There are growing concerns that sexual assault victims in Canada are being impacted by acute shortages in nursing, forensics, and the judiciary with many vulnerable survivors being denied timely care and justice.
The issue has been raised in several provinces in recent days, with advocates calling on all levels of the government to address the problem as sexual assault rates soar in the country.
Erin Whitmore, executive director of the Ending Violence Association of Canada, said there are gaps not only in the health care and judicial systems, but informal community-based organizations are also struggling to meet the rise in demand for their services.
“Ideally, we want survivors of sexual assault to have options when it comes to seeking support, and we want to make sure that those supports are in place when they do reach out,” she told Global News.
“The reality is, though, that there are serious gaps when it comes to access to many of these services.”
“In many cases, it is really difficult for survivors to seek timely access to the care that they need.”
Why is there a shortage of forensic nurses?
As Canada’s health-care system continues to grapple with a labour crisis, a shortage of sexual assault nurse examiners has been reported across the country, including Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick, British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador.
Sexual assault nurse examiners are forensic nurses trained to collect evidence from sexual assault victims and to help them cope with trauma. They can also be called to testify in court.
Read more: Nursing shortage in Winnipeg may give perps ‘free pass’ after sex assault: women’s health worker
Last week, the president of the Manitoba Nurses Union said they are hearing on a weekly basis about cases where sexual assault survivors are being turned away from Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre (HSC), told to go home, try their best to preserve evidence, and come back later when the sexual assault forensic unit is better staffed.
“Imagine being told not to shower, not to change your child’s diaper, or to wipe after going to the washroom in an effort to preserve evidence that may affect the outcome of a court case. This is outrageous,” said MNU President Darlene Jackson at a news conference on Jan. 25.
Health officials in New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador told The Canadian Press this week they’ve cancelled plans to train sexual assault nurse examiners after too few nurses signed up.
Whitmore said additional extensive training is required to do this job, which can be a lengthy process.
Their work entails a lot of responsibility in terms of collecting evidence and quite often these specially trained nurses are doing that work on top of other regular duties.
Read more: Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton seeks more funding to address waitlist issues for survivors
“Nurses who work in these programs, much like counselors and volunteers who work in community-based sexual assault centers, are really going above and beyond to try to fill some of these gaps,” she said.
Sheila Early, president of the Canadian Forensic Nurses Association, said that the current shortage of nurses specializing in sexual assault stems from decades of the practice being relegated to a casual position.
Early told The Canadian Press in an interview that the training is not recognized as a specialty designation by the Canadian Nurses Association. She believes it should be.
Dalya Israel is the executive director at the WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre in B.C.
She says even though access to specially trained units is “super important,” the government should also be investing in community-based care outside of the hospital settings — which can be a barrier to accessing much-needed care post-sexual assault.
Israel believes tying health care to justice outcomes is also a “huge problem.”
“When we boil somebody’s experience down to only being about forensic evidence, we once again decenter their autonomy and their needs and we prioritize the system’s needs,” she said.
“What we’ve always advocated for is that survivors deserve access to holistic-affirming health care after they’ve experienced sexual violence, and they should be able to walk into any doctor’s office or emergency room, depending on their needs, in order to get that care.”
Beyond health care, sexual assault victims in Canada are also facing significant barriers and challenges in seeking justice, advocates say.
In a high-profile case in Nova Scotia, a Halifax woman, who has alleged she was sexually assaulted back in 2018, is still waiting for a judge to be assigned to her case.
The trial is set to begin on March. 7.
Carrie Low has alleged that two men confined and sexually assaulted her, while she drifted in and out of consciousness, on the outskirts of Halifax on May 18, 2018.
Advocates say a shortage of trial judges in Nova Scotia is leading to uncertainty and continued distress for the victim.
In a statement released on Jan. 26, Low said this uncertainty has her “exhausted and frustrated.”
“I am heading into year five and am still being re-traumatized and harmed by the legal system that is supposed to protect victims and survivors like me,” she said.
“The current judicial vacancies are not only affecting my case, but also so many others in Nova Scotia,” she added.
The rate of police-reported sexual assaults in Canada rose by 18 per cent in 2021 compared to the year before, according to a Statistics Canada report published in August 2022.
A total of 34,242 sexual assault incidents were reported to the police – the highest rate since 1996, StatCan said.
But many more cases go unreported as survivors continue to be concerned about not being believed, revictimized and even blamed, said Whitmore.
“Sexual violence continues to be one of the most underreported crimes in Canada,” she said.
The federal government said it is doing its part to ensure accessible, timely justice for victims of sexual assault as well as those accused of the crime.
“We hope other levels of government are as committed to doing the same,” said Diana Ebadi, the press secretary for Justice Minister David Lametti, in an emailed statement to Global News on Jan. 27.
“Minister Lametti believes unequivocally that victims of sexual assault deserve a justice system that treats them with dignity and respect,” the statement added.
“His priority is ensuring that the system is working effectively and in a timely manner for victims.”
Whitmore said words need to be put into action.
“What we really need to see is a commitment from government to translate this desire to ensure supports into concrete, tangible action in the form of investments in some of these resources that will ensure equitable, timely access to services for sexual assault survivors.”
If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault or is involved in an abusive situation, please visit the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime for help. They are also reachable toll-free at 1-877-232-2610.
— with files from The Canadian Press