In the eyes of the public, one sexual assault is too many. If anything, recent accusations by multiple alleged victims of US presidential candidate Donald Trump have brought into sharp focus a frank discussion about the subject.
Coming forward about sexual assault is never easy for the victim. It is a difficult conversation to have with doctors, police, prosecutors, the courts and support workers who may not be strangers because of the community dynamics of a small town.
In 2016, 21 sexual offences have been reported to Powell River RCMP, according to staff sergeant Rod Wiebe, who said that charges were laid in four of the cases, with the last reported sex offence on September 27.
“We encourage victims of all crime to come forward and sexual crime is no different,” said Wiebe. “It’s such a personal crime and we would really like people to report it.”
In 2016, BC Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General expanded its #SaySomething social media campaign to help end the silence about sexual assault and encourage more people to speak up, become aware and learn safe ways to help or offer support to someone who has experienced sexual violence.
Police and prosecutors point out that a whole range of events are classified as sexual assault under the Criminal Code of Canada and involve assaults committed in circumstances of a sexual nature, such that the sexual integrity of the victim is violated.
When a sexual assault victim comes forward, initial crisis response begins immediately after the incident or if the victim decides to report the incident to police. If circumstances warrant, the case can be taken up by Police Based Victim Services, coordinated by Christine Schreiber.
The Specialized Victim Support Services program, coordinated by Pat Parsley, is another option for victims who may, for whatever reason, choose to not go through the RCMP.
“The Specialized Victim Support Services is the program people can access, either by referral or directly, and they do not have to go through the RCMP,” said Powell River Community Services Association executive director Julie Chambers. “Victims have a right to decide how to proceed. They need to have options and make their own choices.”
The association runs seven victim services programs that intersect to help community members who have been victims of crime.
Police Based Victim Services include crisis intervention support, emotional support and information about a victim’s specific case, including police file and court file updates.
Practical assistance includes safety planning, completing victim impact statements, applying for the Crime Victim Assistance Program, orientation to the criminal justice system and witness preparation. Victims can be accompanied to meetings with police, Crown counsel or to court. Referrals are made to appropriate community agencies, such as counselling.
In cases dealing specifically with domestic violence and sexual assault, victim support services are with the client for the initial 72 hours of crisis intervention, then they are referred to long-term support.
Specialized victim support services are free and confidential for victims of spousal or sexual assault, criminal harassment or stalking, and for children who have been sexually abused.
Assault victims are advised to go to a hospital, walk-in clinic, or doctor for a medical examination and treatment as soon as possible after a sexual assault.
Forensic evidence collection is done through the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) at Powell River General Hospital.
According to Anna Marie D’Angelo, senior media relations officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, SART has been available in Powell River for 15 years but has not been used often.
In cases of sexual assault in the school system, School District 47 reports to the RCMP, which will take over those cases.
According to Jay Yule, who has been superintendent of schools for 17 years, he can recall only a few times when a sexual assault has had to be dealt with.
“I really can only think of two or three in the whole time I’ve been here,” said Yule. “That’s not to say there’s things that happen outside of school. It’s determined by the police, whether to let us know or not. Depending on who the person is and whether they’re in school or out of school, whether one or both are in or out of school, can determine if we’re informed or not.”
Yule said he can recall one report of inappropriate grabbing that was non-consensual and was dealt with through the school’s anti-violence protocol.
“We’ve made great strides in reporting and talking to, especially, young students, about helping them frame what’s appropriate touching and non-appropriate touching,” he said. “We’ve come a long way in educating and preventing.”
According to Brooks Secondary School counsellor Allison Burt, starting from elementary school, a comprehensive curriculum through physical and health education includes components about healthy relationships, safety and issues around consent.
“I’m really proud that our curriculum actually addresses that,” she said.
According to Carrie Chassels, Vancouver Island University student affairs executive director, sexual assault on campus is dealt with under the university longstanding student conduct code, but often still goes unreported.
“There is concern for feeling ashamed,” said Chassels. “It is a case where people felt it wasn’t a university matter. Being embarrassed to disclose to somebody that this happened to them, it is not easy for people to talk about.”