Reports of sexual assault to police are up significantly across the country, especially on P.E.I. where they have more than doubled in the past few years, but that hasn’t translated into a similar increase in those being charged with the offence.
The rise in reports is generally believed to be largely driven by a greater awareness and openness sparked by the #MeToo movement. That movement took off in October 2017 and led to a spike in reports — a trend that has continued.
“The willingness of people to speak out, their feeling of solidarity, knowing that there are other people who’ve experienced this, lends a lot of strength and gives people the motivation to speak out, because they feel as though they’re not alone, and very much they are not alone,” said Danya O’Malley, executive director of P.E.I. Family Violence Prevention Services.
P.E.I. has seen the highest increase in the country of level 1 sexual assaults (which are the most common) reported to police. Those reports rose from 59 to 131 between 2014 and 2019 (the most recent year available), according to Statistic Canada — that’s a 122 per cent increase.
Statistics Canada tracked reports by month and noted the jump in reports to police starting in October 2017 after #MeToo went viral.
Level 1 assaults don’t involve the use of a weapon or result in serious physical injury, but can cover everything from groping to rape.
In the rest of the Atlantic region, sexual assault reports are up by between 28 and 45 per cent since 2014, and nationally, there’s been a 50 per cent increase, also coinciding with the rise of the #MeToo movement.
Sexual assaults are generally under-reported — about one in 20 the estimate from Canadian studies considered by Stats Canada — so advocates say it’s encouraging to see the upward trend in reporting.
“People are finding their voices and they’re speaking out against these types of injustices and that type of collective action can be very, very powerful,” said O’Malley.
Survivors have become part of this public conversation.— Sunny Marriner, Improving Institutional Accountability Project
Sunny Marriner sees it too. She’s project leader for the Improving Institutional Accountability Project, which reviews police response to sexual violence.
“Survivors have become part of this public conversation about sexual violence, which we’ve never seen before on this level. So many of them are starting to speak out,” she said.
The Ottawa-based Marriner said she worked in front-line sexual assault centres for 25 years and up until recent years, most people didn’t have a good understanding of what sexual assault was, thinking that it had to involve intercourse. With more awareness of sexualized violence, experiences that may have been minimized in the past are now being recognized for what they are, she said.
Police have noticed the increase too.
“I like to think that victims are more comfortable coming forward, which is a good thing,” said P.E.I. RCMP Staff-Sgt. Maj. Hank Pollard.
“Victims have to know and feel comfortable coming forward to police at any time. We want to do our best in providing the support victims need and ensure we do the best investigation possible for them.”
Criminal charges don’t keep pace
However, the number of people charged with sexual assault has not kept pace with the increase in reports to police.
The rate of people charged for reported sexual assaults on P.E.I. has dropped, from 42 to 28 per cent between 2014 and 2019. Regionally, it’s dropped from 38-40 per cent in 2014, to between 27 and 36 per cent in 2019 and nationally, it’s dropped from 44 to 35 per cent.
Police say that’s partly because of changes in the way they classify some sexual assault investigations. Prior to 2017 some investigations were labelled “unfounded” when police didn’t have enough evidence to lay a charge, the complainant didn’t want to go to court, or when police were unable to identify a suspect.
The unfounded label is supposed to be reserved for cases where police are satisfied no crime occurred. In 2018, police across the country agreed to reserve this unfounded label for cases where they’re convinced a crime did not occur. But the changes in labelling were phased in across the country during 2018 and into 2019, so police say, data may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
Each investigation is different.— Staff-Sgt. Maj. Hank Pollard, RCMP P.E.I.
Police also say sexual crimes can be difficult to prove in court as there are often only two witnesses — the complainant and the perpetrator — and often a lack of physical evidence.
Charlottetown and Summerside police forces said they consult with the Crown attorney’s office on sexual assault investigations when they are deciding whether to lay a charge.
In an email to CBC, the RCMP’s Pollard said, “There are many variables that could impact the outcome of an investigation. Each investigation is different. Next year it could be reversed.”
He also pointed out that some investigations that police started in 2019 would not be complete by the end of the year, and so not reflected in data from Statistics Canada showing the number of charges laid.
CBC contacted RCMP national media relations about the trend nationally, and received an email in response.
“The RCMP is one of hundreds of police agencies in Canada and unfortunately we’re not in a position to speculate as to why the percentage of incidents cleared by charge may not be increasing proportionally with the volume of reported sexual assaults,” it said.
The statement also said that there is no statute of limitations on sexual assault offences, so unsolved cases can be reopened if new information is obtained.
“The RCMP wants to ensure that all survivors of sexual assault feel comfortable bringing their allegations to the RCMP, receive the same standard of care regardless of jurisdiction, and trust investigators to thoroughly and professionally investigate these crimes.”
Being heard and believed
To Marriner and other advocates though, the fact that charges didn’t keep up with reports to police suggests that while more victims are speaking out, they still face major obstacles to being heard, believed, and to seeing justice done.
“Police response to sexual violence has not changed significantly,” she said.
“We’ve had historically huge systemic problems with how the criminal justice system responds to sexual violence not just in Canada but around the world,” she said.
Looming large among the misconceptions is that perpetrators are strangers to the victim, when in fact most victims know their assailant, she said, and that charges are only pursued when the assault involves intercourse.
Also, victims can react differently to trauma than investigators expect, said Marriner. They may not report the assault right away or may add to their story things they remember later. They may stay in contact with their assailant and they may not have fought them off during the attack, if they thought it was the best way to survive the ordeal. Some investigators haven’t had specific training on that, she said.
The impact on survivors of no charge or no conviction in court can be profound.
Survivors may feel they’re not believed, and it can make it more difficult for them to trust their own feelings, trust police, and even trust their relationships with family and friends, said Marriner.
It can also lead to problems with addictions or mental health issues.
Whatever the reasons why more charges aren’t laid, advocates agree more needs to be done to determine why more perpetrators aren’t being charged and address those issues.
Those who work with survivors of sexual violence expect the situation to worsen during the pandemic, as those who are vulnerable have been more isolated from their usual supports and a lot of people have been under considerably more stress.
“People are forced together and so violence is happening. But also because people are isolated, and maybe don’t have access to their social supports, they’re experiencing other, higher levels of trauma,” said Jackie Stevens, executive director of Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Halifax.
She said staff at sex assault centres across Nova Scotia have told her they saw more sexual assaults in 2020, and also more trauma, and a higher level of violence involved.
Stevens anticipates the trauma and abuse will gradually result in more calls for help to her centre and others like it.