Thunder Bay

Few sexual assault survivors seeking help from provincial pilot program

CBC News has learned that Ontario has issued just 23 vouchers for free legal advice to sexual assault survivors in the district of Thunder Bay since it launched its sexual assault legal advice pilot program in the summer of 2016.

Ontario has issued just 23 vouchers for free legal advice since the summer of 2016

The provincial government launched its sexual assault legal advice pilot program in the summer of 2016. (CBC)

While the "me too" movement has again highlighted the prevalence of sexual assault in society, CBC News has learned that a provincial pilot program aimed at helping survivors has been accessed by only a small fraction of them. 

Ontario established its sexual assault legal advice pilot project in the summer of 2016.

The program offers vouchers to assault survivors in Toronto, Ottawa and Thunder Bay, which can be exchanged for two hours of legal advice. 

Survivors can choose to speak to a lawyer in Thunder Bay or elsewhere, either in person or by phone. 

But Ontario has issued only 295 vouchers province-wide since the program launched, according to information provided by the Ministry of the Attorney General.

'There is a need for it'

It's issued only 23 to people in Thunder Bay. 

To put that number in context, Thunder Bay police investigated more than 100 sexual assaults in 2016.

The Thunder Bay Sexual Abuse Centre sees more than four hundred clients each year.

Executive director Deborah Dika told CBC the province did a good job of promoting the program to agencies such as hers, but she's not sure many members of the public know about it.

"It maybe needs to be released again into the community," she said. 

"And I'm hoping that it's a pilot project that's successful ... because I generally believe that there is a need for it.

The Sexual Abuse Centre has helped around ten people access the program Dika said, and she's heard positive feedback about it.

Decision to access service is a personal one

"We've had individuals that have done the two hours and then come back to our agency and said, 'OK, I want to contact the police now, and I just want to put in a report,'" she said, noting that filing a report is not the same as pressing charges.

"They know what court will look like if they choose to go that way," she said. 

Asked by CBC News if the Ministry is satisfied with the rate at which people are accessing the program, a spokesperson replied, "The decision to access the service is a personal one, and our goal is for survivors to know that it is available if and when they need it."

Asked how it will evaluate the success of the pilot, the spokesperson said the Ministry is asking participants if the program met their expectations and if it helped them reach an informed decision about the course of action that was right for them.