Editor’s note: This is the fourth, and final, article in a series highlighting the problem of sexual violence in Alberta. While not explicit, the article could be triggering and reader caution is advised.
One of the most violent and traumatic experiences that can happen in anyone’s life is to be on the receiving end of sexual violence.
While the true impact, and prevalence, of sexual violence in the community can never be fully known, it is well-known in policing groups and sexual violence support centres, such as Stettler’s Association of Communities Against Abuse (ACAA), that the true numbers are drastically under-reported.
“Non-reports are difficult to measure,” said Sgt. Deanna Fontaine, who notes that estimates agencies do have of the sexual violence issue come primarily from research and surveys.
Some estimates indicate that only six per cent of sexual assaults ever get reported to police; of those only a fraction make their way through to a conclusion in the legal system.
According to Fontaine, the Alberta RCMP sexual assault review coordinator, in 2019, of 2,548 reports of sexual violence in the province only 862 were cleared by charges being laid. Prosecutors declined to lay charges in 14 other cases; and, in six per cent of the cases, the victim declined to proceed.
In 2022, those numbers climbed, with just over 2,900 files opened across the province. Of those, 912 proceeded with charges and just over 200 ultimately had the complaint withdrawn when the victim decided not to go forward; prosecutors opted to not proceed in 16 of the cases.
“Some people blame themselves,” said Fontaine, noting that substances and fear can also come into play.
“Sexual assaults are violent events.”
Fontaine notes that in some cases victims of assault will turn to family members or friends who are trusted for support instead of reporting to the police, a situation which won’t always go well.
“It’s not always a positive experience,” said Fontaine.
The victims could find themselves not being believed, shamed, or having the family member they opened up to take the side of the accuser, all of which can ultimately make reporting more challenging.
Something else that has hindered the reporting of the assault to police is that in the past victims needed to attend an RCMP detachment or police station in order to file a report; however, over the last few years, thanks to partnerships with programs such as ACAA, officers are able to take the reports in more supportive environments, such as the ACAA offices.
“It’s a safer environment than going to a police detachment,” said Fontaine.
As far as reporting goes, Fontaine says it is ultimately “up to the victim,” but if they choose to report, officers could wait 24-48 hours or longer before taking a statement; in fact, with Alberta’s “third option” program, assault victims could get a sexual assault assessment done by a nurse specially trained in sexual assault assessments and evidence gathering and have that evidence stored for up to a year before deciding to proceed with a complaint.
According to Fontaine, Alberta’s third-option program is available to all central-zone municipalities within five hours of Edmonton.
Fontaine does note that while the program does leave the door open for a complaint to be filed later, “it is a very intrusive process.”
The “trauma-informed” reporting in place today means that a victim’s mental and physical needs will be looked after before a complaint is taken, says Fontaine.
However, while a contemporary complaint is easier for officers to investigate, collect evidence, and potentially lay charges, it is possible to report historical incidents of assault as well. RCMP officers can take a complaint, fresh or old, open an investigation, and ultimately decide whether or not there is enough for the complaint to be actionable or not, according to Fontaine.
Fontaine acknowledges that a victim coming forward after an assault can be challenging, but organizations like ACAA and new training and procedures within the RCMP ranks are making changes to how these cases are handled by officers in an effort to make things easier for victims to come forward.
Ultimately, Fontaine says “Safety is number one.”
To report a sexual assault in Alberta, go to the nearest emergency room, dial 911, the local police non-emergency complaint number, or contact the Alberta Sexual Violence One-Line at 1-866-403-8000, which is in operation from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
For information on programs available to those experiencing family violence, contact the Family Violence Hotline at 310-1818 or the Alberta Provincial Abuse Helpline at 1-855-443-5722.