Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government is prepared to play a key role addressing issues around how institutions deal with victims of sexual assault, as police services across the country announce reviews into how such cases are handled in the wake of a Globe and Mail investigation.
On Monday, the chiefs of two Canadian police services – one of the largest in the country and one of the smallest – became the latest forces to commit to reviewing sexual-assault cases that have been dismissed as "unfounded" – or baseless – in recent years.
Speaking to reporters after appearing in front of a Senate committee, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said he saw the Unfounded series as a call to ensure that the national police force adopts and consistently enforces the best possible practices in dealing with complaints of sexual violence.
"We have very developed policies with respect to how we assess evidence, how we collect evidence and we have to make sure that our practices in those same respects are being overseen and applied similarly, because it all turns on evidence and doesn't turn on opinion," he said.
Meanwhile, the chief of Ontario's London Police Service issued a formal apology "to any victims whose experiences left them feeling that they were not supported or that may have eroded their trust in this police service in any way." Chief John Pare has already said that his service will be going back over more than 690 unfounded sexual-assault cases, after The Globe revealed the force was dismissing about a third of allegations as unfounded, which is well above the national average.
A 20-month Globe and Mail investigation has revealed that Canadian police services are dropping one out of every five sexual-assault cases as unfounded, a term that means the investigating officer does not believe a crime occurred. Once a case is deemed unfounded, it is no longer considered a valid allegation. It is not reflected in local or national statistics and is not reported to Statistics Canada. Using data collected from 873 police jurisdictions across the country, The Globe found Canada's unfounded rate for sexual assault is nearly twice as high as the rate for physical assault and that the numbers swing wildly from city to city. In total, 115 communities were found to be dismissing at least a third of all sexual assault complaints as unfounded.
On Monday, the Prime Minister acknowledged more needs to be done in wake of the series, saying it would prompt further action from his government.
"Sexual violence, sexual assault, is still far too prevalent, not just on campuses but in workplaces and in communities across the country," Mr. Trudeau said at a question-and-answer session with university students. "As we've seen from the excellent bit of very deep investigative reporting The Globe and Mail has just put out, it is still not taken seriously enough by our society."
The Prime Minister said that his government will "do more," while adding that all levels of government and civil society are part of the solution.
"I have tasked our Status of Women Minister to engage with this as a broad topic, understanding that there is no one thing we can do that is going to flip the switch on this, that there are so many factors that go into violence against women in general in society," he said. "We know that any solution will have to be complex and come at from all sides."
The Conservative Party raised The Globe's investigation at the top of Question Period on Monday, with interim leader Rona Ambrose calling on the government to ensure that all front-line Mounties help victims to pursue justice.
"Over the weekend, research revealed that when a woman or girl is raped in this country, their chances of being believed or being able to pursue justice is inadequate," Ms. Ambrose said. "I volunteered at a rape crisis centre, and I can tell you that one of the most difficult decisions a woman makes is whether or not to go to the police, and we need to make that decision easier."
One of the most striking revelations to come out of The Globe's review was that communities located in the same area with similar demographics recorded dramatically different unfounded statistics. For example, the Toronto police force's unfounded rate was just 7 per cent, but next door in Halton Region – a jurisdiction with nearly 550,000 residents that encompasses the cities of Oakville and Burlington – the unfounded rate was 30 per cent.
Halton Regional Police Service Chief Stephen Tanner issued a statement on Monday promising to review all unfounded sexual-assault reports, beginning with 2016. (The Globe reviewed data from 2010 to 2014. On average, the Halton police dropped 64 cases as unfounded each year.)
"The Halton Regional Police Service views all sexual-assault occurrences as extremely important … There are a variety of reasons that an incident that has been reported to police may be cleared as unfounded. The reasons may vary from being as simple as an incident being improperly classified in the beginning to the investigation showing that the incident did not occur," he said, adding that the results of the review would be made public.
In British Columbia, the Central Saanich police department presented one of the highest unfounded rates in the country at 60 per cent, although the service is also one of the smallest. There are only 16,500 people in the police jurisdiction and in the time frame reviewed by The Globe, there were only 25 allegations of sexual assault, 15 of which were deemed unfounded.
"It's really damaging obviously to the ability for people to feel that they can trust the police," Chief Les Sylven told The Globe, noting that the sample size was small.
His service has already gone back and looked through each unfounded case. In four instances, he said, complainants later recanted their allegation. In six others, cases that were determined not to be strong enough to take to court – but which were legitimate sexual assault allegations – had been improperly coded as unfounded.
"That is our learning. We clicked the 'UF' on the drop-down box instead of the 'founded not cleared' one," he said.
In the five other cases, Mr. Sylven said two ended up not being sexual assaults and three came in as a third-party call.