Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for inviting me to present to you today.
I live close to Medicine Hat, Alberta, but I'm actually coming to you from Calgary, Alberta. I'm currently on and would like to honour the traditional territory of the Blackfoot Nation, the people of the Treaty No. 7 region. I'd also like to honour the Métis people, who have had significant impact on this land.
I've been working with SARC for over 10 years. Until a month ago, we were the only sexual assault response committee in southern Alberta.
As an organization, SARC covers approximately 40,000 square kilometres. That means I'm highly bonded with my car; her name is Lola. This region is inclusive of two small urban cities and several rural and remote areas.
In terms of a bit about myself, I was born and raised in a small, remote area in southern Saskatchewan, and I currently live in a small town. When I was growing up, I was about an hour from the nearest bottle of milk. I am a registered social worker whose education focused mainly on rural and remote and indigenous social work. I've spent the last 10 years of my career working specifically at SARC, focusing on anti-violence initiatives, specializing in sexual violence, community development and cross-disciplinary collaboration, and creating coordinated community response protocols and policy development—again, in the very specific areas of sexual violence responses, trauma-informed care and sexual violence-specific care.
Unfortunately, a lot of the research on sexual violence is focused largely on large urban areas, and the reporting of sexual violence to police in rural areas is almost non-existent. There were times over the last 10 years when I would go out and policing organizations would tell me that there might have been one, if not zero, disclosure of sexual violence. This could lead the general population and policing to believe that sexual and domestic violence are not occurring in rural and remote areas. However, I would assert that this is not the case, and that sexual violence is in fact occurring. As a matter of fact, the risk factors for sexual violence are significantly higher in rural and remote areas due to increased poverty, lack of employment opportunities and lack of professionalized support systems in rural areas.
There are great people living in rural and remote areas. I myself come from one. We are robust, strong people. There's a different approach between someone who is well intentioned and someone who is coming at it from a professional world view.
The stark reality is also that the community norms at times tolerate sexual violence. Our society, our laws and our practice also support gender inequality, specifically in how they're interpreted on the ground or the understanding by policing as to how those laws should be applied.
We have a very low conviction rate in Canada even when the reporting of sexual violence does occur. This really leads victims to not want to report, because they often wonder why they've gone through all of this for no conviction.
Several barriers occur for victims of sexual violence in reporting. Some of these are telecommunications and transportation barriers, the significant stigma associated with sexual violence, and a huge concern surrounding confidentiality and the lack of anonymity. This is because of increased familiarity within the population. Everybody knows everybody—I know your dog, and I know your stuff. That really limits people from wanting to report.
There is a culture of victim blaming in some criminal justice communities, as well. This results in a fear of police not responding appropriately. Interrogation by police, specifically if it starts to look like the individual may not be telling the whole truth.... What happens is it can move away from interviewing and into interrogation. They're really worried about cross-examination in court and not being believed in general throughout the system.
There is a culture of acceptance and normalization of sexual violence and also a lack of protection from the person who assaulted them. In some of our areas, it takes two hours for police to get to some of our farms and remote areas. The victims do not feel protected.
The other side of it is that if they do report, however, while victim assistance or victim services could support them, that is not often seen as an option. A lot of that has to do with the dual relationships that occur in rural and remote areas. The people who are volunteering or who perhaps are employed by VA or victim services can be the abuser's family or friends. They're staff. They're volunteers. There's also social isolation in terms of the ability to actually get there or the ability for the advocate to come to them. Again, there's a fear of shame and a fear of reprisal from the community.
How do we improve our systems?
Some people, even based on the dual relationships, would still love to have a victim advocate. We need to really enforce the referral from RCMP to victim assistance programs. This needs to be open to all victims, regardless of whether the officer deems the victim to be deserving or not deserving of services or whether charges are moving forward.
Next, ensure that victims services coordinators have a strong background and an education in human services. This would bring professionalism and a level of accountability to the program. Oftentimes in rural and remote areas it's the good volunteers who are moved into coordination positions.
Also, honour the significant difference in Alberta between a victim assistance volunteer and an actual advocate. Volunteers do not advocate. They're more of a guide by your side. They'll accompany you. They'll give you a glass of water and a box of Kleenex. An advocate will actually slow down the whole process through the criminal justice system, work as an interpreter and really protect that individual's human rights. There are some models out there.
Currently in Medicine Hat we have two registered social workers embedded in the Medicine Hat Police Service. They're doing all the work from pre-reporting all the way through the system and are there to advocate for the individual. We are seeing a reduced level of secondary trauma or victimization, as well as an increased engagement in the criminal justice system. Early outcomes are very good.
As well, ensure that all rural and remote areas have sexual assault forensic kits. This is currently not the case.
Also, ensure that all officers are trained in trauma-informed caring responses. Trauma presents very much like mental health concerns. This approach, this trauma-informed approach, really changes the system and changes the approach, so that it's not “What's wrong with you?” when people come in, but “What's happened to you?”
Next, train all officers in the neurobiology of trauma. Officers often misinterpret lack of memory and evolving disclosures as lying. Victims cannot tell their story in a linear manner; it's just how trauma is stored. It's important to understand how the brain encodes trauma. This understanding will assist investigators not only in victim engagement but in fully accessing the victim's stored memory.
There are models out there that are specific to sexual violence, such as FETI. These models move away from the who, what and why and start to access those stored memories through the senses, the five senses. Brief but compassionate responses are critical at the initial contact, and knowing to back off and come back 48 hours later is actually a best practice. Again, a richer disclosure will occur.
Also, it's critical to have the RCMP at community response tables. It's resource-heavy, and we all understand that, but that's where the true integration occurs.
As well, it's important to put third party review strategies in place, such as the Philadelphia model. It's also important to train officers in the signs of vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue for themselves and to make the policing culture safe for people to treat their own experiences. Looking at the works of Françoise Mathieu and individuals like her will support that.
Last, if you want to increase reporting, increase accountability in rural and remote areas, it has to begin by believing survivors when they come forward and making it safe physically, emotionally and mentally to do so.