According to Statistics Canada, nearly 40 per cent of sexual assaults reported to Kelowna RCMP were deemed “unfounded” in 2018. That number is more than double the 15 per cent average across the province and dwarfs the under-5-per cent averages in Vancouver and Victoria. (Michael Rodriguez - Kelowna Capital News)

According to Statistics Canada, nearly 40 per cent of sexual assaults reported to Kelowna RCMP were deemed “unfounded” in 2018. That number is more than double the 15 per cent average across the province and dwarfs the under-5-per cent averages in Vancouver and Victoria. (Michael Rodriguez - Kelowna Capital News)

‘Steeped in rape culture’: Sexual assault survivor speaks out against Kelowna RCMP

‘I can’t imagine being a fresh survivor and having to deal with them’

Heather was 15 years old when she was gang-raped.

For more than 30 years, she lived with the shame and anger of her trauma until she finally decided to report it to the Kelowna RCMP when she was 48 years old.

A year later, she was told by investigators that there wasn’t enough evidence and her case was closed, leaving her with more questions than answers and a sense of betrayal by those who are supposed to serve and protect.

Her experience with the police, like so many others in Kelowna, appears to be a common story many survivors of sexual assault have encountered.

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According to Statistics Canada, nearly 40 per cent of sexual assaults reported to Kelowna RCMP were deemed “unfounded” in 2018.

That number is more than double the 15 per cent average across the province and dwarfs the under five per cent averages in Vancouver and Victoria.

The alarming statistic represents 35 victims in Kelowna who claimed they were sexually assaulted but were never able to find justice.

Heather is one of those victims.

“Kelowna has a problem,” she said. “There is no such thing as justice in this city for survivors and victims of sexual assault.”

Heather, whose last name the Capital News has agreed to keep anonymous, was in Grade 10 at a party with some friends on spring break when she was allegedly gang-raped.

While she’s not sure if she was drugged, she said it was at that party in April 1986, where she was found unconscious and barricaded in a room with three of her classmates who sexually assaulted her.

“The last thing I remember was sitting on the couch drinking,” Heather said. “Rumours are that I was drugged.”

Heather said when she woke up the next day, she was “sore everywhere,” and she “just knew” she had been assaulted.

Upon returning to school the following Monday, she had been deemed a “slut” by her classmates.

It took Heather’s friends — whom she now refers to using air quotes — 32 years to tell her the names of two of the alleged culprits, allowing her to file a police report with the RCMP in September 2018.

She said her “friends” wouldn’t divulge the name of the third culprit.

According to Heather, the RCMP’s initial investigation was limited to a single phone call, which was made to the wrong person with the same name as her assailant.

“He denied knowing me. They closed the case,” said Heather, reliving the frustration she felt.

Feeling unheard, she decided to go up the chain of command.

“I spoke with someone who knows how to fight the RCMP,” she said.

“He did some digging and he found out that they had just randomly phoned some guy with the same name.”

After demanding a more thorough investigation, Heather said the RCMP made two additional phone calls to both of the men she accused, only for them to deny the allegations and the case to be closed in August 2019 — less than a year after it was opened.

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Adding insult to injury, to this day, Heather said she is still seen as a slut by her classmates and feels betrayed by those she called her friends and classmates.

She even wrote a letter to them explaining the pain she felt when they looked the other way the day she needed them most.

“I did not have a good time. I did not deserve what those boys did to me, but more than that, I did not deserve what you all did to me after. I was raped and you all either covered it up or created a narrative where I was a slut and liked it,” reads an excerpt from the letter she wrote to her classmates entitled Happy 30th Reunion.

Still raw from her embittered battle with law enforcement, Heather said there were times she could’ve screamed at the officers handling her case.

“I tried so f—king hard to keep it together when I reported,” she said.

At one point, during what she described as a very intimidating reporting process, Heather said she was asked whether or not she consented.

“I was 15 and I was unconscious. How would I have consented?” She said.

“I walked into that office and I’d had 32 years to resolve my trauma…I can’t imagine being a fresh survivor and having to deal with them.”

According to Heather, the RCMP is “steeped in rape culture” and systemic change is needed in the way sexual assault cases are handled, adding she wasn’t surprised 40 per cent of sexual assault cases in 2018 were deemed “unfounded” by the RCMP in Kelowna.

“We need proper sexual assault investigators in this city and we need cops who understand what rape culture is and how they’re contributing to it,” said Heather.

She slammed the police force for its poor training practices and described the current situation as an “epidemic.”

“We need proper training; we need to hire better RCMP officers to begin with…they need to be empathetic and they need to care about this epidemic because it is an epidemic.”

Michelle Novakowski, executive director for the Central Okanagan Elizabeth Fry Society, agreed that more training needs to be given to police officers handling sensitive crimes, however, she said RCMP officers are still human and fallible.

“While we do hold police to a higher standard, they’re still part of our culture and there are a lot of myths around sexual assault,” she said.

She cited familiar tropes such as “women ask for it” or “she shouldn’t have been drinking” as unfortunate myths that are still perpetuated in society that place the blame on victims instead of putting the blame on the assailants.

“Those come out when somebody reports a sexual assault,” she said.

Novakowski said the Elizabeth Fry Society has been working with the RCMP for a couple of years on developing a trauma-informed practice, but says more work still needs to be done.

The RCMP declined an interview request, but in a statement said the investigation into Heather’s case was concluded because the evidence did not meet the threshold to lay a charge.

That threshold, according to RCMP, is set out by the attorney general and must include the “substantial likelihood of conviction.”

“We the RCMP know that sexual assault is a devastating crime that has traumatic and long-lasting effects on victims,” read the statement.

“Moreover, a poor experience with police investigators can bring more trauma to victims and discourage others from reporting these crimes.

“We are committed to strengthening police training and awareness, investigative accountability, victim support and public education and communication.”

The RCMP said it is committed to ensuring sexual assault survivors feel comfortable coming forward.

“We want to ensure that all survivors of sexual assault feel comfortable bringing their allegations to the RCMP, receive the same standard of care regardless of jurisdiction, and trust investigators to thoroughly and professionally investigate these crimes,” said the RCMP statement.

While those words might bring comfort to some sexual assault survivors, for Heather, it’s too little, too late.

“Kelowna is an incredibly toxic city when it comes to this stuff. It hasn’t changed since I was 15.”


@michaelrdrguez
michael.rodriguez@kelownacapnews.com

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