be strengthened if this funding had been granted months ago.”

Last year, Community and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod announced $11.5 million for 400 agencies, including shelters.

Rape crisis centres fall under the attorney general, which has said the government is reviewing all spending as it works to bring down the deficit.

“We recognize that these organizations do important and valuable work in their communities, and this review will be an opportunity to align service levels with needs and better co-ordinate and deliver services in the most sustainable and effective way,” Mulroney’s office has said in the past.

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy

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Trump ousts Attorney General Jeff Sessions, endangering Mueller investigation

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WASHINGTON – U.S. President Donald Trump has ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a move that makes it easier for him to possibly fire the special counsel investigating his campaign’s relationship with Russia.

Sessions submitted his resignation on Wednesday, the day after the midterm elections in which Trump’s party lost the House of Representatives. He told Trump he was resigning “at your request,” making clear he was effectively fired.

He will be replaced, at least temporarily, by his chief of staff, Republican lawyer Matthew Whitaker — a former Republican political candidate who has publicly called for the special counsel probe to be limited.

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Whitaker wrote an article for CNN last year in which he argued that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation was on the verge of going too far, by delving into Trump’s finances, and that Mueller should be ordered to curtail his work. And he mused on television about slashing Mueller’s budget to a level “so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.”

Trump had been furious with Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation last March, a move that eventually led to the appointment of Mueller. Trump had blasted Sessions, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, in an unprecedented months-long series of angry tweets, public statements and private rants.

Sessions, a right-wing former Alabama senator and federal prosecutor, was the first sitting member of the Senate to endorse Trump. Formerly on the political fringe, he used his job as head of the Department of Justice to turn their shared hard-line views on immigration and criminal justice into policy.

He was widely seen as one of Trump’s most effective appointees. But Trump was fixated on the recusal decision, which he blamed for the Mueller investigation he calls a “witch hunt.”

“I have never seen anything so Rigged in my life. Our A.G. is scared stiff and Missing in Action,” Trump wrote on Twitter in August of the investigation, one of numerous public complaints over the last year.

Because Sessions had recused himself, authority over the Mueller investigation had fallen to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Until now, Rosenstein would have had to be the one to execute the firing of Mueller. But Rosenstein had expressed hostility to the idea.

Now, Trump can theoretically have Whitaker do the firing for him — though a federal regulation says the attorney general needs a good cause: “misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest,” or “other good cause, including violation of departmental policies.”

Firing Mueller would likely cause the biggest firestorm of Trump’s presidency, producing a democratic crisis that would increase the chances that Trump could eventually be impeached. Trump has fumed about Mueller’s investigation but has not publicly said he wants to fire him.

At a press conference on Wednesday, he said that he did not want to fire Mueller but that he thought he had the power to do so any time he wants.

Democrats will take control of House committees in January thanks to their victory in the midterms, which will give them new powers to conduct oversight of the administration. The incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler, said on Twitter: “Americans must have answers immediately as to the reasoning behind @realDonaldTrump removing Jeff Sessions from @TheJusticeDept. Why is the President making this change and who has authority over Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation? We will be holding people accountable.”

Trump had made no secret of his desire to oust Sessions. In an Oval Office meeting in May 2017, he berated Sessions so forcefully over the recusal that Sessions wrote a letter of resignation, according to multiple news reports and former Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus.

Priebus claimed he convinced Trump not to accept the resignation — and that, the next month, he talked Trump a second time out of forcing Sessions into a resignation.

Trump settled for taunting Sessions on Twitter, showing no interest in the tradition of attorney general independence.

“Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!” he wrote in July.

“Why aren’t Dem crimes under investigation? Ask Jeff Sessions!” he wrote in February.

In December, Trump compared Sessions unfavourably with Obama attorney general Eric Holder, suggesting to the New York Times that Sessions was insufficiently “loyal” to him. “I don’t want to get into loyalty, but I will tell you that, I will say this: Holder protected President Obama. Totally protected him,” Trump said.

Sessions had dismayed employees of the Justice Department and many others by saying almost nothing as Trump impugned the department’s integrity. He issued a rare statement in response to Trump’s “DISGRACEFUL” tweet in February.

“As long as I am the attorney general, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honour, and this department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution,” he said.

Sessions was ousted eight months after he fulfilled Trump’s desire for him to fire FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe. Some observers thought his decision might convince Trump to spare his own job.

Sessions had made a major mark on American criminal justice. An opponent of a growing bipartisan push toward the liberalization of justice policy, he reversed a series of Obama-era efforts that sought to reform policing and prosecution practices.

Sessions told federal prosecutors to seek the harshest possible sentences for drug offences, reversing the Obama-era guidance that favoured more leniency for non-violent crimes. He had the Justice Department pull back from their Obama-era push to compel rights-violating local police forces to change their practices. He rescinded an Obama-era directive that sought to reduce the use of private prisons. And he rescinded another Obama-era directive that told the federal government to take a hands-off approach to states that have legalized marijuana.

Sessions has also been a key player in Trump’s immigration crackdown. He recommended and announced the cancellation of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protected from deportation young immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children. And he aggressively fought the “sanctuary cities” that do not fully co-operate with federal immigration authorities, in March announcing a federal lawsuit against California over state sanctuary policies — which he described as the work of “radical extremists.”

Daniel Dale is the Star’s Washington bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @ddale8

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