WARNING: This story contains graphic language.
Sex assault survivor Rebecca Crane of Lac Seul First Nation north of Sioux Lookout, Ont., is finally able to tell her story — about a court system that allowed her alleged attacker to walk free because he wasn’t given a timely trial.
“I yelled at them,” recalled Crane of the phone call she received from Kenora-based Crown attorney Mary Anne Mousseau, along with a victim support worker and two police officers, who told her the news. “I was very upset, and then I probably cried the hardest I’ve ever cried once I was off the call.”
Crane, now 29 and a student at Western University in London, Ont., wasn’t able to speak to CBC earlier because there was a publication ban on her name, but that was lifted earlier this month.
I couldn’t talk about it publicly while the case was ongoing, but now that it’s happened, I just want to scream. This is happening. This is still happening.– Rebecca Crane, sex assault complainant
Women’s advocates say other sex assault survivors have also been affected by the Supreme Court of Canada decision in 2016 that’s commonly known as the Jordan rule. The decision put limits on the amount of time an accused should have to wait to get their charges heard in court. For crimes considered by the provincial court, the limit is 18 months, while more serious cases considered by higher courts have a time limit of 30 months.
Crane accuses the original Crown attorney, Elizabeth Hellinga, of bungling the file, and believes it ultimately led to her case being thrown out after the accused filed a Jordan application.
Hellinga did not return an email to CBC News, and the most recent lawyer in Crane’s case, Dana Peterson, refused to comment.
“I want to hold them accountable for what happened,” said Crane. “I couldn’t talk about it publicly while the case was ongoing but now that it’s happened, I just want to scream. This is happening. This is still happening.”
The defence lawyer, Rachel Wood, said her client was never convicted and “lived under the cloud of suspicion for over 38 months.”
“His charter right to be tried within a reasonable time was violated and we remain pleased in the court’s decision to enter a stay of proceedings,” said Wood.
Other women come forward
On Dec. 27, 2014, Crane was out with some friends in her hometown of Sioux Lookout, first at a bar and then at a house party. She was in Ontario on a break from Briercrest Christian Academy in Caronport, Sask., where she was a student at the time.
At the end of the night, Crane said, she and her friends accepted a ride home with a man she recognized from town. He dropped her friends off first, she added.
“I always regret not getting out there,” said Crane, who said she was a virgin at the time.
At some point, she said, the man pulled over and began ordering her to perform sex acts.
“I didn’t know what to do. I thought if I give him a blow job I’ll be able to go home after. But it wasn’t just a blow job.”
Crane said the man pulled over twice and sexually assaulted her both times.
She said she didn’t tell anyone about that night at first, and when she returned to school and walked around campus, she felt dirty.
“I could still feel his hands on me.”
Eventually, Crane dropped out of school and returned to live with her parents in Sioux Lookout. Six months after she returned home, she learned her alleged attacker had been charged with two counts of sexual assault.
“I immediately felt sick,” said Crane. “I gave my statement the next chance I could.”
In total, there would be five, separate unrelated complainants accusing the same man of sexual assault. Two of those cases were resolved with peace bonds, but Crane’s case, along with two others, were to proceed to trial.
“I was so anxious. I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know if I can do this if this goes on for more than a year,'” Crane recalled.
Accused files Jordan application
Crane finally faced her alleged attacker at a preliminary hearing in March 2019, but soon after and without Crane’s knowledge, the Crown attorney took a leave of absence, and the file was passed on to a second and then a third lawyer.
Early last year, the accused in Crane’s case, as well as in the cases of the two other women, filed a Jordan application, arguing his right to a timely trial had not been met.
In April 2021, Justice Tracey Nieckarz ruled in favour of the accused and said although Crane’s case was before the courts during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not the primary reason for the delays. Instead, Nieckarz largely blamed the Crown for not filing certain applications on time and said “the Crown did not meet the court-ordered timelines.”
As a result, the charges in Crane’s case, and in the cases of two other women, were stayed.
CBC London reached out to the Department of Justice Canada to comment on how the Jordan decision is impacting sexual assault cases.
In an email, a spokesperson said the department acknowledges delays in the criminal justice system have “an impact on everyone who is affected by crime, including victims, families, communities, and on accused persons, who have a charter right to a trial in a reasonable time.”
“The government continues to work, including closely with the provinces and territories who are responsible for the administration of justice, to make the justice system more efficient and effective and to improve responses to gender based violence,” said Ian McLeod.
The email said the department has also been working with other federal partners on a national action plan to address gender-based violence.
System fails ‘victims of gender-based violence’
Angela Marie MacDougall is executive director of the Vancouver-based Battered Women’s Support Services, which has been researching the number of times the Jordan decision has favoured alleged perpetrators of gender-based violence.
“Jordan has created just another avenue for the criminal legal system to fail victims of gender-based violence,” said MacDougall.
“Across 140 cases reviewed in this study, we have found that between 2016 and 2020, defence counsel has invoked R. v. Jordan tactically, arguing for a stay of proceedings to help their clients escape culpability,” wrote MacDougall in a letter to federal Justice Minister David Lametti.
The letter continues, “Changes to the judiciary system and Canadian society are urgently needed to offer viable paths to justice for survivors and victims of gender-based violence.”
Women’s advocate notes few convictions
‘I’ve been doing this work for close to 20 years. I know a handful of women who have ever gotten a conviction and not a single one of them whose perpetrator was incarcerated,” said Julie Lalonde, an Ottawa-based women’s advocate.
“Having it end in a really disappointing way, is frankly, the overwhelming norm in this country.”
For survivors, the court experience is retraumatizing, Lalonde said. “They’re trying poke holes in your story. They’re trying to make you doubt yourself. That’s how sexual assault trials play out.
“Accused absolutely have a right to a fair and timely trial,” she said. “But I think in the cases of sexual assault in particular, we have such low rates of conviction on a good day, I think it really drives home the importance of crowns and investigators working well together, working quickly together to ensure procedural timelines are not the reason we’re not going to get justice.”