April 10, 2017
A number of recent developments have brought sexual assault into the headlines, and little of it has been good news. A Globe and Mail investigation showed that, on average, 19% of sexual assaults reported to police in Canada get classified as “unfounded,” meaning baseless. Here in PEI, the police forces that reported their statistics had an even higher rate of cases coded “unfounded”: 27%, more than a quarter of all reported cases. Sexual assault cases are declared “unfounded” at a far greater rate than any other crime.
In Nova Scotia recently, a Halifax taxi driver was acquitted after a judge ruled that “clearly a drunk can consent” to sex. Last month in Newfoundland, a police officer was acquitted of sexually assaulting a woman he was driving home while he was on duty. Both cases brought to light rape myths that persist in society and the justice system, including understanding the laws and the meaning of consent.
In better news, Justice Robin Camp recently resigned and apologized before being removed from the bench. During a sexual assault trial in his court in 2014, he had asked the complainant why she didn’t keep her “knees together.”
It’s reasonable for women to expect that a judge will examine their evidence without their judgment being clouded by victim-blaming and prejudice. It’s reasonable for women to expect that they will get home safely in a taxicab or a police vehicle. It’s reasonable for women to expect that their reports of sexual violence will result in thorough investigations as often as other crimes.
Sadly, blaming victims for sexual violence is rampant not only in courts, but across society: so much so that we have to talk about rape culture and all the attitudes and myths that contribute to it.
Statistics suggest only one in ten sexual assault cases is reported to police in the first place. Charges are laid in only one-third of cases reported, and, when charges are laid, only one in ten cases results in a conviction.
To achieve justice for survivors of sexual violence in PEI will take concerted action. The province has called for all police services to review the cases they labelled “unfounded” from 2014 to 2016. This is a good first step, but a review of police services by police themselves is not enough. Who will clarify how the cases got labelled “unfounded” and by whom? Will the same officers that handled the cases be reviewing them? What are the benchmarks for an objective review? At a minimum, these reviews should seek input from community services that work with victims and survivors, such as the Rape and Sexual Assault Centre or provincial Victim Services.
The Globe and Mail investigation showed that police services with more female officers had fewer unfounded cases. Working towards gender parity and greater diversity in PEI police forces is also very important, so that survivors see themselves reflected back in the services meant to “serve and protect” them, and so that police officers with a greater variety of backgrounds and life experiences – including experience of sexual violence – can spread compassion and understanding for women and diverse groups’ experiences.
There are many ways the response to sexual assault could be improved in Prince Edward Island. Tomorrow, we will suggest some additional specific ways to achieve justice for sexual assault survivors.
Mari Basiletti is the Chairperson and Jane Ledwell is the Executive Director of the PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women.