Provincial police say 2021 was the highest year on record for reported sexual assaults in northwestern Ontario, and officers and community groups are changing the way they’re responding to the violence.
About 430 sexual assaults were reported in the region last year, a 31 per cent increase from 2020.
“It is alarming and jarring, absolutely,” said Det.-Staff Sgt. Dayna Wellock, adding there’s more to the picture.
“It isn’t just the northwest region with the significant increase from 2020 to 2021. We’re seeing that increase all across the province.”
Wellock, who heads the Victim Response Support Unit in the northwest region, said many factors are contributing to the higher numbers, including the impact of the pandemic on services and communities.
In 2017 and 2018, the number of sexual assaults reported in northwestern Ontario remained stable at about 397 cases, Wellock said.
The first eight months of the pandemic saw a widespread drop in reported crime across Canada, with police services reporting criminal incidents fell by 18 per cent.
Wellock said sexual assault reports also saw a major drop in the northwest that year due to COVID-19, as many people avoided coming into police stations to file reports.
Sexual assaults occur more often than reported
While the number of reported sex assault cases seem high in the northwest, Wellock said rates of unreported assaults are much higher.
An April 2019 report from the Department of Justice estimates only five per cent of victims will report a sexual assault incident to police.
Wellock said years of work has gone into improving response and support for victims, and she believes the high number of reported sexual assaults could be due to an increased trust in the reporting system.
“We’ve been working really hard, and in particular in my job since 2018, to get the message out to our survivors and victims of sexual assault, that we’re here to listen, we’re here to take the report and we’re here to take them seriously.”
Officers develop trauma informed skills
In the northwest, OPP developed a sexual assault interview program. Wellock said officers have been receiving specialized training to interview victims with a trauma-informed approach.
In Sioux Lookout and surrounding communities, 112 sexual assaults were reported, making it the highest number in the northwest for 2021.
Wellock said special programming has also taken place in the Sioux Lookout area to address the issue of sexual violence, including growing engagement with community organizations and victim services.
First Step Women’s Shelter and Nahnahda-wee-ee-wayin Sioux Lookout Sexual Assault and Counselling Centre are among organizations working on the front lines with victims of sexual abuse and assault.
Tana Troniak is executive director of both facilities in Sioux Lookout, which serves as a hub to over 30 First Nations in the region in addition to the town of Sioux Lookout. Nearly all her clients are Indigenous, she said.
“It’s really about working with our clients directly in a trauma-informed and harm-reduction model. You really need to build trust. We service 99 per cent Indigenous people, so they have to feel that trust.”
People in remote north face barriers
Troniak said people living in fly-in northern communities are especially facing barriers, with generational distrust in police making it more difficult for assault survivors to report their experiences.
She would like to see more resources for victims of abuse in First Nations because of the distances they have to travel to receive help.
“It would be nice if the nursing stations could have a nurse that was trained to do sexual assault kits,” she said. “If we don’t have people here at our hospital, then they get sent to Thunder Bay.”
Troniak said the approach is all about meeting clients where they are, and believes that approach mixed with more harm reduction across the board could be a difference maker for victims.
“Maybe it’s not one-on-one counselling. Maybe it’s having a conversation, a cup of coffee for the first ten times and they begin to trust you.”