Alberta launches first Sexual Violence Action Plan, aimed at changing attitudes about assault
Plan developed by sexual assault centres touted as the first of its kind in Western Canada.
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When Dara Sutton braved a court full of strangers, includling the man who sexually assaulted her, she felt powerless.
“You have to stand in front of, often men, and tell them what has happened. And then someone else, the defence counsel, then comes to you and tries to dismantle what you remember,” she said, of the experience six years ago.
“You’re asked very poignant questions and you must answer them as such, and you’re interrupted, and they intentionally confuse you. So it is an incredibly violating experience.”
Sutton was told the best she could hope for was a peace bond. In the end, her offender walked free.
Sutton now helps other sexual assault survivors as a member of the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services (AASAS), which unveiled Alberta’s first Sexual Violence Action Plan with backing from the provincial Status of Women Ministry Thursday.
The strategy is led by sexual assault centres and aims to transform attitudes on sexual assault and expand accessible treatment for survivors and perpetrators, with the ultimate goal of preventing sexual violence from happening in the first place.
Part of that entails educating students, police officers and judges.
Sutton hopes the plan sets wheels in motion so survivors don’t have the same disheartening experience with speaking out.
“I believe once you know more, you do better,” Sutton said.
Brad Cunningham with AASAS shared a similarly difficult court experience.
He was sexually abused by his uncle at age 11 and kept it secret for years, until his brother came to his house when they were both adults and told him he was also abused.
It turned out several of their cousins had the same experience.
The men took his uncle to court, only to have the judge give him 23 months of house arrest, during which the offender was still allowed to leave the house for work.
“(Speaking out) is hard on the victim, it is hard on the victim’s family, it is very hard on the community,” Cunningham said.
In recent weeks, the government has passed a law to give survivors more time to bring claims forward, legislated to allow survivors of domestic violence to break their lease, developed resource cards for police to give to people who report sexual violence, funded an educational play about consent, and funded grants for training of provincial court judges around sexual assault.
The Alberta Sexual Violence Action Plan has four main components:
Prevention: AASAS CEO Debra Tomlinson says sexual assault prevention education is needed across all ages and in all communities. “Every Albertan needs to be able to recognize sexual violence, to understand that it’s a crime, and to know where to go for help,” she said.
Intervention: Crisis response, counseling, police and court support all need improvement, Tomlinson said. Survivors are reaching out for help like never before, and she said demands need to be met, noting “large regional gaps” are present in rural areas.
Outreach: Getting help is especially difficult for marginalized people, who are also at greater risk of sexual violence, Tomlinson said, and services need to be accessible to everyone.
Leadership: Tomlinson said governments, businesses and community members all need to play a role. “Everyone is responsible for being part of the solution.”