Digging Deeper

ECF looks into why Edmonton has the highest reported number of sexual assaults among Canada’s six largest urban centres

It’s a Friday afternoon, and Jan Reimer, executive director of the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters, is busy preparing for a television interview. She’s gathering statistics – 17,000 women were turned away from Alberta’s women’s shelters last year; that’s up 2,000 from those turned away the previous year.

She sees the direct effects of those numbers all the time. The week prior to her TV interview, there was a mother who came with her child to one of the shelters every day, and each time, the shelter was so full they couldn’t be admitted. “There just isn’t enough room,” Reimer says, with a catch in her throat. These women have often been abused physically, emotionally and sexually, and a women’s shelter provides them with the security that a regular shelter or a friend or relative’s house can not. Sixty-six per cent of those women who took a Danger Assessment at an Alberta women’s shelter are at risk of becoming victims of homicide due to domestic violence.

It’s not just about being comfortable talking about sexual assault – it’s about understanding what constitutes assault in the first place.

Meanwhile, the numbers of reported sexual assaults are high across the country, but they are especially high in our city. Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) found through its 2014 Vital Signs Report that Edmonton has the highest number of sexual assaults when compared to any other large city in the country. In 2013, the reported sexual assault rate was 74.2 per 100,000 in Edmonton compared to 49.5 in Calgary, or 45.8 in Ottawa.

When the news airs that night, the story on the overflowing shelters is just one of many that have aired over the last few weeks that are related to the abuse of women. Just days before, in early December, another woman – one of 20 by this point – had come forward, alleging actor Bill Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her in the 1980s. Just days before that, former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi was charged with four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcome resistance. Meanwhile, two MPs were accused of sexual misconduct. And earlier in the year, a video had surfaced of former NFL player Ray Rice dragging his then-fianc (now-wife) Janay Palmer, from an elevator after physically abusing her.

But high-profile cases are just a part of the story. Edmonton has seen a rise in reports of sexual assault especially in the last few years. According to the Edmonton Police Service’s Sexual Assault Section, 337 sexual assaults were reported to their unit in 2012, and the city had exceeded that number already by November of 2014 with 374 reports.

While many have interpreted these statistics in a negative light – police chief, Rod Knecht, presumed in a CBC news report that the rise was a result of an increase in the use of GHB, the date rape drug – Reimer doesn’t agree. She believes the increase is due, at least in part, to women feeling more comfortable coming forward and reporting these crimes.

“I’m seeing conversation like I’ve never seen it before,” says Reimer who has worked for the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters for 13 years. She points out the recent twitter hashtag #Ididntreport, where women were admitting to sexual abuse that they had been too ashamed or afraid to speak of in the past. And this public discourse, she says, is changing the way we look at sexual assault. Rather than seeing it as something to hide, it’s becoming more acceptable to speak about it openly.

While the recent openness of the public to talk about these crimes is a good start, more education is needed, says Shawna Grimes, staff sergeant for the Edmonton Police Service’s (EPS) Sexual Assault Section. It’s not just about being comfortable talking about sexual assault, she says; it’s about understanding what constitutes assault in the first place.

In 2010, Sexual Assault Voices of Edmonton (SAVE) along with partners EPS and the Sexual Assault Centre launched a campaigned called “Don’t Be That Guy.” Posters were distributed, explaining what it means to have consent. In one, a woman was passed out face down on a couch with the caption: “Just because she isn’t saying no, doesn’t mean she is saying yes.” Another showed a man aggressively wrapping his hands around another man, while the words read: “It’s not sex when he changes his mind.”

The posters are wildly popular, says Grimes, with interest on an international scale. Since then, several other poster campaigns have been launched, and the campaign continues today. Grimes says these types of projects help to educate the public while opening up the lines of communication. The campaign also sought to change the way society thinks about victims. In the past, the public discourse has often revolved around what the victim has done. Did she dress inappropriately? Did she invite sexual advances? Was she drinking alcohol? “I think we need to look at who is actually doing the crime. Otherwise, we’re all going to be locked away in our houses, and even then, that’s not going to stop it,” says Grimes.

Grimes believes this cultural shift in thinking is helping to propel needed changes as are several initiatives. Many programs in the city are helping those affected by sexual abuse, and throughout the years, ECF has delivered funds towards organizations that implement such programs including those provided by the Sexual Assault Centre. The centre offers therapy along with a 24-hour crisis line for those affected by sexual abuse.

Sexual assault isn’t about sex; it’s more about control and violence, particularly when you’re dealing with a domestic violence situation

In 2012, ECF funding allowed the Sexual Assault Centre to revamp their group therapy room, where executive director, Karen Smith, says up to 400 people per year go to its sessions. The room is at the heart of the centre’s programming, which seeks to help women, men and teens who have been sexually abused. Having a calm and inviting space is incredibly important when addressing horrific experiences, including those discussed in the War Rape Therapy Program – an initiative initially started by seed money from ECF years ago – which seeks to help immigrants who have suffered from sexual abuse during times of conflict.

ECF also gave funding towards computers for the Sexual Assault Centre, which helped the organization update their out-of-date technology. Now, Smith says, clients can come in and have a safe place to research information that they may not explore in public. And the centre is thinking about ways that they can further connect with young people, potentially creating a live-chat version of the 24-hour hotline for those who need help, but may not want to connect via phone.

According to Reimer, many do not understand that sexual assault isn’t just perpetrated by strangers in back alleysas depicted in Hollywood, but that it is common within relationships. But Grimes, Reimer and Smith all agree that sexual assault and domestic violence go together. “Sexual assault isn’t about sex; it’s more about control and violence, particularly when you’re dealing with a domestic violence situation,” says Grimes. “There’s control of the money, perhaps control of friends and family, and then controlling sex is just another aspect of that. It’s a way of exerting power over someone else.”

Victims of sexual assault need a large amount of support in order to be able to heal from their experiences, and also go through the court system, which Grimes says is an extremely difficult process. “You can imagine, having to talk about it over and over to strangers in a courtroom with the person who did this to you sitting there and watching. It takes a great deal of strength to be able to do that,” says Reimer. “People have to be in a position where they can handle that mentally.”

Reimer describes her passion for her work as a “fire in her belly.” She’s always been concerned about women’s issues, and this dates back to her time as Edmonton’s mayor between 1989 and 1995. While in office, Reimer was intent to help the underdog, and one of her main focuses was ensuring that those with lower incomes had a voice. Through the Safer Cities Initiative, she also looked at issues of violence against women, initiating the start of a domestic violence joint response team. Reimer remembers a woman coming up to thank her for saving her life. “And I said: ‘Well, I haven’t done anything,'” says Reimer. “And she said: ‘Well, yes, you did because you made a program in place that’s saved my life, so thank you.’ That was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever had.”

If you, or someone you know, needs help, call the Sexual Assault Centre’s 24 hour crisis line: 780-423-4121.