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Abuse survivor group pushing provinces to protect students

Anne-Marie Robinson had two goals when she started researching the Education Act in every province across Canada — to advocate for better protections for kids in school and at the same time, heal herself. 

“I wanted to understand how cases were still happening and how these children were getting abused by their teachers,” said Robinson, a sexual abuse survivor based in Ottawa and the subject of the new CBC investigative podcast, The Banned Teacher

“It’s still, in my view, way too easy for a teacher today to abuse a student and get away with it,” she said.

Robinson said her research uncovered gaps in every jurisdiction, including systemic issues such as a lack of accountability for school boards and independence for investigators, as well as inadequate responses to new challenges such as online grooming.

Her lobbying efforts have grabbed the attention of lawmakers and officials in Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba.

Ahead of the pack is Manitoba, which passed the Education Administration Amendment Act on May 30 to bolster protections for children. That province had been identified as one of the jurisdictions most in need of change.

The new law enlists an independent commissioner to review and rule on complaints regarding teacher misconduct, including sexual offences. The province will also develop a public teacher registry to let people see whether an educator has been disciplined.

Robinson first teamed up with other survivors of sexual abuse in schools last year to form the advocacy group Stop Educator Child Exploitation (SECE).

“I did policy my whole career in government and it was almost a comforting escape for me to put that hat on and see this as a problem that I want to help fix for the whole country,” said Robinson, who’s also a former federal deputy minister. 

Her group has been working with another national charity, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, to get their message out to ministers of education, urging them to fix systemic flaws.

Noni Classen, director of education at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.
Noni Classen is director of education at the Centre for Child Protection in Winnipeg. Her group is working with Stop Educator Child Exploitation to protect school kids across the country. (Julie Ireton/CBC)

Survivor involvement ‘game-changing’

In a report released last fall, the centre found that between 2017 and 2021 more than 540 alleged victims had come forward to report sexual abuse in Canadian schools.

Noni Classen, the centre’s director of education, says lawmakers hearing advice and policy proposals from survivors themselves proved invaluable. 

“I think their voices have been critical in terms of really understanding the significance and the impact on individuals that is lifelong,” said Classen, who called the involvement of this victim group “game-changing.” 

“We now see Anne-Marie as the teacher and we turned to her, to guide us and help us understand. That gives me goosebumps.”

Up until recently in Manitoba, teacher unions would investigate student complaints and allegations involving educators in a closed process. 

While teachers in Manitoba were against some of the proposed changes to the law, the province’s education minister, Wayne Ewasko, called the recent legislative amendments “a historic step towards improving safety for Manitoba students.” 

Classen hopes other provinces will now pay attention and make their own legislative changes.

“Really good work is being done in Ontario and in Alberta they’ve started … Quebec is looking at this really closely right now as well,” said Classen.

Robinson and another school abuse survivor and SECE co-founder, Peter Hamer, have also had meetings with ministry of education officials in Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan regarding the improvements those provinces can make to better protect kids.

Both those provinces listened, but have more work to do to create independent structures to oversee complaints, according to Hamer.

Peter Hamer is a survivor of sexual assault and co-founder of Stop Educator Child Exploitation.
Peter Hamer is co-founder of Stop Educator Child Exploitation. Hamer’s former music teacher was convicted of sexually assaulting him in 2018. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

‘Stop this from happening again’

“Where Anne-Marie was really quiet, she’s become like this powerhouse in these meetings with the different ministers of education,” said Hamer. 

“Nothing can be done about what happened to us … our goals are to stop this from happening again.”

Education is a provincial responsibility, but there’s plenty of room for a pan Canadian approach — at least in the monitoring of teachers as they move across the country, said Robinson. 

“There’s very little data and reporting about how many cases there are because they’re not tracked,” she said.

“So the problem of students being sexually abused by their teachers in Canada, no one knows if it’s getting better or worse.” 

She said there’s an opportunity for the federal government to play a leadership role in research and policy development to support the provinces. 

“Still kind of baffles me, because it should be easy to convince people to protect children. And I don’t know why this is so hard,” said Robinson. 

As for her own journey, she said the policy work she’s taken on has changed her life.

“It’s healed me and it’s healing me,” she said. 

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