Dozens of Winnipeg women speak about being drugged at local bars

A Facebook post about drink tampering and date rape drugs has prompted dozens of women to come forward, saying it happened to them at bars and clubs across Winnipeg.

Shared Health says it saw more than 90 cases of sexual assault involving drug facilitation in 2018

Kelly O'Leary says she has heard countless stories about drink tampering in her years as a hairstylist. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

It was 2005 and Kelly O'Leary was on her second drink at a work event when she realized something was very, very wrong. 

She started to feel dizzy, much more so than she'd normally feel from the relatively small amount of alcohol she'd consumed.

"I just knew that I immediately need to get out of there and started walking home. I lived three blocks away," she said. 

"And within minutes … it went from feeling a little woozy to completely losing function of my legs."

She fell to the ground, scratched her face, and found it nearly impossible to get up. 

"I was like, laying on the concrete, and I remember just being like, I somehow need to get it together to be able to stand up." 

O'Leary believes she was drugged.

In her years as a hairstylist, she's heard countless similar stories, she said.

To show how common it is, she wrote a Facebook post, asking people if it had happened to them, and where. 

"I've just heard so much over the years. I work with primarily women in the hair and beauty industry, all ages, and I've heard countless stories," she said. 

"A couple years ago during the Me Too movement it came up a lot, and at places that we all know and love — everywhere. It happens all over the place. It's super common in this city and every city, probably."

WATCH | Women speak about being drugged at local bars:

A Facebook post has women speaking up about drink tampering at Winnipeg bars. Dozens of women say it has happened to them at places across the city. 1:39

Within about 20 minutes of making the post on June 21, there were about 50 comments on the post, she said; it had close to 150 comments by June 26.

Some comments only say where it happened, while others are more descriptive. 

Some say it happened to them more than once, and one person said she'd been sexually assaulted. 

The women CBC News spoke with all said the incidents happened many years ago, but they were too embarrassed or ashamed of what happened to speak openly about it at the time. None of them went to police, saying they didn't think officers would do anything.

Data from Shared Health shows it's still very much a current issue. The health authority's Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Program saw 97 sexual assault cases where drug facilitation — use of what's commonly called a date-rape drug — was suspected between January 2019 and now. In 2018, there were 92 cases.

Women felt terrified, violated

Tesia Rhind, one of the women who commented on O'Leary's post, said she was drugged while at a music show about 10 years ago. 

It was so bad she started to have seizures and had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance, she said.

Tesia Rhind says she wasn't believed when she said she did not voluntarily take the drugs that were found in her system the night someone tampered with her drink. (Tesia Coil/Facebook )

When she woke up in hospital, the doctor told her she had GHB, sometimes called liquid ecstasy, in her system. 

She didn't take it voluntarily, she said, but the doctor and even her father didn't believe her, which was hurtful.  

"Just the fact that this happened to me was really violating," she said. 

She wasn't a big drinker or partier, so she didn't understand why people didn't believe her. 

"But there was just a seed of doubt that I just chose to do it, so yeah, it felt awful."

Nicole Markowski, 35, said she was drugged after a concert when she was 19 and woke up in a stranger's hotel room with her clothes ripped off.

She thinks it happened when someone brought her a drink in a VIP lounge. 

She was a heavy drinker at the time, but this felt completely different, she said.

Nicole Markowski says she was drugged and sexually assaulted after a concert when she was 19. (Submitted by Nicole Markowski)

"I felt like my legs wouldn't work. I felt like I couldn't speak, like I couldn't use my words, and I just had never felt that feeling before," she said. 

The next thing she remembers is waking up in the hotel room. 

"I remember seeing, like, having pain on my arms and on the inside of my thighs. This person attempted to try and have sex with me again and I fought them off and they went into the shower and told me to get out," she said. 

"It was one of the scariest things that's ever happened to me because I've been in bad situations before and I never lost complete control like that, ever."

Markowski said she didn't bother going to the police, because she thought the blame would be put on her for drinking too much. 

Staff Sgt. Helen Peters of the Winnipeg police specialized investigations division, which handles sex crimes, said victims should never feel discouraged from reporting to police any time an assault has taken place.

She also said it's important that victims of sexual assault visit the Shared Health sexual assault nurse as soon as they are able to, so they can collect any physical evidence that might aid an investigation. 

Consent education needed 

Stephanie Klassen, the executive director of the Survivor's Hope Crisis Centre in Pinawa, Man., said self-blame is typical in sexual assault survivors, and is part of a larger societal problem of questioning them about what led up to the assault. 

Stephanie Klassen is the executive director of the Survivor's Hope Crisis Centre in Pinawa, Man., which provides sexual assault crisis intervention services and education. (Submitted by Stephanie Klassen)

"Which just communicates really loudly that our culture does think that the behaviour of victims and survivors is a part of the problem, and that conversation just leaves out the actual cause of sexual assault and it doesn't get at any conversation that will lead us to genuinely preventing sexual assaults from happening," she said. 

The focus needs to shift away from personal responsibility to educating people about consent so incidents like the ones these women described don't continue to happen, Klassen said.

"We first need to recognize the difference between things that are individual risk reduction and what is actual prevention," she said. 

"So guarding my drink, that might, like, impact my immediate sense of safety, but we also know that sexual violence is a pervasive problem across the country, across demographics, so there's something about the lack of consent education that might be a greater part of the problem than just how closely a drink can be guarded."