British Columbia

Rape kit inaccessibility a hurdle to justice for victims in Canada

Susan Chapelle was drugged and assaulted as a young woman. Now, the Squamish, B.C., councillor is sounding the alarm about a lack of access to rape kits in many hospitals across Canada.

A Squamish, B.C. councillor is fighting for the rights of rape victims — years after her own assault

Susan Chapelle stands for a photograph in Squamish, B.C., on Friday October 9, 2015. The politician was 19 when she was drugged and assaulted. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

When Susan Chapelle awoke in a stranger's home, her head pounding and her clothes on backwards, she didn't even consider reporting her rape.

Chapelle was 19 when she was drugged and assaulted after going to a man's house to buy a pet. She felt an immediate rush of shame that stuck with her for two decades.

"I felt horribly guilty for going to his house in the first place, and I felt horribly guilty for drinking a glass of wine,'' she recalled. "All I could think was: 'It's my fault.'''

Now, the Squamish, B.C., councillor is devoting herself to removing hurdles in the justice system for sexual assault victims. And one of her top priorities is to bring rape kits — forensic exams that collect evidence after an attack — to her small district north of Vancouver.

Roadblock for victims

Many hospitals in Canada still lack trained forensic nurses to administer the kits, sometimes forcing traumatized women to travel long distances or wait for hours. It's yet another roadblock in a system that already feels hostile to victims, advocates say.

In the Sea-to-Sky corridor that includes Squamish, patients who want a rape kit must travel an hour or more, sometimes in the back of a police car, to Vancouver General Hospital, said Chapelle.

"Somebody who's been through trauma, the last thing they want is to feel like a criminal and be taken in the back of a police car and then wait to have a rape kit administered in the city,'' she said.

Chapelle said she and the Howe Sound Women's Centre have asked Vancouver Coastal Health to fund a forensic nurse position in Squamish, but the health authority lacks the resources from the British Columbia government.

"Vancouver Coastal Health has been very open and receptive,'' she said. "The Ministry of Health is not interested in resolving the problem.''

The ministry responded that the authority is "actively engaged'' in finding a solution. There are 13 health centres in southern B.C. that can administer kits, while doctors in all 24 northern hospitals can provide the exams, it said in a statement.

Rape kits differ depending on the type of assault and can include taking fluid samples, swabs and photographs.

Access varies across Canada

Across Canada, rape kit access varies widely and information can be hard to find. Women are often shocked that not every hospital offers the exams, said Lisa Steacy of the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres.

"It does create another hurdle. Having to ask for something twice is harder than being able to ask for it once,'' she said.

Quebec and Ontario run their own forensic exam system, rather than using RCMP kits and labs. Quebec said it has 77 centres that can administer the kits, making it a national leader, while Ontario has at least 35 locations.

In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, only urban hospitals have kits — outside cities, health care staff must call Mounties to bring in the equipment. Alberta RCMP also transports kits to hospitals upon request.

Access varies, too, in Atlantic provinces, where Newfoundland has 36 sites that can deliver kits and P.E.I. has one. Nova Scotia has been criticized for a lack of resources, but the province said it has three regional teams of specially-trained nurses with plans for two more on the way.

In the U.S., an immense backlog of untested rape kits sitting on storage shelves for years has made headlines. Vice President Joe Biden recently announced $80 million in funding to examine nearly 70,000 kits.

A backlog of that magnitude doesn't appear to exist in Canada. Most provinces rely on the RCMP's three labs in Vancouver, Edmonton and Ottawa. Mounties wouldn't say how long testing takes, but said kits are prioritized by case urgency.

Ontario's lab has an average turnaround of 29 days, while Quebec tests most kits within 90 days.