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2021 saw a record number of sexual assaults in Northwestern Ontario (2 Photos)

The OPP Victim Response Support Unit is encouraging people to file reports.

THUNDER BAY — Ontario Provincial Police investigated a record number of sexual assaults in Northwestern Ontario last year.

From Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2021, OPP received reports of 429 sexual assaults.

This is a 31 per cent increase from 2020.

OPP released a breakdown of reported incidents by detachment:

  • Thunder Bay - 24 (excludes incidents reported to Thunder Bay Police Service)
  • Sioux Lookout  -112
  • Dryden - 26 (excludes incidents reported to Dryden Police Service)
  • Rainy River - 51
  • Greenstone - 41
  • Kenora - 85
  • Marathon - 18
  • Nipigon - 14
  • Red Lake - 58

According to a 2019 report from the federal Department of Justice, it's estimated that only five per cent of victims will report a sexual assault to police.

The most frequent reasons for not reporting were that the victims felt they would not be believed, felt ashamed or embarrassed, did not realize the could report the abuse, or had no family support.

The OPP Victim Response Support Unit (VRSU), located in each of five regions across the province, provides guidance to police officers to ensure sexual assault investigations achieve the best possible outcomes for victims.

It was formed in 2018 after a review of 5,322 sexual assault cases that had been closed found that 1,859 of them could have been cleared using a classification other than "unfounded."

Twelve of these cases were then reopened, resulting in two convictions.

Detective Staff Sergeant Dayna Wellock leads the VRSU in the Northwest Region.

She said the increase in sexual assault complaints last year followed a province-wide trend.

Wellock believes it's connected partly to the relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions in the latter part of the year.

"The trends were down for the most part for crime in general, even in the world of sexual assaults. Then people being able to come out the latter half of 2021, you see the reflection of more social contact, but also more of an ability to come forward to police and report," she said Thursday in an interview.

"I like to think a lot of the increase [in reports] is due to our very intense efforts to try and get the message out to victims and survivors that we want to hear from them. We want to talk to them. We want to know what happened to them and help them."

The VRSU also works with partners such as victims' services organizations to ensure sexual assault victims are more comfortable about filing a complaint.

In addition, a regional collaborative review committee randomly takes a closer look at sexual assault cases where complaints failed to lead to charges.

Victims' assistance services and other regional partners participate in monthly meetings "to make sure the investigation was done completely and thoroughly, and to inform about police training."

Wellock said one of the outcomes of these meetings was a decision to establish a Sexual Assault Interview Program.

Uniform members as well as OPP Crime Unit members can apply.

They self-identify, and are given special trauma-informed training for taking statements from victims in addition to the general training all officers receive.

Participating officers also receive feedback on statements.

"They want to do these cases, and so what you will find is that they are a very kind, caring, compassionate group of officers. They're absolutely amazing. We have 45 throughout our region," Wellock said.

Generally, anyone walking into an OPP detachment in the Northwest to report a sexual assault will sit down with one of these interviewers.

Wellock said the OPP encourages all victims and survivors to visit, a website that contains region-specific information on victims' services and supports.

The information on the site is also translated into Oji-Cree for the benefit of victims from First Nations.

Gary Rinne

About the Author: Gary Rinne

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Gary started part-time at Tbnewswatch in 2016 after retiring from the CBC
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