One in three women are affected by sexual assault, according to estimates from the World Health Organization—however, these crimes are not always brought to police. In Canada, of every 100 incidents, only six are reported, according to Statistics Canada.
Ontario’s newest measure to correct this systemic issue is a $1.8-million project aimed at improving police response to sexual assault. In a recent news release, the government stated that the money will go towards 15 two-year pilot projects, specifically aimed at giving first-responders updated sexual assault education and training. The list of projects range from new police interview techniques to an online video resource for survivors trying to navigate the legal system. Over $147,000 will also go towards specific case studies of past sexual violence investigations, which the report says will inform the pilot projects.
This news couldn’t be timelier, as The Globe and Mail continues its 20-month-long investigation into the way police handle sexual assault cases. The Globe’s investigation, called “Unfounded,” has already gathered data from over 870 police forces, finding that “one of every five sexual-assault allegations in Canada is dismissed as baseless and thus unfounded.” The Globe study, which the paper says is “the most comprehensive review of sexual-assault unfounded rates ever conducted in Canada,” has already prompted the Quebec government as well as numerous police forces to launch a review of unfounded sexual assault cases. While Marie-France Lalonde, Ontario’s Minister of Community Safety, tells FLARE the government’s initiative has no relation to the “Unfounded” series, it does come at a time when the flaws related to how these cases are handled are more apparent than ever before.
“The timing is right,” says Lalonde. “When The Globe and Mail piece came in, we were ready to send out our 15 pilot projects… I was pleased that the police services had proactively started their review.”
Viktoria Belle, founder of Toronto’s Sexual Assault Action Coalition, has a few concerns with Ontario’s the newly announced project.
“Is this initiative driven by the police or by survivors and advocates?” she says. “I see that Toronto is investing $98,000 into a public outreach guide called A Guide for Sexual Assault Survivors [an online directory for survivors], but based on whose experience?”
Belle says she believes there are better alternatives to this approach, which she describes as a “Band-Aid solution to a systemic problem.” According to Belle, “what we really need is a system that responds with trauma-informed practices, accountable internal protocols and outcomes that provide sexual assault survivors with justice.”
“The police are partnering with organizations within their community to bring forward an evidence-based approach,” says Lalonde in response to Belle’s concerns. ”We are going to work in partnership with the community and the survivor centres and really bring forward some tangible items.”
Similar models have been carried out successfully in cities like Philadelphia, where advocates—alongside high-ranking officers—are allowed to review sexual assault cases that have been deemed unfounded. This model has been in effect for 17 years, and according to CBC News, unfounded rates in Philadelphia have dropped from 18 percent to less than 10 percent. This is one of the approaches the Ontario government will be studying with the hopes of improving conditions for the province’s sexual assault survivors.
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