More than 50 Yellowknife residents took part in a Tuesday walk along a city trail to support victims of sexual violence.
The Walk a Mile in Their Shoes event, billed as the first such walk in the NWT, received support from government officials, RCMP officers, and judicial members wearing teal.
The month of May marked the first sexual assault awareness month in the NWT. To finish the month, the Status of Women Council, Northern Mosaic Network, NWT Disabilities Council and Yellowknife RCMP held the awareness walk on the city’s Frame Lake Trail.
Louise Elder, executive director of the Status of Women Council, said “the level of the code of silence [for sexual violence victims] is strong, which is why we needed this campaign throughout the month of May. We need to start breaking down that code of silence.”
The NWT’s sexual violence figures are “staggering,” said Elder, quoting 2018 data that suggests 49 percent of women and 32 percent of men across Canada’s territories reported having experienced sexual violence.
“When it comes to sexual assault we have the second-highest and, in some years, the highest rates. One in three women in the NWT will be sexually assaulted at least once during their lives,” she said.
Those statistics – more can be found on the council’s website – come with the recognition that sexual violence is significantly underreported, said Elder.
“Only 13 percent of those that have been sexually assaulted indicated that they had reported the most serious incident to the police,” she said, adding that some people may feel shame or fear, or believe an incident was too minor, was not criminal, or no harm was intended.
The Status of Women Council is focusing its efforts on understanding how it can respond in a supportive manner.
“It’s so incredibly concerning when we look at what we hear from people who’ve experienced sexual violence, and then when we hear about the response … the shame, and language, and judgment,” Elder said.
“We really need to do better than that.
“It doesn’t matter what we look at – which data we look at – behind that data is real people who are suffering and traumatized in the reporting.”
Elder said a “concerted effort by all” is required to recognize that sexual violence is happening every day.
If only six percent of sexual assaults are being reported, as some data suggests, “that would be 4,117 sexual assaults in 2020, or 11 per day,” she said. “When I tell people that who work in this sector, they look at me and they go, ‘that sounds a little low.’
“But it’s 11 too much for us at the Status of Women Council. We decided that we couldn’t wait for other people to take action any longer, and that we needed to start moving forward.”
That was when the council decided to hold its first sexual assault awareness month. Shortly after, RCMP suggested the awareness walk.
‘Still fighting the same fight’
Denise McKee, executive director of the NWT Disabilities Council, hopes the walk will raise awareness around the “intersectionality of disability and sexual violence.”
“It’s unfortunate,” said McKee, “that as I go on 60, these walks are still necessary, and that we’re still fighting the same fight that I was in my teens and my twenties.”
McKee said the rate of disability in the NWT is approximately 20 to 22 percent, with Indigenous populations experiencing a higher rate of 31 percent.
“One in five Canadian women live with a disability. Forty to 60 percent of them experience some form of violence in their lives. Forty to 70 percent of girls with intellectual disabilities will experience sexual victimization before they reach the age of 18,” she said.
Indigenous women with disabilities are at an even higher risk of sexual violence, said McKee, with 84 percent of homeless Indigenous women being victims of sexual abuse.
“What women with disabilities have voiced, and what they need, is to be believed – by healthcare providers, law enforcement, family and community support, sensitive and skilled counsellors, and peers.”
McKee said the healthcare system needs a trauma-informed, anti-oppression approach, and a safe and supportive community must “work together with women with disabilities.”
There must be financial supports for women fleeing violent situations and “appropriate social services and shelters that meet needs of women with disabilities,” said McKee.
‘Different working with our community’
Chelsea Thacker, executive director of the Northern Mosaic Network, said evidence shows 2SLGBTQIA+ people are disproportionately effected by sexual violence.
“In 2021, we found that 49 percent of women and non-binary people who are labelled as sexual minorities, meaning bisexual, lesbian, queer, polysexual and more, had been physically or sexually assaulted by the age of 15,” Thacker said.
“When we held a gathering back in March of youth aged 10-17, multiple trans youth told us that a number of times they experienced sexual harassment or predatory behaviour when walking around in their communities, and even on-site at their schools.”
Thacker brought up discussion of conversion therapy, and the methods of sexual violence and assault being used to convert 2SLGBTQIA+ people to heterosexuality.
“It’s different when you’re working with our community than it is just working with heterosexual cisgendered people, and that needs to be taken into account,” they said.
“Too many people are assaulted and subjected to sexualized violence that don’t receive the proper care or visibility in our systems.”
Thacker hoped the walk brings more awareness to the fact that sexual violence happens to more people than “just the people we’re used to hearing about.”
Yellowknife RCMP Sgt Byron Donovan said the walk recognized “something where we need to continue to improve and make progress, while listening to what our survivors of sexual violence are telling us.”
Donovan said new RCMP training was “a great step forward, using the trauma-informed approach to help us and guide us through our investigations.”
Insp Chris Hastie, Yellowknife detachment commander, acknowledging actual numbers of sexual violence incidents are understood to be far higher than the number reported, said “the key to success in policing is developing and sustaining trust.”
The detachment commander said he hoped the addition of a sexual violence prosecutors’ team will be a positive step in providing support to victims.
“Without trust and competence in policing, public safety will suffer,” Hastie said.