A review of NWT RCMP sexual assault files that found some officers need training on consent and rape myths must now be followed by action, advocacy groups told Cabin Radio.
The Sexual Assault Investigation Review Committee, which reviews randomly selected sexual assault investigations in the territory is preparing to host its third meeting. It is designed to allow community advocates and groups the chance to check police investigations of sexual assault for biases and see where policies and practices can be improved.
The committee, which comprises representatives of NWT RCMP, the territorial Department of Justice, victim services groups and community advocates, met in 2019 and again in 2020. RCMP released the findings of the first two meetings last month.
Recommendations offered included improving training for officers “on consent, rape myths and levels of intoxication.”
Jesse Aubin, family violence coordinator for RCMP in the NWT, last week told reporters police had taken steps to implement those recommendations.
An advocate from a smaller NWT community is being flown to Yellowknife for the next review – a suggestion made by the committee – and all feedback has been shared with supervisors, RCMP say.
“One of the committee’s benefits is that it can help us identify some of those gaps from their expertise,” Aubin said, “because they’re the ones who are serving the survivors of sexual assault in the communities, and we want to learn and gain their knowledge.”
Aubin said RCMP are committed to hosting two reviews per year going forward. The next is scheduled to take place in Yellowknife next week.
‘We’re not done’
Louise Elder – executive director of the Status of Women Council of the NWT, which participates in the committee – said her council had sought its establishment after an investigation published by the Globe and Mail in 2017 found one in five sexual assault cases was recorded as “unfounded” by the police.
Data from 2010 to 2014 showed the Northwest Territories had the second-highest rate of “unfounded” sexual assault cases in the country, second only to New Brunswick at the time.
According to NWT RCMP, a case is marked unfounded if it is “determined through police investigation that the offence reported did not occur, nor was it attempted.”
Elder said the results were “alarming.”
“We unfortunately have heard from far too many women who experience terrible sexual violence,” she said, “so we want to be able to take what we’ve learned from them and help to improve the system.”
The number of unfounded cases has dropped nationwide since the Globe and Mail investigation was published. The NWT’s percentage dropped from 20 percent to 17.26 percent in 2019 according to Statistics Canada.
Elder said there is a long way to go, especially given the high rates of sexual violence in the territory.
“We’re not done,” she said. “That committee still has work to do. The police still have work to do.”
The Rainbow Coalition of Yellowknife, a non-profit that works with LGBTQ2S+ youth in the territory, is joining the committee for next week’s review.
Executive director Chelsea Thacker said the organization will be looking to see how RCMP accommodate members of the LGBTQ2S+ community and youth.
“Oftentimes, we try to attach homophobic or transphobic ideologies to sexual violence against LGBTQ2S people,” they said.
“We’re really hoping to make sure that, at all times, young people who experience sexual violence are treated with dignity and respect, and that the cases are handled with just as much sensitivity and care as those who are adults.”
Thacker said their group has seen how harmful the justice system can be when those navigating it aren’t treated with respect and dignity.
“I’ve seen great interactions and I’ve seen really terrible interactions, and the lack of consistency and … lack of care is really problematic,” they said. “Sometimes those conversations are structured to make people feel it’s going to be an impossible process.”
Elder added the review committee should not be the only avenue the territory pursues to transform its justice services. Changes are needed in multiple institutions, she said.
The NWT’s Department of Health and Social Services has guidelines in place for healthcare professionals caring for survivors. It outlines appropriate practices such as steps to obtaining informed consent from patients before examinations or treatments, and how to care for children.
Elder suggested the possibility of a rape crisis centre, specialist response teams for sexual assault (such as one in the Yukon), or off-site interview rooms where survivors can access proper supports while being interviewed by police.
“We’ve been looking at the big picture, saying there is so much that needs to be done,” she said. “We know this is happening, we know people are suffering, we need to prevent sexual violence.
“We realize we have limitations in the North, but we also know there are ways we can overcome those limitations or pilot options in different communities to see what will work.”
“We need to do more than just review these cases,” they said. “This is only the first step.”