Sex assault reports up, but Saskatchewan lags in funding response
Saskatchewan is second to Manitoba in self-reported sex assaults per capita
Michelle thought police would support her when she reported that her ex-husband raped her in a public parking lot several years ago. Instead, she says she was made to feel like a liar.
"They made me believe that maybe it was just part of the way we interacted together in our sexual life," said Michelle, whose name has been changed for confidentiality.
"That wasn't the case since I had already moved out of the house. We were separated. I was living in a shelter and I moved on with my life."
Sexual assault support workers fear the system will remain inhospitable without more funding for education programs to support survivors like Michelle.
Michelle said she felt revictimized by the legal process when she tried to charge her alleged abuser. Her ex-husband told her he had friends in the police service.
Studies have shown most sexual assault survivors do not report to police. But many who don't make a formal report will still turn to support services.
Michelle has used some of the centre's services, but only after reporting a second assault by a different man.
That time she went to the hospital.
"The hospital said they had never seen something so bad. It was just really bad," she said.
Hospital staff compiled a forensic kit and Michelle said she went straight to Saskatoon police.
"I thought they would arrest him right away. But they didn't. So I lived in fear," she said.
Months went by before police called to say they were going to arrest the alleged perpetrator. She felt better, until another call came, months later.
"There wasn't enough evidence to charge this man who brutally assaulted me and raped me, when there were pictures, messages, and the detectives even took pictures," Michelle said.
Saskatchewan is only province without a plan
Sexual assault reports to police in Saskatoon have been climbing steadily over the last five years. Saskatoon's numbers include voyeurism, sexual exploitation and luring a child — offences not always included in sexual assault statistics.
In 2013, 275 individuals filed police reports in Saskatoon. In 2017, 359 individuals made reports. That's an increase of more than 30 per cent.
Regina experienced a similar increase. In 2017, the Regina Police Service received 185 reports of sexual assault. The number is up more than 26 per cent over 2013, when 146 sexual assaults were reported.
It falls to non-profits to create one, but most can barely meet the needs of their clients.
"In the past three years, the demand for our counselling services, in particular, has continued to grow, and our resources have not matched that," said Faye Davis, executive director of the Saskatoon Sexual Assault Information Centre.
"Our wish list would be to have broader core funding."
The centre is funded by the provincial justice ministry under its interpersonal violence and victim services program. The executive position, administrative wages and counselling positions are covered, but any educational programs require a large fundraising effort.
Followup services are also on the rise at the Regina Sexual Assault Centre, according to statistics provided by the centre. Staff have also been accompanying clients to more and more hospital and police appointments and court proceedings.
'Could we do more? Yes'
Sexual Assault Services of Saskatchewan is a small, two-person operation tasked with creating a plan for the province. SASS is overseen by an advisory board.
"I'm not sure that I would regard us as being behind the other provinces. We don't have a plan, but we've done lots of action to address sexual assault," said Betty Ann Pottruff, senior adviser for the Ministry of Justice.
Pottruff is also part of another, separate board, which oversees the creation of an action plan. It's in its second of three years gathering information for that plan.
Saskatchewan launched The Listen Project this year to provide up to four hours of free legal guidance to survivors of sexual violence.
The government also set aside $1.2 million to support the province's seven sexual assault programs.
According to Pottruff, the province offered the Saskatoon centre three more years of funding at the current level. The same was offered to the other centres in Saskatchewan. Some accepted, and some "have concerns," according to Pottruff, who said she is aware of the pressure centres are under.
Staff at the Saskatoon centre said they expressed concerns about the level of funding, but ultimately accepted the three-year extension.
"Could we do more? Yes," said Pottruff
"We all need to look at what are the demands in these areas and how are we going to meet the demands going forward."
Education key, even for justice workers
Legal channels rarely offer the results survivors hope for, according to Davis.
"It's a very complex process. Sexual assault, unlike any other crime, is the only one that involves proving there was no consent," she said.
After a burglary, for example, the victim isn't asked if they invited the thief into their home, or if they wanted them there, or if they have a habit of giving away property.
The questions police pose to survivors are unique, according to Davis, but court proceedings can be even more difficult.
"We could put an expert on the stand every single time to explain what does a 'normal' survivor behave like, because people make judgments about a survivor's credibility based on their actions before, during, after," Davis said. "They don't have any sort of scheme or belief system that helps them understand what is normal for a survivor."
There has been a push to educate judges, but Davis is calling upon the entire criminal justice system to review how sexual assault cases are handled.
Then there's the issue of educating juries.
"That's our peers. So we need more general education as to what is normal for survivors," Davis said.
According to Davis, a victim's actions can seem odd or contrary to an outsider's expectations. She gives an example of a woman who tipped her cab driver after he assaulted her in the back of his vehicle, then dropped her off.
Through one lens, she was trying to stop him from coming after her. Through another, her actions may not make sense.
#MeToo key to awareness, not action
For Michelle, sharing her story with others helps. She is enrolled in classes for a new career, and continues to support her daughter.
Healing is slow, but she says sharing her experience at the crisis centre and with friends makes her feel lighter. She can leave her home now. The physical symptoms of trauma have lessened.
Women across the world have shared their own stories of assault and harassment on social media, using #MeToo.
"It's a great, huge step forward," Davis said.
Women in North America saw their Facebook and Twitter accounts explode with first-person experiences mirroring those of the Hollywood A-list.
When sexual assault allegations were made against Kevin Spacey, he was quickly replaced by Christopher Plummer as star of the film All the Money in the World.
But chances of such a quick response and acceptance of allegations are slim for women and men outside the glow of the Hollywood spotlight, according to Davis.
Survivors like Michelle are helping to illustrate the reality of sexual assault, and what happens afterward: the reporting process, the potential for re-victimization and mental and physical trauma.
She's hopeful, despite her experience and failed legal action.
There was a time, she says, when she'd have tried to retaliate to feel better. Not anymore.
"Do something amazing," she said.
"Don't let the fear of what happened to you, stop you."
- A previous version of this story stated the Saskatoon Sexual Assault and Information Centre declined a three-year extension of current funding levels from the Ministry of Justice. The centre actually accepted the funding.May 15, 2018 10:32 AM CT