Canada's public safety ministers have started to lay the groundwork for a national strategy to deal with sexual-assault cases, to ensure police and prosecutors use a common set of practices in dealing with victims of sexual violence, The Globe and Mail has learned. The matter is expected to be discussed at the next meeting of federal, provincial and territorial ministers of public safety later this year to develop a "pan-Canadian approach," a federal official said.
Governments and police forces across Canada are taking steps to improve their handling of sexual-assault cases after The Globe revealed a patchwork approach among police forces and a surprisingly high number of files that are classified as "unfounded" in certain jurisdictions. "Unfounded" indicates the investigating officer does not believe a crime was attempted or occurred.
In response, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson has announced that he has given his regional commanders until mid-April to review all cases that were closed in this fashion last year.
For near two years a team of Globe journalists, including investigative reporter Robyn Doolittle, dug into the figures and the people behind alleged sexual assault cases which police can deem "unfounded.'
The RCMP will also look at a sample of older cases as it joins a number of other police forces in reviewing files to see whether they were mishandled or reveal systemic problems in the handling of sexual-assault complaints.
Commissioner Paulson told The Globe on Thursday the RCMP would undertake the review.
"We directed that each [commanding officer] would review their unfounded sex-assault cases for compliance with our policy and the reasonableness and propriety of decision-making having regard for the evidence," Commissioner Paulson said Thursday morning.
The RCMP expect that the review will take about two months, at which point the force will consider "further policy updates and/or training" to improve its practices, said spokeswoman Julie Gagnon.
A Globe analysis of data from more than 870 police jurisdictions found that investigators dismiss one out of every five sex-assault claims as unfounded.
When an allegation is designated as unfounded, it is not reflected in any local or national statistical records.
Across 467 communities nationwide policed by RCMP detachments, the force had an unfounded rate of 17 per cent, slightly better than the national average of 19 per cent. But at least 77 of those jurisdictions posted unfounded rates topping 30 per cent. In all, Globe data requests for 140 RCMP jurisdictions remain outstanding.
Independent research from around the world suggests the actual rate of false reports lies somewhere between 2 and 8 per cent.
Earlier this week, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale called on police investigators and Crown prosecutors "to re-examine all of their approaches, all of their procedures, all of the ways that cases are managed, that investigations are conducted to make sure that we fix this problem and that our criminal justice system is delivering justice to those who in these circumstances have been so brutally victimized."
On Thursday, the Ontario government chimed in on the need for police forces to review their policies and procedures to deal with sexual-assault cases.
"I echo his message and ask that all police services boards and chiefs of police in Ontario begin similar reviews of the way sexual-assault cases are handled, including policies and procedures at the local level," said Marie-France Lalonde, Ontario's Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services.
On Thursday, two Quebec municipal services, Sécurité publique MRC des Collines-de-l'Outaouais and Le Service de police de Terrebonne, told The Globe that they would not be taking any action with respect to their handling of sex-assault cases as they have not received direction to do so from the province's Ministry of Public Security.
In Ontario, Kingston, Sudbury, North Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, police services have announced reviews, bringing the total number of services completing a review to at least 29.
Meanwhile, the federal government is preparing to announce a new strategy on gender-based violence in Canada that will include better data collection and more long-term funding for community groups.
"We know that gender-based violence is completely unacceptable and we are committed to ensuring that women and girls can live free from all forms of violence. In the coming weeks, we will be releasing the federal strategy to address and prevent gender-based violence," said Matthew Pascuzzo, a spokesman for Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef.
Speaking in Washington, Finance Minister Bill Morneau suggested that he will ensure there will be appropriate funding for the new strategy.
"We want to make sure that our system deals with victims of violence and sexual violence," Mr. Morneau said. "And my ongoing job will be to make sure that we're resourced for that challenge."
With reports from Adrian Morrow in Washington and Robyn Doolittle in Toronto
Have you reported a sexual assault to the police? If you would be willing to share your experience with The Globe and Mail, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Ava reported a sexual assault to police in 2010 while in her first year of university. The investigation did not go as she hoped. Six years later she requested access to her police file and received her documents, including a video taped police interview.
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