Sask. sexual assault survivors fear not being believed, says expert

Women are choosing not to report sexual assaults because they fear they will not be believed in the criminal justice system, according to the executive director of the Saskatoon Sexual Assault & Information Centre.

Globe and Mail report shows police concluded 19% of Sask. sexual assault allegations were unfounded

Demonstrators at a rally in Halifax call for alternative justice for sexual assault survivors during the Jian Ghomeshi case. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)

Women in Saskatchewan are not reporting sexual assaults because they fear they will not be believed in the criminal justice system, according to the executive director of the Saskatoon Sexual Assault & Information Centre.

From reporting the incident to police, to reliving it in a public court, the centre's Faye Davis said Canada's criminal justice system is "fraught with difficulties" for sexual assault survivors. 

"People forget that they have to testify in an open trial where anybody from the public can come. The perpetrator's friends and families and supporters can all be there," said Davis.

An investigative report from the Globe and Mail on Friday concluded 19 per cent of sexual assault allegations in Canada from 2010 to 2014 were deemed to be "unfounded," meaning police did not believe the crime had occurred.

Davis said many women avoided reporting sexual assaults because they feared they would not be believed.

But she said their concerns are related to the entire justice system, not just the reporting phase.

"They know when they report that it's a long process that goes from an initial investigation with police, all the way through to investigation and questioning with Crown prosecutors — and then never mind an open trial," said Davis.

Rates vary in Sask. towns, cities

The Globe and Mail report was compiled using freedom of information requests sent to 178 police services to obtain information from 1,119 police jurisdictions across Canada. According to the news service, those jurisdictions represent 92 per cent of the country's population.

(Source: 'Limits of a Criminal Justice Response,' Holly Johnson)

Rates of "unfounded" allegations varied greatly between towns and cities in Saskatchewan, from 41 per cent in Tisdale, Sask. (14 of 34 allegations), to 15 per cent in Saskatoon (217 of 1,469 allegations).  

Saskatchewan's rate overall was on par with the national average at 19 per cent.

An RCMP spokesperson said sexual assault cases can be "challenging and complex."

The RCMP uses Statistics Canada's definition of "unfounded", meaning an incident where — after a police investigation — it was determined no violation of the law took place or was attempted. 

Because police detachments compile data in different ways, the spokesperson said "our stats will not necessarily be comparable to others across the province and country, except through what is provided to Stats Canada."

The RCMP said there may be some issues with data quality when it comes to "unfounded" cases but training modules are being developed for data entry.

Specialized services needed: Davis

Davis said the Saskatoon Police Service sex crimes unit had been open to working with the sexual assault centre to learn and understand more about sexual assault and the way it could impact a complainant's testimony.

But she does believe police need more training about sexual assault myths and how perpetrators behave.

Davis said the trauma of an assault could lead to incomplete memories and that drug-induced sexual assaults could influence the victims' recollections.

"I do believe that police officers, probably across the country and like any other profession, most likely will hold some myths around sexual assault and how a complainant should understand and remember that experience," she said.

Davis would also like to see specialized victims' services for sexual assault victims. She believes it would be beneficial to have a psychologist present at court trials to explain the way sexual assault could affect memory.

She said the issue of consent makes sexual assault unique in the justice system and measures should be introduced to acknowledge that.

"They not only have to prove that a sexual activity occurred but that the sexual activity was done without consent," said Davis.

"And so that second step leads a lot of people into the type of questioning and beliefs and the myths that make sexual assault difficult to prosecute."

5 highest rates in Saskatchewan

  • Green Lake: 57 per cent (4 of 7 allegations).
  • Tisdale: 41 per cent (14 of 34 allegations).
  • Cut Knife: 36 per cent (18 of 50 allegations).
  • Lloydminster: 35 per cent (15 of 43 allegations).
  • Nipawin: 35 per cent (29 of 83 allegations).

No allegations were deemed to be unfounded by police in the Saskatchewan communities of Caronport, Kyle, Morse, Rosetown, Shaunavon and Wynyard during the Globe and Mail's investigation period.

Police services in Dalmeny, File Hills First Nations, Estevan (municipal), Humboldt (municipal RCMP), Luseland and Warman (municipal RCMP) did not provide information under the freedom of information requests. 

With files from CBC's Alicia Bridges