Statistics Canada adds warning to survey after concerns raised about triggering questions

Statistics Canada has surveyed more than 35,000 Canadians on gender-based violence, including sensitive questions about domestic violence, sexual abuse, online harassment and discrimination.

Survey on gender-based violence asks participants about sexual abuse, harassment, violence

Statistics Canada added new text to its survey to warn participants about the sensitive nature of its questions after a complaint from a Saskatchewan woman. (Shutterstock)

Statistics Canada has added a warning to the text of its survey on gender-based violence after a complaint from a Saskatchewan woman who says she was left shaken by the sensitive nature of the questions. 

The agency's Survey of Safety in Public and Private Spaces started in April and concludes in December.

More than 35,000 Canadians have already completed the survey, which includes questions about sexual abuse, online harassment, violence and discrimination.

But Jessica Wolff, who lives in Meadow Lake, Sask., said she was not warned about the nature of the questions when she agreed to do the survey over the phone in July.

"It was the middle of the day on a weekend. I hadn't planned on dragging up painful memories," she said.

Survivors, victim groups consulted

Funded by the Status of Women Canada, the survey was developed in consultation with survivors of sexual assault and victim groups.

Respondents are asked to respond online or over the phone.

Statistics Canada said the voluntary survey will help inform policy, research and analysis.   

"Gender-based violence poses a significant barrier to gender equality in Canada," said survey manager Julie Sauvé.

I was completely unprepared. I had no idea what this was about.- Jessica Wolff, Sask. survey participant

"More information is needed on the experiences of those affected by it," she said.

"Testing was conducted with selected participants who are survivors of violent victimization in order to get their feedback on the content and based on their input, adjustments were made to some questions to be more sensitive on how they should be framed."

Statistics Canada also consulted mental health professionals on the survey, she said.

The online survey provides a quick exit button for participants to leave if the questions become too triggering or uncomfortable.

Sask. woman wasn't warned about sensitive questions

But Wolff said the title of the survey led her to believe the questions were about "safety" in terms of injury — such as sidewalk safety. 

"I was completely unprepared. I had no idea what this was about," she said.

"I found myself quite shaken."

She said she answered the sensitive questions and completed the survey to the end because she feels the subject matter is important.

Statistics Canada responded to Wolff's complaint and agreed to add new text to the survey to warn participants about the sensitive nature of the questions. (Jessica Wolff/Facebook)

But she wrote to Statistics Canada to express her concerns that the survey did not warn respondents they would be asked sensitive questions.

"I think most [women] have endured some kind of inappropriate sexual behaviour towards us at some point in our lives and the government needs to understand that it's a reality for many women," said Wolff.

"But they need to use a little bit more discretion and understanding when contacting participants."   

New warning added to survey

Statistics Canada added another prompt to the survey in response to Wolff's concerns.

"This additional statement informing respondents of the sensitive questions was implemented mid-August 2018 and we have received very positive feedback from our interviewers on behalf of respondents," said Sauvé.

"To date, Statistics Canada has received very few comments — some positive, others expressing concerns, and each have been addressed promptly on a case-by-case basis."

Sauvé said development of the survey started prior to the #MeToo movement.