Nfld. & Labrador

Justice is elusive for sexual assault survivors, say advocates. Here's what could help instead

In the wake of sexual assault allegations against 7 Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officers, people who work with survivors are calling for systemic change.
Advocates for sexual assault survivors in St. John's say systemic changes need to happen to both help them through the justice system and prevent incidents in the first place. (ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock)

As allegations of sexual assault involving Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officers mount, people who work with sexual assault survivors say systemic change at multiple levels — from education to justice — needs to happen to treat and prevent the problem.

Seven RNC officers are facing sexual assault allegations from nine women, according to St. John's sexual abuse litigator Lynn Moore. Three other women have been asked by officers to participate in sexual activity, she said, while still others have complained about inappropriate behaviour in the RNC's workplace.

Moore, who put out a public call for accounts from victims Monday, said her work is in its "very early stages" as her phone continues to ring.

"I am getting a lot of information from a lot of different people. I haven't had a chance to sit down with most of them," she told CBC News late Wednesday,

Moore has said the women have no interest in bringing their allegations to police — something that doesn't surprise advocates of sexual assault survivors.

"The police as a whole are supposed to serve and protect us, and they have failed us time and time again," said Courtney Clarke, the incoming chair of Violence Prevention Avalon East.

Clarke pointed to instances beyond the current allegations, including an RNC officer illegally detaining a man in Corner Brook and the handcuffing of a seven-year-old at a family violence shelter in St. John's. RNC Const. Doug Snelgrove was convicted in May of sexually assaulting a woman while on duty in St. John's.

Lawyer Lynn Moore says she's listening to people as they come forward with allegations, and leaving planning on any action for the future. (Mark Quinn/ CBC)

Clarke, a sexual assault survivor herself, said with sexual assault charges unlikely to result in conviction — Statistics Canada states one in 10 cases between 2009 and 2014 resulted in convictions — there's little incentive for people to come forward and relive their trauma.

"Altruism aside, a lot of us think, why would we do that to ourselves when we've already been through so much?" she said.

Justice overhauls

Even when people come forward, they often aren't believed or their own sexual practices are scrutinized, said Sandra McKellar, the executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre.

Her centre's crisis line and other programs address that right off the bat: "You will be listened to, you will be believed," she said. But that mantra doesn't transform in the larger justice system into action, even in the midst of an incident, she said.

"There is usually, in situations like this, a great deal of talk, and looking at education, training, those kinds of things," McKellar told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show Thursday.

"But my concern is, after the incident kind of blows over or settles down again, we go through a period of apathy. So yes, there's been changes, but there needs to be so much more. Everybody needs to take responsibility."

For Clarke, that includes a specialized criminal court for sexual assaults akin to those for mental health and family violence. Judges hearing sexual assault cases should have expertise in the area, she said, comparing it to health care: "You would not let a brain surgeon perform open-heart surgery," she said.

The province's police watchdog — the Serious Incident Response Team of Newfoundland and Labrador — has offered to investigate the RNC allegations. While civilian-led, it employs police officers in its investigations, and Clarke said that won't work.

"We don't trust them. We need a multipartisan task force for gender-based violence that's completely removed from those systems and run by people on the ground doing the real trauma-informed work for survivors," she said.

Moore would like to see the RNC examine its recruitment process to weed out potential sexist, misogynist or patriarchal attitudes, and look at how it evaluates its staff for the same tendencies.

"That might help them sift through the remaining officers they have, and see if there is anybody who holds these unequal and really outdated and misogynist views, and then act accordingly," she said.

The Supreme Court in St. John's. Courtney Clarke, incoming chair of Violence Prevention Avalon East, says sexual assault cases need their own space in the justice system, for cases to be heard by people who have expertise in the field. (Paul Daly/CBC)

Allyship and education

Prevention is also key, said the advocates, and reaches well beyond the justice system. McKellar said having different standards on sexuality for different genders is damaging. Education about that and other issues of equality from an early age is key, she said.

"You're never too young to really learn about healthy relationships, about consent.… It needs to be developmentally appropriate, but it needs to happen," she said.

The K-12 school system needs to be on board as well, both McKellar and Clarke said. Clarke said training teachers in restorative justice techniques to resolve conflict, instead of relying on discipline, "teaches that inherent value and worth within people, both on the survivor and the oppressors' side."

One way to promote prevention is through what Clarke termed "male allyship," meaning men need to be proactive in the solution too.

"Us women have been organizing, advocating and working towards fixing this system for decades. It's like screaming into a void," she said.

"So men need to call out their buddies when they make misogynistic remarks, hold them accountable and press them if they get defensive or say they're just kidding, because this is where it starts."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Janelle Kelly and The St. John's Morning Show