A committee that reviews sexual assault investigations in the Northwest Territories says the RCMP has made strides in improving its practices but more work needs to be done.
The Sexual Assault Investigation Review Committee released its second report this month, reviewing 26 randomly selected investigations classified as “not cleared by charge” between 2019 and 2021.
The review looked at whether those investigations were “thorough, impartial and properly classified.”
Improvements were noted in investigations’ thoroughness, timeliness, the use of trauma-informed practices, and supervisory oversight and guidance.
“That’s really heartening to see, that the chain of command is invested and committed to improving the police response to survivors of sexual assault,” Louise Elder, executive director of the Status of Women Council of the NWT, told Cabin Radio.
Recommendations for further improvement include more interview training for officers; ensuring police reports are consistent, objective and proofread; and that victims are referred to community supports.
“Part of being trauma-informed and violence-informed is being impartial, not evidencing judgement,” Elder said. “We’re just asking them to go into each one of these investigations with an open mind.”
Corporal Jesse Aubin of NWT RCMP agreed that police reports should only contain facts relevant to an investigation and not opinions. He said while the objectivity of police reports in the NWT has improved since the review committee was formed in 2019, the new report reiterates the need for continued improvement.
The report also highlights the importance of appropriate interview rooms during sexual assault investigations. Elder said that means using what are known as “soft” rooms more comfortable for people reporting sensitive crimes.
Aubin said RCMP detachments and resources vary across the NWT so finding those spaces can be a challenge. He said it is incumbent on officers at detachments without such facilities to work with community members in finding suitable locations.
“They’re describing something very traumatic that happened, and we want to make them the most comfortable and private as we can,” he said.
Finally, the report says investigators need to ensure they do not assume a person’s gender identity.
The review committee comprises representatives from victim services organizations, community advocates, and the RCMP. Its first report, released in March 2021, highlighted the need for training on “consent, rape myths and levels of intoxication.”
Elder said the RCMP introduced trauma-informed training about two years ago and will soon roll out specialized sexual assault training tailored to the North.
Beyond the police force, Elder said the territory is still lacking sexual assault services, particularly in smaller, more isolated communities. She said the Status of Women Council has called on the NWT government to look at Yukon’s model for improvement of front-line services and make budgetary commitments accordingly.
The review committee was formed following a groundbreaking 2017 investigation by the Globe and Mail, that found, across Canada, one in five sexual assault claims was recorded as “unfounded” by police. The newspaper’s investigation highlighted flaws in the way investigators treat some sexual assault allegations.
Following the Globe and Mail report, the RCMP pledged a nationwide review of cases deemed unfounded. In the NWT, according to reporting by the CBC, one of 49 unfounded cases was reopened but subsequently closed after officers confirmed its unfounded status.
The RCMP states a case is considered unfounded if it is “determined through police investigation the offence reported did not occur, nor was it attempted.”
Nationally, the percentage of sexual assault allegations deemed unfounded decreased from 18.7 percent in 2016 to 13.6 percent in 2017. During the same time period, the number of NWT cases deemed unfounded dropped slightly from 35, or 20 percent of cases, to 34.
As of 2021, Aubin said, the unfounded rate for sexual offence allegations in the territory was 11.5 percent.