New Alberta-wide plan aims to tackle sexual violence

A new action plan to tackle sexual violence in Alberta aims to improve victim services as the number of sex assault survivors seeking help in Edmonton nearly doubles.

Number of victims seeking help nearly doubles at Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton

Debra Tomlinson, with the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services, unveiled the sexual violence action plan on Thursday.

A new action plan to tackle sexual violence in Alberta aims to improve services for victims, while the number of sex assault survivors seeking help in Edmonton is on track to double from last year.

The Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services unveiled the strategy Thursday in Edmonton. Chief executive officer Deborah Tomlinson said it's a road map for government and policy makers, based on front-line experience and research.

Among the priorities, the plan highlights the need for increased training for counsellors, police, lawyers and judges who interact with sexual assault victims to root out stereotyping and victim blaming, such as in the case of former Justice Robin Camp.

"In a way that communicates, 'I believe you, it's not your fault, I'm sorry what happened to you and let's look at what we can do to get you some help,' " said Tomlinson. "And that needs to be throughout the entire process."

She said dispelling the myths around sexual violence will help encourage more women to speak out, noting the reporting rate for sexual violence in Canada is lower than any other crime, ranging between 3 to 8 per cent.

The plan also highlights the need for more funding at Alberta's 12 sexual assault centres, where increased demand for services is placing further strain on already taxed resources.

Clients double at Edmonton agency

In Edmonton, more people are seeking help for sexual assault, putting an increasing burden on agencies.

The Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton is on track to seeing its client numbers nearly double this year due to a shift in awareness and understanding, said executive director Mary Jane James.

Between Jan. 1 and April 30, the organization served 402 new clients, a rate that indicates the organization could expect to see about 1,206 new clients by year's end. That's compared to 728 new clients for all of 2016.

Those demands on services have clients waiting between 14 to 18 weeks to see a counsellor with 150 adults and 75 youth currently on the wait list.

"It's demoralizing, it's disempowering," said James, adding many victims adopt unhealthy habits to numb their pain. "By the time we get back to that client … some of them just say, 'Forget it, I can't.' "
Executive director Mary Jane James said client demand has nearly doubled at the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton

Alberta Minister of Status of Women Stephanie McLean, who was also at Thursday's unveiling, said her government has already addressed sexual violence in a number of ways.

Among them, McLean pointed to legislation passed last week that removes the two-year limit for victims to sue attackers and a law that allows survivors to break their lease without financial penalty.

"Even with these important steps, it's no secret: We know there is more to do," she said.

Tomlinson said the new action plan also focuses on outreach to LGBTQ and immigrant communities as well as increased education early on in schools.

"Above all, we need a shift in public perception surrounding this crime," said Tomlinson, crediting the 'I Believe You' campaign with helping people make that shift. "Changing societal attitudes must occur before we expect to see a change in behavior ... towards an Alberta where it's safe for survivors to tell."