Concern in Sherbrooke following reports of women being followed, harassed at night

A group of citizens in Sherbrooke is asking the city to do more to make sure women are safe when they are out in public places, following multiple reports of women being followed, intimidated and harassed in public places.

City council promises to address emerging issue

A group of citizens in Sherbrooke is demanding stronger interventions and follow-ups from police, after several women reported threatening encounters with groups of men over the past months. (Martin Bilodeau/Radio-Canada)

Guylaine Cliche was out walking her dog last summer near her home in Sherbrooke, Que., when a car pulled up beside her. She says three men stepped out and split up, as if to corner her.

Cliche turned the other way and started walking faster. The car reversed in her direction, and the men got out — again.

"That's when I thought I'm in trouble here — I need to hide."

Cliche's story is one of 13 incidents included in an open letter that was read out during a Sherbrooke city council meeting on March 8.

The letter was a compilation of personal stories from women who had been allegedly followed, harassed, catcalled, intimidated, and in one case, sexually assaulted in Sherbrooke over the past months.

Cliche eventually found shelter in a nearby home but the men didn't leave. Four police cruisers were dispatched, but according to Cliche, police didn't file a report and didn't press charges because no crime had been committed.

Wanting to warn other women in her neighbourhood, Cliche posted to Facebook. 

The very next morning, her inbox was flooded with accounts of women who had found themselves in the same situation.

"I was so confused and shocked again," said Cliche. 

City councillor 'worried' following reports

When the 52-year-old author saw all these stories come together, she decided to compile them and demand action.

The Manifesto for the safety of women in Sherbrooke will be officially presented to city council on March 15. The petition had been signed by more than 700 people, as of Friday morning.

Addressed to the city's public safety committee, it asks for concrete measures to make Sherbrooke safer — for example, offering free self-defence classes.

In total, Cliche has been in contact with around 20 women since her original Facebook post.

Guylaine Cliche said she had to stop working after she was approached by three men while walking her dog. (Submitted by Guylaine Cliche)

"I promised these women I would do something," she said. "It has to stop."

City councillor Danielle Berthold, who also chairs the city's public safety committee, said she is "worried" and takes the stories seriously.

"It's hard to believe that a woman cannot walk safely in the streets of Sherbrooke in 2021," said Berthold. "So when women take the time to write something like that, you need to listen to them."

Berthold says the file is a priority for the committee. 

Safer transportation 

ConcertAction Femmes Estrie, a women's rights advocacy group in the Eastern Townships, said safety is one of its top priorities, along with access to housing and public transportation.

The group is not involved in this manifesto, but it would like the city to provide better and more accessible bus service.

The Sherbrooke Transit Agency does offer to let passengers off between two bus stops after 8 p.m. if they ask for it.

But the group says the service, called "Entre deux arrêts," is not well-known and needs to be advertised more explicitly.

Beyond those tools, Cliche said it's fundamental to have better follow-ups from police when a citizen makes a complaint of harassment or intimidation.

The Sherbrooke police service (SPS) refused CBC's interview request, but said they do take these kinds of incidents seriously and that it is important for people to call them, whenever they are in a situation where they don't feel safe.

Berthold is encouraging women and men to come forward whenever they feel threatened. The councillor said police have a duty to serve and intervene in these kinds of situations.

"I know it's discouraging, but we need to have proof to prepare a file," said Berthold. "You need to tell the police what is happening to you, and never think it won't go as far as you want it to go."

In Sherbrooke, 73 per cent of sexual crimes reported to police lead to charges being laid, one of the highest rates in the province, according to Berthold.

The city of Sherbrooke says it wants citizens to give input to identify which neighbourhoods could be more problematic and not as safe for women. (Radio-Canada)

Six detectives were added to the SPS sexual crimes unit in 2019.

Berthold said crime rates are generally diminishing but she intends to launch a survey to ask citizens to identify problematic areas in the city.

Citizens' participation is also essential to improve safety, said Cliche.

"My three sons have been raised to respect women. I am a single mother and we need to talk about this — not only with a feminist approach, but with a citizen's approach."