Sexual assault is the lowest-reported crime in Canada and the Alberta government is aiming to change that.
Later this year, Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley will look to introduce a new, standardized response for police officers investigating to sexual assault offences.
“I think it is a huge issue and I think it’s an issue that maybe hasn’t been paid enough attention to in the past,” she says. “So I’m really happy with the steps we’re taking. We know that there is always more to do.”
The Sexual Violence Police Advisory Committee is currently working to develop a set of guidelines to present to Ganley.
“We’d really like to see some consistency across the province, and that’s what the group is recommending is that we have sort of a consistent standard – just so we can ensure that survivors are being treated appropriately when they come through the system,” she explains.
The committee was formed in 2015 to combat a growing problem.
“The way that survivors experience the criminal justice system is generally – or often – negative. We’re working to make that better.”
Ganley says victims should all be treated with the same support and respect, no matter where they live in Alberta or which police force they encounter.
Debbie – whose last name Global News has agreed not to reveal out of privacy concerns – was raped in August 2016 after inviting someone she met online to her home. She called 911 and a lone, male RCMP officer from Strathcona County came over to take her statement.
Based on his words and actions, Debbie said she felt re-victimized, so she was thrilled to hear about the coming changes.
“Wow! That’s so amazing. That’s what is needed,” she says.
“It’s a comfort for anyone who’s been a victim of sexual assault or rape – that there is a process. Maybe they won’t be so afraid to call in because they know they will be believed, they’re going to get the resources they need.”
The province is also debuting a sexual assault resource card that police officers across the province will be directed to hand out to victims.
One side of it lists phone numbers and websites for community support organizations.
“We know when people are struggling emotionally, sometimes even the act of having to look up resources on their own can be a bit overwhelming,” Ganley says.
“It will help to connect survivors with services in their area. We know that everyone has different levels of support in their life and we want to make sure that everyone has some level of support.”
The Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services is listed (AASAS) on the card. The group’s CEO, Deb Tomlinson, says the card will be handy. It has a space for the responding officer to write their name and file number.
“It gives survivors the information they need of where to call in Alberta to get support, to get information about resources and information about their options for seeking justice,” she says.
“People’s memories don’t always work the best and so to have that little card that you can go back to is essential.”
The staff at AASAS are specifically trained in sexual assaults.
“Someone on the other end of the line will say, ‘I believe you, it’s not your fault. I’m sorry this happened to you and how can I help?'”
Debbie was given the number for victim services when she gave her statement back in 2016.
“I tried calling and they were closed, so I didn’t get that support I could’ve received,” she says.
But the new resource card the province is rolling out has a 24-hour distress line number on it.
The other side of the card has supportive messages, including lines like “you are not alone,” “your feelings are normal” and “being a victim of crime is never your fault.”
Tomlinson approves of the measure.
“I think anything we can do to make Alberta a safe place for survivors to reach out for help is a step in the right direction.”
The cards are not mandatory for officers to use, but all police services across the province – Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge, Camrose, Medicine Hat, Lacombe, Taber and Blood Tribe – are either already using them, or plan to.
On Tuesday afternoon, a spokesperson with the Alberta RCMP wrote in an email: “I can confirm that the RCMP received the resource cards and are planning to disseminate them to RCMP members across Alberta for their usage.”
One of Debbie’s original concerns was what she said was a lack of compassion from the RCMP. She felt having a female officer might have made the experience different – but she feels the card could change that.
“It wouldn’t matter if I got a female or a male officer. Before they go to the call, they know the type of call it is – maybe they’ll read that. Maybe they’ll say those words. Maybe they’ll believe those words.”
As Debbie looks at the card, she starts to cry, thinking back on her experience with the RCMP last August.
“If I had this, at least I would have felt believed – even if he didn’t.”
Debbie has since started her own Facebook group dedicated to helping sexual assault victims.