A quick look at the official crime statistics in Canada would have one believe that sexual assault is almost not happening here. But this is far from true. Although, in 2004, 35 women out of every 1,000 women (up from 7 out of every 1000 in 1999) were victims of sexual assault, 88 per cent women did not report the crime to the police.
Over the years, the police across Canada have taken steps to improve their sexual assault investigative practices and their treatment of victims. Some of the larger cities have established specialized sexual offence units, with officers specially trained to conduct sexual assault investigations effectively and sensitively. Most communities in British Columbia now have victim service units attached to local police stations, and many have community-based victim service programs.
In recent years, Canadian legislators have also taken significant steps over the past two decades to reform sexual assault laws to better protect victims in the courtroom.
In spite of such efforts, the reporting rate for sexual assaults has declined over the past five years. In 1999, victims (15 years and older) did not report 78 per cent of sexual assaults to police. And in 2004, the figure rose to 88 per cent. This rate is higher compared to the non-reporting rates for other violent crimes - 51 per cent for robbery and 61 per cent for physical assault.
Statistics Canada - a federal government department - is devoted exclusively to generate statistics for public education purposes and to aid in the development of policy, legislation, and programs. Statistics Canada produces reports, both on sexual assaults reported to the police, and on sexual assault victimization that is never reported to the police. (The latter information is gathered through the General Social Surveys on Victimization.) These two sources give Canadians a better picture of the true extent of sexual assault in Canada.
When victims don't report crimes to the police, the cases don't get reflected in the official crime statistics. Similarly, when reported incidents are classified as "unfounded" by police (meaning that, after an investigation, police have strong evidence that no offence actually occurred or was attempted), they are not included in the official crime statistics. Besides lack of reporting, the "unfounded" rate for sexual assault is more than double compared to other violent crimes (16 per cent compared to 7 per cent between 1991 and 2002).
Police may determine that a case is unfounded because they have evidence that the victim is lying, or that the victim is telling the truth but may not understand what constitutes a sexual assault under the Criminal Code. In several cases, the police says that the complainants sometimes get themselves into difficult situations - intimacy with men who are not their regular partners - and then allege sexual assault in order to protect themselves from repercussions.
Further, victim credibility is often the central investigative issue in a sexual assault case, a fact that is criticized by some advocates. They argue that police over-emphasize victim-generated evidence to the detriment of suspect-generated information or other "hard" evidence - such as photographs, body samples, or other crime scene evidence. Critics also point out that cases with insufficient evidence are also sometimes wrongly classified as "unfounded" when they should be classified as "founded", but "not cleared".
Equally disturbing is the low rate of "cleared" cases. Clearance rates for sexual offences, like reporting rates, have been dropping since 1995. In 2002, 27,094 sexual offences in Canada were considered by police to be "founded". Of these, 44 per cent were cleared by a charge being laid against an accused person. In another 19 per cent, a suspect was identified but, for a variety of reasons, was not charged, and 37 per cent were not cleared. For other violent offences, 50 per cent of cases were "cleared by charge" and 28 per cent were "not cleared".
Out of the few cases that make it to the court, even fewer receive convictions. The conviction rate for sexual assault is lower than for other violent offences: 38 per cent compared to 50 per cent for the years 1994-2002. Victims give a number of reasons for not reporting violent incidents to the police. The General Social Survey on Victimization -2005, says 60 per cent (about 24,000 people in 10 Canadian provinces were interviewed) said they didn't report because they dealt with the incident in another way - they talked to family or friends about it, or went for counseling or sought medical care.
Around 53 per cent felt the incident was not important enough to report; 42 per cent didn't want the police involved; 39 per cent said it was a personal matter; 29 per cent didn't think police could do anything about it; 13 per cent felt the police wouldn't help; and 13 per cent were afraid of the offender retaliating. Some justice system advocates believe that the high unfounded rate for sexual assault, combined with disrespectful treatment of victims on the part of police and the courts, discourages victims from reporting sexual assault.
Obviously, there is still a long way to go before women victims get justice.