Graphic by Austin Willis, originally produced for the Martlet
“About 40 people accused the RCMP doctor of assault, but Halifax police say they didn’t find evidence to support charges against him.”¹
“Conservative MPs are demanding to know why the Correctional Service of Canada waited three months to call police after learning of assault allegations at a prison in Nova Scotia.”²
“…sex offender and assessed psychopath was released from a British Columbia prison in 2017, not a single halfway house in the province would take him…Watts ‘presents a deeply disturbing case profile.’…The 58-year-old long-term offender was flown to Nova Scotia… In recent months, he’s been spotted riding his bike and taking the bus during the two hours a day he’s reportedly allowed out…”³
“CTV News has learned more about a high-risk sex offender who got away from a halfway house in Dartmouth on Sunday. Joshua James Turner is wrapping up a lengthy sentence for sexual assault using force. It wasn’t his first offence — and it also apparently wasn’t his first escape.”⁴
Heightened awareness about sexualized violence has led to a broader community understanding of systemic and institutional responsibility and failure to prevent and address sexualized violence, hold perpetrators accountable and support survivors. These recent high-profile cases have many people examining the systemic failure to prevent the perpetration of sexualized abuse/assault.
Do laws and institutions do enough to hold sexual offenders accountable, support them from re-offending, and protect victims and the public from sexual predators? Are we even viewing the issue of sexualized violence from the right lens? Currently the Federal government is amending consent laws, and the proposed amendments still focus on a potential victim’s capacity to consent and understand risk, without taking into account perpetrator-related factors such as intent, the power of coercion, and predatory behaviour. Cases like R. vs. Al-Rawi highlight the problems of focusing on legal capacity to consent without considering factors relating to the perpetrator’s behaviour. Sexual assault is a choice; it is a deliberate action.
Cases of doctors investigated for sexual assault against police and RCMP officers have resulted in charges not being laid. In Halifax, investigators found no evidence the touching had “a sexual purpose.” Sexualized violence is not about sex, yet we continue to measure criminality from a determination of whether the victim could provide consent or, in this situation, whether the intent of the action was sexual. Sexual assault is about power and control, not sex. Even when consent is more legitimately a focus, rarely do we see any consideration of how power impacts consent, or how survivors experience trauma.
Recent news about two men deemed dangerous sexual offenders being held at a local facility which allows unsupervised access to the community also raises questions about the measures available to ensure public safety and to mitigate the risk of re-offending. There is documented concern about their risk to re-offend, and both are violent. One briefly escaped custody this past weekend. These incidents create a climate of fear and mistrust of the legal process.
These are just the most recent cases in which survivors and communities have been failed, but sadly news like this is still a regular occurrence, demonstrating the limitations of the legal system to effectively address sexual assault as a crime. The cases of the RCMP doctors as well as the investigation at the Nova Institute for Women into sexual assault by a guard against incarcerated women both highlight that sexualized violence is not an isolated or individual crime: there is a broader institutional and systemic responsibility for accountability and safety. We need to examine how we understand risk and how consent cannot be the only factor we use to determine if sexual assault occurred: we need to also consider power and control, marginalization and offender behaviour, in order to ensure survivors have meaningful access to justice.
¹ CBC News with files from Elizabeth Chiu, May 28
² Canadian Press, Kristy Kirkup, May 28
³ CBC News, Richard Cuthbertson, May 28
⁴ CTV Atlantic with files from Bruce Frisko, May 27