Sask. assault centres say more prevention, education on sexual violence needed

Three sexual assault centres are collectively speaking up and calling for change after the closure of a Regina-focused Instagram page dedicated to letting victims share their experiences with sexual harassment and violence. 

3 agencies saddened and frustrated by closure of Victims Voices Regina Instagram account

Saskatoon Sexual Assault and Information Centre, Battlefords and Area Sexual Assault Centre, and Regina Sexual Assault Centres 'wish to express concern and frustration with the actions directed at the Survivor's Stories Instagram page administrators and those who bravely shared their stories.' (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

Three sexual assault centres are collectively speaking up after the closure of a Regina-focused Instagram account intended to let survivors of sexual violence share their stories.

"Sexual violence is not exclusive to Regina. Our whole province has a very, very high prevalence rate of violence," said Lisa Miller, who is executive director of Regina Sexual Assault Centre (RSAC). 

RSAC released a joint statement with Saskatoon Sexual Assault and Information Centre, and Battlefords and Area Sexual Assault Centre, to express concern and frustration with the Instagram account's closure and the silencing of the unprecedented local movement.

"We hear [survivors] and we understand that using social media as a platform to express their stories is because there are so few really effective, viable options for people to report or be heard."

The Instagram account formed in response to a CBC News Investigation that revealed several allegations of verbal sexual harassment against a prominent Saskatchewan mental health advocate. Several of the stories shared on the Instagram page did not name the accused, but some did. Public figures, including a Regina city councillor and a popular muscianwere named. 

A Regina teacher who was named is seeking $1 million in damages for "untrue and defamatory allegations of sexual assault" published on the account. In August, Regina lawyer Sharon Fox said law firm Nychuk & Company was working with more than 10 other men seeking to make similar claims. On Wednesday, Nychuk & Company confirmed no further statements of claim have been filed in court. 

"Our three centres absolutely respect due process and presumption of innocence, but we also know that our justice system does not respond well to the people that have experienced sexual violence and and due process isn't really a thing —  not when we look at what the conviction rate is," Miller said. 

She said low conviction rates in cases of sexual violence offer little incentive for people to go through the criminal justice system. Sometimes when people report, charges are not pursued by the Crown

Miller said people also don't report because of fear — not just of the perpetrator, but of how others could respond. She said some people who come forward publicly can be ostracized, threatened or blamed. 

"People share their stories in this way to be heard, and this social media platform provided for people a community of support where they could realize that they were not the only one,"  Miller said. "There's a lot of strength that comes from that."

A screenshot of the Victims Voices Regina Instagram account, also known as Survivor's Stories Regina, before it was closed down after a Regina teacher took legal action against the unidentified moderators. (Victims Voices Regina Instagram)

Some critics suggested anonymous accusers were seeking personal gain or making false accusations. Miller said survivors of violence have nothing to gain from talking — aside from a chance at healing or understanding. She said the suggestion that victims are after money or "fame" is absurd and that "the rate of false accusations of sexual violence are very, very low." 

She said the legal action sparked a fear among some people wanting to hold alleged abusers accountable. Miller said momentum in #metoo movements can often be stifled in similar ways.

"It raises its head here and somebody finds a way to push it down again," she said. " So our centres are looking for a plan." 

Lisa Miller, Regina Sexual Assault Centre executive director, said people in positions of power or in the community have long turned a blind eye to the pervasiveness of sexual violence. (CBC)

She said she wants individuals to take responsibility and talk about preventing and ending sexual violence at home and at work. Some of that work is continuing online with new Instagram accounts like Victim Voices YQR — which is sharing local stories without naming the accused — and Educated Advocates Regina, which is sharing sexual violence-related resources. The hashtag #webelievesurvivorsRegina is also being used for support. 

The centres say social media pages like Victims Voices Regina aren't about ignoring due process, rather they represent "the failure of our society to address an issue that is destructive to so many lives."   (Mihai Surdu / Shutterstock)

The three centres are also calling on government and community leaders to prevent and educate. Miller said it's a big ask, but that the justice system needs to be revamped to tackle the problem. She said the response to victims who go to the criminal justice system must be improved.

She also said an alternative civil process could be developed, suggesting an alternative measures or restorative justice program could better deal with sexual violence or harassment. 

"The change needs to occur at all levels."