VANCOUVER – Margo Wagner and Joan Sorley had been friends for years before they realized they’d both been raped.
The British Columbia politicians were drawn to each other, among the few women on the Cariboo Regional District’s board of directors, but it took time to share their stories of sexual assault.
For Sorley, her rape happened 50 years ago when she was 14 and babysitting. Sadly, she said, she wasn’t surprised to learn about Wagner’s trauma.
“We know how pervasive it is,” she said. “I’ve spent the last 50 years, probably, being ashamed of this without really realizing that’s what I was feeling. No one ever told me it wasn’t my fault.”
On Thursday, the women spoke about their experiences before hundreds of local politicians at the annual Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Vancouver.
After a rousing and emotional debate, the union voted overwhelmingly in favour of a resolution calling for a task force to determine how to end the rape culture that is “pervasive in schools, universities, workplaces and elsewhere across Canada.”
Delegates also voted to ask the task force to look at ways to improve reporting, arrest and conviction rates across the country.
Sorley said in an interview that rape culture had existed since she was assaulted decades earlier, though the phrase is still new to some people.
While the resolution didn’t define rape culture, Sorley cited examples of what it looked like: a Pitt Meadows teenager forced to drop out of school after photos of her alleged assault were circulated, and University of B.C. students singing crude “rape chants.”
“Nothing has changed in 50 years,” she said. “And so, you know what, now I’m mad. And I think we need to change it.”
Wagner told the audience that she didn’t report her rape 43 years ago and wouldn’t report it if she were raped today because there is no “easy way” to get justice.
After her speech, the 62-year-old said it was incredibly hard to speak publicly about her assault, adding she had been stopped countless times in the convention centre lobby or bathroom by women who recounted being raped, too.
She said the goal wasn’t to create a meaningless government task force but to pressure provincial and federal politicians to address the problem.
The passionate discussion stood out among dozens of convention workshops and speeches.
View Royal Mayor David Screech criticized the resolution’s wording, saying he didn’t believe rape culture was “pervasive.”
But Smithers Coun. Greg Brown replied that he had spent enough time in hockey dressing rooms to know the culture was real and casual comments are often left unchallenged.
“These ideas exist and they linger in our culture, in video games, in conversations with boys that are 11 years old using the word ‘rape’ not even knowing what it means,” he said.
Maple Ridge Coun. Kiersten Duncan said it was “ridiculous” to say rape culture wasn’t pervasive, noting women must still think about whether the way they dress will draw abuse from men.
“That is a society that we live in. And if you don’t think that’s real, then you obviously don’t know what it’s like to live like a woman in today’s society.”