Warning: This report contains descriptions of sexual assaults as heard in court.
Rates of reported sexual offences against children and youth in the NWT have been the highest in Canada, with victims mostly being around 15 years of age, federal studies show.
The majority of those accused of sexual offences against children and youth across the North are male, with the majority of those crimes taking place in a private residence, stated 2014 and 2017 studies from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics.
Those statistics were borne out in Supreme Court in Yellowknife this week. Two men were jailed for sexually assaulting young teenage girls in separate cases.
Both cases happened in the same NWT community, and the details were similar: the girls knew the older men, both offenders were Indigenous, cannabis was involved, and the assaults took place in houses where the girls’ parents were not present.
Both men pleaded guilty on the day their trials were supposed to start. The victims’ identities are protected and, since the crimes occurred in a small community, the location is also being withheld.
The court heard victims of sexual assault in small community can suffer stigmatization that amplifies the trauma associated with the original crime.
“I lost most of my family’s trust after the incident … I no longer feel safe,” a girl in her mid-teens said in a victim impact statement read by a prosecutor on Wednesday.
“A lot of people in the community talk about what happened. This made me feel upset to the point where I wanted to kill myself.
“People look at me differently. I am not the same person because of it.”
Courts ‘will deal with it seriously’
The court heard that in May 2018, the girl had messaged a man in his mid-20s about purchasing cannabis. He was invited to her house and informed her of the price, but she said she had no money. Instead, the court was told, she approached the man and unzipped his pants.
“[The man] understood she was about to perform oral sex on him in exchange for the marijuana,” said Crown prosecutor Trevor Johnson. “[He] did not stop [the girl] and let her continue unzipping his pants.
“But before anything occurred … [her mother] came home and began unlocking the front door.”
The girl ran to her room while the man ran out of the house, passing the mother in the doorway, as he zipped up his pants, said the prosecutor.
The Crown called for a nine-month sentence and one year’s probation, with conditions including a no-contact order with the victim and other requirements common to sexual assault cases.
“Your honour, I’m asking for that nine months of custody in order to send a message to [the offender] and to the community that sexual contact with children is not acceptable, that the court will deal with it seriously, and the court will respond to such things with a lengthy period of custody,” said Johnson.
Defence lawyer Baljinder Rattan told the court her client did not go over to the girl’s house with the intent of engaging in any type of sexual activity. He went simply to sell cannabis, she said, while admitting that sale in itself was an illegal act.
“It’s purely speculative to consider what may or may not have happened [had the mother] not come home, but that momentary incident did occur,” she said.
Rattan said her client volunteers in the community and works in construction when he can as a labourer. He has a supportive family and “has many prospects in his life, if he follows them,” she said, noting the man has been on bail with conditions for two years without incident.
Rattan asked for a sentence of between three or four months with a year’s probation.
Justice Karan Shaner decided on a sentence of two months minus 10 days served in pre-trial custody following his arrest. She ordered an 18-month probation period with conditions.
‘No steps’ to discern age
On Tuesday, the same judge heard the case of a different man who vaginally raped a girl in September 2018.
In this case, the man – in his early twenties – took the girl, in her mid-teens, to an empty house and told her “my girlfriend won’t find out” before asking her to undress, said prosecutor Johnson.
“[The victim] did not say anything to [the man] because she was scared,” said Johnson.
The man “took no steps to try to discern” the victim’s age and later told police he thought she was 12 or 13 years old.
A victim impact statement was provided to the court, but not read out loud.
“What it illustrates is … the impacts of these offences go beyond the [people involved] – there are reverberations within the community when these types of allegations are made, particularly in a small community,” Johnson said.
“[The victim impact statement] is illustrative of why the courts have taken these offences so seriously.”
The Crown and defence lawyer agreed on a joint sentence recommendation of two years less one day, plus 18 months’ probation with conditions including no contact with the victim.
Defence lawyer Roopa Mulherkar said her client has turned to religion for inspiration and guidance while jailed for a separate offence.
“He’s been spending a lot of time with his prayer book … he told me he’s learned to follow the commandments of God,” said Mulherkar, noting he has also taken two courses related to violence and respectful relationships.
“He has a better understanding of what’s right and wrong. He understands that bad things can happen when substances are involved.
“Your honour, I submit to you today that you are looking at a repentant young man.”
Justice Shaner accepted the joint recommendation.
Correction: September 17, 2020 – 9:33 MT. This article initially stated Alanhea Vogt was the defence counsel in the second case. In fact, Roopa Mulherkar served as defence counsel.