Local MLA Jordan Sturdy and the Whistler RCMP are echoing recent calls from a frontline worker to expand services for victims of sexual violence throughout the Sea to Sky.
"Certainly, I support expanded access to these forensic (rape test) kits and for services throughout the corridor, and I wouldn't just limit that to Whistler," said West Vancouver-Sea to Sky MLA Sturdy. "There is a need for these services in other parts of the region in a culturally appropriate and sensitive way as well."
In an interview earlier this month, Shannon Cooley Herdman, the Howe Sound Women's Centre's sexual assault response coordinator, said the lack of forensic rape examination kits and other round-the-clock support services is adding unnecessary barriers to victims of sexual violence in Whistler and across the corridor.
"To me, it shows that the smooth path to participating in the (justice) system isn't there and we need to do better," Herdman said.
Currently, victims of sexual assault who choose to pursue a forensic examination can access the kits at Squamish General Hospital between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Otherwise, they can travel to the Lower Mainland to have an exam administered. And although there is a seven-day window following an assault to carry out the test, the drive to Squamish or further is another hurdle, explained Whistler RCMP Const. Bev Baker.
"There's a reluctance when sometimes people just can't make that trip due to their own personal circumstances, work commitments and life commitments," she said. "Ideally, we would have the services available locally so we wouldn't have to transport people out of their communities."
Sturdy said he would continue to lobby B.C.'s Ministry of Justice — responsible for doling out funding for the kits to regional health authorities — to expand their availability in the Sea to Sky, where the sexual assault rate is three times higher than the nearby urban centres of Richmond and the North Shore, according to the most recently available data. He said he's also been in discussion with local police and other agencies about "how we can provide these services more broadly in a cost-effective way" — particularly in isolated rural areas — "with the ultimate goal of having more successful prosecutions."
In February, the Globe and Mail published the results of a 20-month-long investigation into how police agencies across the country handle allegations of sexual violence. It found that one in four sexual assaults reported to Whistler RCMP from 2010 to 2014 were dismissed as unfounded, meaning investigators determined that no crime occurred. Whistler's 25-per-cent unfounded rate was higher than the national average of 19 per cent, as well as the neighbouring jurisdictions of Squamish and Pemberton.
"We've started looking at sex assaults and how they're handled because it's obviously a serious offence and one that we need to make sure gets handled correctly," said Baker, who added that local police are trained to know how to respond to traumatized victims. "We want to do everything we can to ensure our public is safe here in Whistler and our victims are being afforded all the best care and resources they can."
Baker added that the detachment is in the early stages of meeting with various Whistler organizations to discuss "the local challenges" around sexual assault, increase awareness of the services available, and ensure employers have policies in place to handle workplace allegations of sexual assault appropriately. Another potential "barrier to justice" for victims of sexual violence, Herdman noted, is the fact there are currently no frontline workers in the corridor trained to file third-party police reports on behalf of victims.
"The corridor is definitely underserved and we want to see the ability to directly make those third-party reports in the Sea to Sky rather than involve another agency in the city," she said.
"(The province's Ending Violence Association BC) is hoping to deliver that training to the appropriate service providers at some point I hope within the year, but we'll see."