Over 5,000 sexual assault cases in Canada are deemed “unfounded” every year

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Quebec City prosecutors have decided that when MNA Gerry Sklavounos had sexual contact with restaurant hostess Alice Paquet in 2014, it was consensual. They weren’t there, of course, and proving consent in the absence of eyewitnesses or recordings is impossible, yet that’s the conclusion prosecutors seemingly drew when they decided last week that, based on an investigation by Quebec City police, no crime had been committed and Paquet’s allegation of sexual assault would go no further.

Unlike prosecutors in the Val d’Or complaints against police, they weren’t saying they could not prove a crime had been committed, but that there was, in fact, no crime. In the language of police services across the country, the Paquet case was determined to be “unfounded,” as are more than 5,000 cases a year representing 19.39 per cent of all sexual assault complaints filed in Canada.

A 20-month investigation by a team of reporters at the Globe and Mail reveals a staggering number of sexual assault cases are killed even before they get to prosecutors, with “unfounded” rates that are twice as high as physical assault cases (10.84 per cent), “and dramatically higher than that of other types of crime.”

Yet the rates vary considerably across the country, reflecting very different training, attitudes and approaches to sexual assault complaints. According to the Globe — based on figures obtained through access-to-information requests to 873 police jurisdictions representing 92 per cent of the population — 51 per cent of allegation made in Saint John, N.B. were deemed baseless by police, for example, compared to 18 per cent in Montreal, 7 per cent in Toronto and 2 per cent in Winnipeg.

The figures reveal seemingly inexplicable differences from city to city, with the suburban York Region, which borders Toronto, showing an “unfounded” rate of 31 per cent, more than four times higher than its close neighbour.

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Surely no one believes that people living in the York Region are 15 times more likely to lie about sexual assault than a Winnipegger, yet that’s precisely what our severely flawed system suggests is happening. It’s a lot more probable that investigators of sexual assault cases in York are 15 times more likely to dismiss alleged victims than Winnipeg police because of differences in attitudes, training, policy and departmental culture. Evidence of that can be found in cities like Ottawa and Toronto, where changes in rules and training were effective in reducing the unfounded rate, in Ottawa’s case going from 38 per cent to 12 per cent in just two years.

Staff Sgt. Angela McDade, the recently retired head of the Ottawa police sexual assault and child abuse unit, told the Globe that officers often used the designation incorrectly, including in cases where the complainant withdrew the allegation or refused to testify. Now, she told the paper, “supervisors are reviewing the cases as they’re submitted. Plus, there’s the education to the officers saying, ‘You know what, you cannot clear (cases) as unfounded unless you’re certain that no violation of the law took place.’ That’s why you have such a drastic change in our statistics. … We’ve come a long way over the last few years.”

The effect of an inappropriate “unfounded” designation isn’t limited to the false impression it creates in statistical portraits, it has a very real impact on the lives of complainants. In addition to the psychological blow of being told that police investigators don’t believe you — not that the assault can’t be proven but that it never happened — is the virtual assurance that the case will likely never be re-opened. In Quebec, the “unfounded” designation also means that the complainants can be considered ineligible for assistance from the province’s Crime Victims Compensation Act, which is intended to help pay for medical care, including psychological counselling.

By deeming Paquet’s complaint to be unfounded, Quebec prosecutors are saying that no crime occurred, meaning either there was no “physical contact of a sexual nature” or that the contact occurred with Paquet’s consent. As Ottawa’s McDade put it, such a determination should occur only when “you’re certain that no violation of the law took place.”

Quebec prosecutors owe the public an explanation for how they came to such a certain conclusion in the Paquet case, and in light of the Globe and Mail investigation, the province needs to undertake a thorough review of how police handle sexual assault files throughout the province. Why, for example is the Montreal “unfounded” rate twice as high as Longueuil’s and nearly three times Toronto’s?

Confidence of the victims of sexual assault in the ability of the legal system to render justice has always been weak, but whatever progress that has been made in the last 30 years is being severely eroded by prominent failures like the Jian Ghomeshi trial, the lack of charges in Val d’Or and the handling of the Paquet case.

Unless Quebec commits itself to seeking solutions both at home and through federal legislation, the crisis of confidence can only get worse. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.

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