Years before she was sworn in as Yukon’s Minister of Justice this past December, Tracy McPhee worked as a Crown attorney prosecuting sexual-assault cases.
Unfounded: The Globe investigates how police handle sexual assault cases in Canada
She has seen how difficult the offence is for police to investigate and how challenging the judicial process can be for victims. This is true everywhere, she said. But in Canada’s North, where the rates of sexual assault and violent crime are among the highest in the country, the challenges are even more acute.
Language barriers with Inuit populations, high turnover among police officers, substance-abuse issues and fewer resources compound an already fraught dynamic, where the realities of small-town living mean the personal lives of police officers, complainants, suspects and support workers are likely to intersect outside the legal process.
The Globe and Mail spent 20 months investigating how Canadian police services handle sexual-assault investigations. As part of the reporting, The Globe looked at the rate at which police dismiss sex-assault complaints as unfounded, meaning the investigating officer does not believe a crime occurred. The data showed that, on average, one out of every five sex-assault cases is classified as unfounded. But regionally, unfounded rates were notably higher in the North.
Will they believe you?find your police jurisdiction
With rates of 30 per cent and 28 per cent, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut had the second- and third-highest unfounded numbers, behind New Brunswick. In Yukon, police were dropping 25 per cent of cases as unfounded, meaning at least a quarter of sexual-assault complaints are not counted as legitimate in Canada’s territories. The numbers were even higher in the three capital cities: Yellowknife (36 per cent), Iqaluit (37 per cent) and Whitehorse (29 per cent.)
Since the Unfounded investigation, about 40 police services have committed to reviewing a combined 10,000 cases. Among those services is the RCMP, the country’s largest force and the service responsible for policing Canada’s north. Political leaders have also urged law enforcement to consider implementing new training measures that would better prepare officers for these sensitive investigations.
In the Northwest Territories legislature, Justice Minister Louis Sebert described The Globe’s findings as “very disturbing” and announced senior officers will now be involved in any decision to drop a case as unfounded.
“The police are very aware of this issue. Additional training will be provided, and hopefully the rather shocking figure … will decrease,” he said.
In Nunavut, Yvonne Niego, the Department of Justice’s assistant deputy minister, said the government will await the results of the RCMP audit before deciding next steps, including on training.
And in Yukon, Ms. McPhee called the territory’s rate “unacceptable.”
“What we know is that that initial response [with police] will absolutely impact the trajectory of a case going forward, whether the case is unfounded or ends up in an actual trial,” she said. “Rates of reporting of sexualized violence are low. ... [So] if the sexualized violence crimes that are happening in our communities aren’t being reported and then of those being reported, 25 per cent are being unfounded, that’s of serious concern.”
Inspector Archie Thompson, the RCMP detachment commander in Whitehorse, said he was surprised to learn the city’s sexual-assault unfounded rate was so high.
“We take every single file we get reported seriously and work hard to either prove or disprove it,” he said.
Inspector Thompson said the unique challenges of Whitehorse – which has just 30,000 people but is by far the largest community in Yukon and a hub for the territory – could contribute to sex-assault cases being dismissed as baseless.
“We have a lot of people living on the street. A lot of drug and alcohol abuse. In some cases, victims aren’t sure if they’ve been sexually assaulted or not,” Inspector Thompson said. “What I found, when I looked, is there are cognitive things going on, mentally challenged people making claims, it’s very clear that’s not what happened.”
But those who work with sex-assault victims say the problems with police services in the North go much deeper.
The Globe interviewed Crown attorneys, victims’ support workers, advocates, police officers and government officials about the unique challenges of reporting – and investigating – sexual assault in Canada’s North. While Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut each have unique circumstances, many of the same themes came up.
“In the North, people are a bit intimidated by police. There are cultural factors. Most of the cops are southern Canadians who come up for a few years,” said a Crown who works in one of the territories and was not authorized to speak on the record.
The prosecutor said some Inuit complainants have trouble communicating with English-speaking officers. Inuktitut is widely spoken in both Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Sometimes, police will rely on family members to translate, which can lead victims to withhold details they find embarrassing. In other cases, the interview may be conducted in English, but nuances are lost.
Another Crown said police training and experience can be a problem.
“Many of the officers are junior officers. It’s not a long-term posting for most RCMP officers,” the Crown said. “Some of the detachments can be two or three or four RCMP officers. … There are no specialized sex-assault units nor are there specialized or designated sex-assault investigators.”
Julie Green, the MLA for Yellowknife Centre in the Northwest Territories, said even though the territory is small, she would like a specialized sex-assault unit and new training. She has asked the territory’s Justice Minister to provide specifics on what type of training is under consideration and what the government plans to do with the results of the unfounded-case audit.
Some problems in Northern communities are always going to exist, Ms. Green said. Not every place has a police detachment. Law enforcement is flown in on a scheduled basis, which makes reporting more challenging. Some communities are isolated and not accessible by roads. And in general, the NWT’s small population means fewer services are available.
Ms. Niego, who was an RCMP officer for 25 years before she joined Nunavut’s Department of Justice, said it can take time for officers to become familiar with life in the territory.
“There’s a lot of overcrowded housing in Nunavut, so multiple people will sleep in one room, and not every officer will understand that unless they’ve lived [here],” said Ms. Niego, who grew up in Nunavut and worked in the territory for much of her career. “Even that most officers in Nunavut are male and a lot of victims are young females: It can be very intimidating having someone from another culture, who is a male, question you.”
The other consequence of living in an isolated town, she added, is that victims may be reluctant to move forward.
“We’re dealing with only so many families in a community of say, 500. … The person implicated, their family and their relatives, [the victim has] to deal with them in years to come,” she said. “There’s always a bit of a reluctance to enter into that court process.”
And in the North, where officers typically live in the communities they are policing, the odds are high that the personal lives of the suspect, complainant and investigating officer are going to overlap.
This was Jenna Stehelin’s experience after she reported her ex-boyfriend for sexual assault to Whitehorse RCMP in the summer of 2014.
Every Thursday evening, Ms. Stehelin said, she would see one of the RCMP investigating officers at her son’s soccer game. He apparently also had a child in the league. It was a constant reminder of the thing Ms. Stehelin spent much of her energy trying not to think about.
After she went to police, Ms. Stehelin said, her life changed entirely. It seemed everyone she knew had heard about what happened. And as the story made its way through her social circles, it became distorted, she said. She found herself avoiding certain areas and restaurants.
“I would see my [my ex-boyfriend’s] friends in town. There are places I can’t go now. … People you’ve known for years stop talking to you,” she said.
One of the most commonly cited challenges that is unique to Northern communities is the high turnover rate within a police force. Every year in Yukon, for example, about 15 per cent of the territory’s police rotate out. Barbara McInerney, executive director of Yukon Women’s Transition Home Society, said it can feel as if, just when police and advocates are starting to make progress, the officers leave and a new batch shows up.
“You get new people that don’t understand maybe the Indigenous culture, the services – or lack of services – that are in the community,” she said.
Ms. McInerney said that, for the Indigenous population, trust is built over time, and the process needs to start all over with new people.
Lack of trust was a common theme in the report Sharing Common Ground: Review of Yukon’s Police Force, a joint initiative between the RCMP, Yukon’s Department of Justice and the Council of Yukon First Nations that was completed in 2010. During that review, Indigenous leaders and women’s groups expressed concern that the RCMP were not taking victims of sexual assault and domestic violence seriously.
In response, Yukon RCMP implemented new initiatives, Inspector Thompson said, including the creation of the Specialized Response Unit to handle sexual-assault cases (and other serious crimes). Yukon also has a program for victims of sexual assault to report an incident through an advocacy group should they not want to interact with police directly.
The inspector said the force will wait for the results of the RCMP audit before determining what training, if any, is needed.
“I’d be very interested in the results of the audit. If there’s gaps identified, I’d certainly be interested in providing training to address those gaps,” he said.
For complainants such as Ms. Stehelin, the resistance to concede immediately that big changes are needed is worrisome.
“The attitude of the RCMP is contributing to the problem. If they don’t believe there’s a problem, then there’s no way that we’re going to come to a resolution.”
Ms. Stehelin, who is now 32, reported her ex-boyfriend three years after Sharing Common Ground was released. Ms. Stehelin’s allegation was not classified as unfounded, but she says her experience with the RCMP was frustrating nevertheless, particularly when it came to the understanding about how sexual-assault victims deal with trauma.
The first time she spoke with police, they tried to interview her in the room set aside to interrogate suspects rather than the lounge across the hall, which had a couch, coffee table and plants, she said. (Trauma experts say police should try to speak with complainants in “soft” spaces, because it will help them feel more at ease, rather than like they are on trial.)
Ms. Stehelin said she felt police did not understand the power dynamics of an abusive relationship and were openly frustrated if she and her ex-boyfriend had contact.
The RCMP charged the man with two counts of sexual assault, two counts of assault, obstruction of justice and intimidation for “provok[ing] a state of fear,” court records show. But the Crown stayed the charges in February, 2016, after Ms. Stehelin withdrew from the process. She said she felt in danger if she continued.
After that, Ms. Stehelin said, she has had trouble being taken seriously by the city’s police. (She has since reported her ex-boyfriend to Whitehorse RCMP in connection with other incidents stemming from conditions that her ex-boyfriend is not supposed to contact her).
And especially in a small town, she said, “when the RCMP fails to act, it creates doubt. People begin to question your story.”
Robyn Doolittle is a reporter with The Globe and Mail’s investigative team.
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