Northwestern Ontario had a record number of reported sexual assaults in 2021, according to the Ontario Provincial Police

Provincial police say 2021 was the highest year on record for reported sexual assaults in Northwestern Ontario, and officers and community groups are changing how they respond to violence.

Around 430 sexual assaults were reported in the region last year, a 31% increase from 2020.

“It’s absolutely alarming and shocking,” said Detective Sergeant. Dayna Wellock, adding that there’s more to the picture.

“It’s not just the North West region that is seeing a significant increase from 2020 to 2021. We are seeing this increase across the province.

Wellock, who leads the Victim Response Support Unit in the North West region, said many factors are contributing to the rising numbers, including the impact of the pandemic on services and communities.

In 2017 and 2018, the number of reported sexual assaults in northwestern Ontario remained stable at around 397 cases, Wellock said.

The first eight months of the pandemic saw a general decline in reported crime in Canada, with police departments reporting criminal incidents dropping by 18%.

Wellock said reports of sexual assaults also saw a significant drop in the North West that year due to COVID-19, as many people avoided going to police stations to file reports.

Sexual assaults are more common than reported

While the number of reported sexual assault cases appears high in the North West, Wellock said the rates of unreported assaults are much higher.

An April 2019 report from the Department of Justice estimates that only 5% of victims will report an incident of sexual assault to the police.

Remote First Nations people often have to travel to other Northwestern Ontario hubs, such as Sioux Lookout or Thunder Bay, to receive support. (Radio-Canada News)

Wellock said years of work have gone into improving the response and support for victims, and she believes the high number of reported sexual assaults could be due to increased confidence in the reporting system.

“We have worked very hard, and especially in my work since 2018, to get the message out to our survivors and victims of sexual assault, that we are here to listen, we are here to take the report and we are here to take them seriously.”

Officers develop trauma-informed skills

In the North West, the Ontario Provincial Police has developed a sexual assault interview program. Wellock said officers received specialized training to interview victims with a trauma-informed approach.

In Sioux Lookout and surrounding communities, 112 sexual assaults were reported, making it the highest number in the Northwest for 2021.

Wellock said special programs have also taken place in the Sioux Lookout area to address the issue of sexual violence, including increasing engagement with community organizations and victim services.

First Step Women’s Shelter and Nahnahda-wee-ee-wayin Sioux Lookout Sexual Assault and Counseling Center are among the organizations that work on the front lines with victims of sexual assault and abuse.

Tana Troniak is Executive Director of the two facilities in Sioux Lookout, which serves as a hub for over 30 area First Nations in addition to the Town of Sioux Lookout. Almost all of her clients are Indigenous, she says.

“It’s really about working directly with our clients in a trauma-informed and harm reduction model. You really have to build trust. We serve 99% of Aboriginal people, so they need to feel that trust.

People in Remote Northern Areas Face Barriers

Troniak said people living in fly-in northern communities face particular barriers, with generational distrust of police making it harder for survivors of assault to report their experiences.

She would like to see more resources for victims of abuse in First Nations because of the distances they have to travel to receive help.

“It would be nice if nursing stations could have a nurse trained to make sexual assault kits,” she said. “If we don’t have people here at our hospital, then they are sent to Thunder Bay.”

Troniak said the approach is to meet clients where they are, and thinks that approach combined with greater harm reduction at all levels could make a difference for victims.

“Maybe it’s not individual advice. Maybe it’s about having a conversation, a cup of coffee for the first ten times and they start to trust you.”