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This February, a 20-month-long Globe investigation exposed flaws and inconsistencies in how sex-assault cases are closed as 'unfounded,' or baseless. Months later, many police forces who promised action have delivered, but not all, and not in the same way across the country. Here's what you need to know

Ava Williams reported a sexual assault to London, Ont., police in 2010. Her allegation was cleared as unfounded.

The response from police so far

Since the Unfounded investigation's debut, more than 100 police forces have announced investigations into sexual-assault cases that were deemed "unfounded." The Globe and Mail sent out an 18-question survey to 177 police forces to see what they had promised or done so far. Here are the highlights of what we found and the methodology behind it.

  • Cases: At least 100 police services launched reviews of previously closed cases, resulting in 402 unfounded sexual-assault cases being reopened.
  • Classifications: According to the survey, the police forces found 6,457 cases were misclassified, all but 109 of them designated “unfounded.” Some 19,717 unfounded cases were put under review. Some forces widened their reviews to sexual assault cases that, while not deemed unfounded, were never solved. In total, 37,272 cases were or would soon be reviewed.
  • Who’s affected: The law-enforcement agencies reviewing their unfounded policies cover some 79 per cent of Canada’s population. Fifty-one per cent of Canadians live in a community whose police service is using, planning or considering some form of case review inspired by the “Philadelphia model,” which give front-line advocates detailed access to the department’s cases. The RCMP, Canada’s largest police service, is one such force. To see what your police force is doing, go here and use the search bar at the top.
  • Who’s not affected: At several police forces in Canada, things are still status quo where unfounded policies are concerned. Thirteen services are not doing a review of their sex-assault cases, according to The Globe’s survey, while 64 services’ review status is unknown.

How The Globe’s Unfounded investigation prompted a sweeping review of how police handle sex-assault allegations

The response from government and its agencies so far

  • Statistics Canada will once again start collecting and publishing data on unfounded criminal cases.
  • The Liberal government planned to invest more than $100-million over five years to create a national strategy to prevent gender-based violence, citing the Globe’s Unfounded investigation.
  • Canada’s public safety ministers have started to lay the groundwork for a national strategy to deal with sexual-assault cases. The goal will be to lay out a common set of practices police and prosecutors should use when dealing with victims of sexual violence.

What the investigation found

The Globe's investigation looked at police forces across the country to see how often sexual assault cases were closed as "unfounded," meaning the investigator didn't think a crime had occurred. The findings upended conventional wisdom about how sexual assaults are reported to police, prosecuted and documented.

Key findings:

  • Nationally, police closed about one in five sex-assault cases as unfounded.
  • Unfounded rates varied considerably between provinces and cities, and even between cities that are close to one another. Calgary’s rate, for instance, was 12 per cent; but in Medicine Hat, Alta., it was 22 per cent.
  • The high numbers of unfounded cases weren’t being documented or published by Statistics Canada, which stopped collecting the data in the early 2000s because it was concerned police forces weren’t using the “unfounded” category consistently.
  • Despite Canada’s comparatively progressive laws on defining consent in cases involving drugs or alcohol, such cases rarely make it to court. Of the 54 people interviewed by The Globe about their experiences reporting sexual assault to police, alcohol or drugs played a role in 18 cases, about 40 per cent. Fourteen of those 18 were closed without charges.

How high is the unfounded rate for your community? Use our lookup tool below to find out.

How it was researched and reported

For its original investigation, The Globe sent 250 freedom-of-information requests to every Canadian police service. It got replies from 873 police jurisdictions, which represented about 92 per cent of Canada's population. Our journalists spent months analyzing the data and organizing it so Canadians could find out the unfounded rates in their communities. Here's more background on the methodology used.

The story behind how Unfounded was reported

The investigation also included interviews with 54 people who had reported sexual assault to the police. Thirty-six of those people agreed to share their stories publicly; you can read those profiles here.

Of the 36 people who agreed to share their stories of reporting sexual assault to police, 25 had their allegation dismissed before going to court. Eight had a positive experience reporting to police.

What experts said should be done better

The Globe's Robyn Doolittle spoke with educators, criminologists, trauma experts and lawyers who offered clear ideas about what should be done to address the issues raised by the Unfounded investigation:

  • Statistics Canada should release unfounded statistics.
  • Police forces should adopt better standardized protocols for how police should handle sex-assault cases.
  • Police should be better taught how to interview sexual-assault survivors, such as interviewing them a few days after the incident, when their memories are clearer, instead of immediately after.
  • There should be better and more consistent oversight of how police forces deal with sexual assault.

Some advocates are urging Canada to adopt the so-called Philadelphia Model, a 17-year-old initiative in which women's advocates do annual reviews of sexual-assault case files with high-ranking officers. Since adopting that model, the U.S. city has slashed its unfounded rate from 18 per cent to about 4 per cent. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has spoken highly of the model, saying at a Justice Department conference in March that "without a doubt, the Philadelphia model is one of the most exciting policing initiatives in this area."

Philadelphia's model was an attractive option to the force in North Bay, Ont., where police are closing an average of 44 per cent of sex-assault cases as unfounded. Police in the community of 59,000 devised a five-year plan to bring in criminology masters students from Nipissing University and implement a policy review. But there's a problem: The force, with fewer than 100 officers, doesn't have the money. Their challenges are emblematic of small cities across the country where unfounded rates are high.

A trauma expert assesses how one woman’s sexual assault report was handled by London police

With reports from Robyn Doolittle, Daniel Leblanc, Patrick White and The Canadian Press