Music festivals marred by sexual assaults and violence

Music festival organizers may have the best intentions, but when thousands of strangers show up to party, how they act is largely out of their control.

'Too many festivals are pretending they don't know this exists and they do,' trainer of volunteers says

Dealing with sexual assaults, violence at music festivals

7 years ago
Duration 1:41
Organizers may have the best intentions, but when thousands of strangers show up to party, how they act is largely out of their control

Music festival organizers may have the best intentions, but when thousands of strangers show up to party, how they act is largely out of their control.

This festival season has been marred by many examples and allegations of sexual assault and violence. A man was stabbed earlier this month in a camping area at the Pemberton Music Festival in B.C. A 20-year-old was arrested for sexual assault last weekend at Wayhome, a mega festival in Oro-Medonte, Ont., near Barrie. 

There have also been Facebook posts, alleging instances of sexual assault at music festivals in Yellowknife and Ottawa. The Ottawa post, which included photos of the alleged attacker, has since been removed after Facebook users helped identify a suspect.

A 20-year-old was arrested for sexual assault last weekend at Wayhome, a mega festival in Oro-Medonte, Ont., near Barrie. It's one of the instances of sexual assault and violence at festivals across the country this summer. (Rick Clifford/Canadian Press via AP Images)

Kari Sampsel, medical director for the sexual assault and partner abuse program at the Ottawa Hospital, said she sees a spike in patients after big music festivals. She put out a paper last year that suggested more than a quarter of sexual assault patients at Ottawa Hospital's Civic campus had attended a mass event. The figures in the report were from 2013.

"It's a perfect setup to prey on people ... the festival organizers themselves don't necessarily want this out there because it's going to make people afraid to come to their events or wary," she told CBC News.

"It's a safety concern like any other safety concern for any kind of big event, so if people are slipping on the stairs and hitting their heads ... they have a responsibility to take care of that in the same way as someone who gets sexually assaulted."

Curbing assaults

The results of Sampsel's research led to the creation of Project Soundcheck, a program aimed at curbing sexual assaults and violence at festivals. The program, led by Kira-Lynn Ferderber, trains volunteers at many festivals in Ottawa by focusing on bystander intervention. Similar groups have popped up in Toronto and Vancouver.

"The reason people are surprised is because women don't come forward with their stories of being victims of sexual violence because it's a huge consequence," Ferderber said. "Sexual assault is the fault of the person who commits sexual assault. Period. But too many festivals are pretending that they don't know this exists and they do."

Ian Campeau, a member of Canadian electronic music group A Tribe Called Red, posted this after performing at Folk on the Rocks in Yellowknife earlier this month.

Festival organizers said they were aware of sexual assault allegations, but it's not clear if this was the same one.

Ferderber has trained volunteers at some of Ottawa's biggest music festivals, including Bluesfest. She said some festivals have been hesitant to talk about assaults and violence for fear of scaring festivalgoers.

"It's becoming more damaging not to talk about it than to be the festival that talks about it," she said, noting how some attendees end up posting their own incidents online, including photos and names of alleged attackers.

"People share when these kinds of experiences happen and people notice when festivals take them seriously."

Ramping up security

There are other types of violence to worry about too — shootings, stabbings, fights. Wayhome had three layers of security to try and prevent weapons and other banned items from getting into the festival: cars were searched upon pulling in, people were patted down when they entered the actual festival and police and security roamed inside the grounds.

Ryan Howe, Wayhome's producer, oversaw the process.

"I think as far as security goes at festivals, it's actually got stronger and the presence of security has increased year over year. It's not as relaxed as 10-15 years ago," he told CBC News. "Arenas and amphitheatres and open air festivals have been ramping up both police and security presence, especially over the last few years."

Outside Canada, there have been several security lapses at music events — dozens of assaults and rapes were reported at festivals in Sweden, former The Voice contestant Christina Grimmie was shot dead during a meet and greet session in Orlando and 89 people were killed during a deadly attack on the Bataclan concert hall in Paris in November.

Ian Campeau, a member of the music group A Tribe Called Red (pictured) said he was 'angry and heartbroken' when he heard his friend had been sexually assaulted during the group's performance at Folk on the Rocks in Yellowknife. (Falling Tree Photography)

Chris Kerr, president of the Alberta chapter of the Event Safety Alliance Canada, said that lessons can be learned from the incidents.

"Obviously it's not something that we enjoy reading about, but it is the current reality of a lot of the markets that shows play in these days," Kerr said.

He admits even with all the planning, many events are unpredictable. So security and festival organizers have to anticipate.

"I think we're on the right track ... I'd like to see the trends of increased security continue without it becoming oppressive ... It's a very delicate balancing act without squashing that excitement and that kind of magic that comes with this business that we work in."


Haydn Watters is a roving reporter in Ontario, mostly serving the province's local CBC Radio shows. He has worked for the CBC in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and entertainment unit. He ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont. You can get in touch at haydn.watters@cbc.ca.

With files from Deana Sumanac