For the RCMP, 2019 was a year that dramatically illustrated the disturbing prevalence of rape culture within the Kelowna Detachment.
Earlier last year a shocking video was released of a 2012 interrogation of Kelowna RCMP Cpl. Kenneth Hall asking an Indigenous minor about a rape she had come to the RCMP to report. “Were you at all turned on during this at all? Even a little bit?” Hall asks in the video, “You understand that when a guy tries to have sex with a female and the female is completely unwilling, it is very difficult.”
The video garnered significant condemnation against the Kelowna RCMP during a May question period in the House of Commons. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer was the first to bring up the subject stating that he was “shocked” and “horrified” by the video and that the line of questioning “was appalling and insensitive to the young woman who was coming forward with her story.”
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale who was responsible for the management of the RCMP at the time said, “The apparent attitudes and techniques that were on display in 2012 are profoundly outdated, offensive and wrong. The RCMP and all police forces must work continuously to conduct themselves appropriately. No survivor of sexual assault should ever fear that their case will not be taken seriously.”
On June 1, 2019 the RCMP released a statement saying the 2012 video was under review.
"We agree that on the surface this case doesn't appear to align with public expectations or the current standards and practices in place when addressing sex assault investigations and supporting victims,” the statement read, “We also recognize that a negative experience with police investigators can bring more trauma to victims, and discourage others from reporting these crimes."
The woman at the centre of the controversial video later came forward to identify herself as Aden Withers and responded to the RCMP statement by saying there needed to be an independent investigation, "I don't think that they'll do a full investigation on themselves properly."
Later that month Withers filed a lawsuit against the RCMP, Cpl. Kenneth Hall, the federal attorney-general and the B.C. Minister of Justice over the handling of her case.
Backlash continued once Stats Canada released a report October 25, 2019 showing that the Kelowna RCMP had dismissed 40% of reported sexual assault cases over the past two years. That number is dramatically different from the provincial average of 15% of cases being dismissed.
In response to the report the RCMP Sexual Assault Review Team (SART) announced they would be reviewing past sexual assaults reported to the Kelowna RCMP to determine whether there were any discrepancies in the way in which these reports were investigated.
Kelowna mayor Colin Basran initially stated that he was “satisfied” with the way the RCMP were handling themselves commenting, “I don't believe that anybody who's calling in is not being given good service, or that their complaints or allegations aren't being taken seriously.” Basran later backtracked these comments saying he should have waited to comment until the RCMP’s internal investigation had concluded and apologized “to anyone offended or hurt by my initial reaction to this news.”
Outrage over the Stats Canada report materialized in the form of a demonstration held outside the Kelowna RCMP detachment on November 23, 2019 to protest alleged inaction and mishandling of sexual assault cases by the Kelowna RCMP. Chanting “we represent the 40 percent,” protestors held signs and rallied behind speeches of women sharing their experiences and expressing concern over what they called “RCMP rape culture”. Winters, who co-organized the protest, spoke of how identifying herself “gives a name to the statistic.”
“My goal today is for the RCMP to hear us and to be investigated by a civilian source because we have no confidence in them investigating themselves,” Wither’s said.
During the protest no RCMP representative spoke to the group or addressed any of their concerns. When asked by a media outlet for a comment the RCMP said they would not have anything to say until the SART review was completed.
Any faith that the local community held in the Kelowna RCMP was further shaken in December 2019 when it was revealed that several Okanagan RCMP officers have been accused of serious crimes involving sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Former officer Brian Matthew Burkett faces disturbing allegations in numerous civil lawsuits of accessing personal information of women who had reported crimes to send them sexually explicit text messages. It is alleged that Burkett threatened sexual assault when one woman did not respond to his that messages that he was coming to her house while he was on shift and expected sexual favours.
Const. Sean Eckland has been suspended with pay after being accused of sending sexually explicit text messages to a victim whose case of domestic assault and alleged sexual assault he was investigating. In text messages seen by Global News, allegedly sent by Eckland, he suggested the victim and him meet in a courthouse bathroom for sex. The RCMP have launched an internal investigation into these allegations and have also asked an external police force to investigate.
A trial date for late this summer has been set for Const. Chad Vance to face sexual assault charges concerning an incident in 2015. Kelowna RCMP have stated that Vance has been suspended with pay and is facing an internal review as per their code of conduct.
The allegations and charges against these officers illustrate a worrisome pattern of predatory and dismissive behaviours among members of the RCMP. Particularly in the case of Const. Eckland and former officer Burkett, both are accused of abusing their position of power and targeting women who were in need of help from the RCMP.
And while these allegations are reason enough for a community to lose confidence in their law enforcement, finding out that 40% of sexual assault cases are deemed unfounded by the Kelowna RCMP spotlights a structural problem of rape culture present within the force.
Data shows that one in three women and one in six men will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. It is also reported that only 5% of sexual assaults are reported to police. And based on in-depth research, only 2-8% of reported sexual assault cases are believed to be false. With reference to this evidence, it statistically does not make sense for the Kelowna RCMP to have dismissed such a large portion of cases.
In an article written for the Globe and Mail, Robyn Doolittle wrote, “When complaints of sexual assault are dismissed with such frequency, it is a sign of deeper flaws in the investigative process: inadequate training for police, dated interviewing techniques that do not take into account the effect that trauma can have on memory, and the persistence of rape myths among law-enforcement officials.”
“Kelowna is not unique in their management of sexual assault reports,” said Executive Director of the Elizabeth Fry Society Michelle Novakowski in an email, “the issue comes from cultural myths, the training that police recruits receive, and the lack of specialized sex crimes units in mid-size communities.”
An extensive investigation done by The Globe and Mail in 2017 exposed improper and flawed procedure used by police forces across Canada that showed one in five reported sexual assault cases were closed and considered unfounded. This classification means that “a crime was neither attempted, nor occurred.” It is this investigation that initially prompted the RCMP to create SART.
In interviews conducted by The Phoenix, it has become evident that there are varying opinions on how an investigation into the 40% dismissal rate report released by Stats Canada should be handled.
“I believe the review team should include outside experts,” Novakowski commented.
This sentiment is also shared by Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola MP Dan Albus. “I have met with concerned residents of Kelowna who have told me that they would like more civilian oversight in dealing with the large discrepancies of ‘unfounded’ sexual assault cases,” Albus commented in an email interview, “They have told me that coming forward after surviving a sexual assault is traumatic enough already and that some may not report if there is not sufficient faith that they will be heard and justice done.”
While Albus sees the internal investigation being done by the RCMP SART as a “positive development,” he believes that more needs to be done, “I have written to the Solicitor General of British Columbia who is responsible for civilian oversight of all police authorities in B.C. … his office is best suited to investigate these concerns.” Albus has confirmed that he has asked for an external investigation to be done.
Newly elected Kelowna-Lake Country MP Tracy Gray however does not feel it is necessary for her office to take any action yet, commenting, “I believe we should allow their process to be completed and reported on prior to making recommendations for potential actions or activities.” Gray said she “expects” Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair to be following the investigation but did not indicate whether she has followed up on that assumption.
When further asked in an email if she believed it was appropriate for the RCMP to be investigating themselves considering all the allegations of impropriety by Okanagan officers becoming public, Gray had an assistant relay her refusal to comment any further.
Mayor Basran has reiterated his support for the RCMP in an email to The Phoenix by stating that he will wait for the results of the internal investigation before deciding on the city council’s next steps.
Kelowna City Councillor Mohini Singh, on the other hand, believes there needs to be a more pro-active approach taken by city council and that there needs to be a sit-down discussion to “dive deep” into how the RCMP handles cases. She says it is important for council to understand what procedures are in place for sexual assault and rape investigations because, as it stands, they “appear not to be working.”
“How do we rectify this?” Singh commented, “How do we make [Kelowna citizens] feel safe in reporting?”
This is a serious question to be asking when it appears that problematic attitudes toward sexual assault seem to be prevalent within the Kelowna RCMP.
While one would hope that an internal review would be enough to address and reform areas of the RCMP that clearly need better oversight, an outside source investigating ensures that everything is conducted objectively. You cannot expect a community to have faith that an already questionable police force would preform a suitable investigation into themselves, especially when the findings of that investigation could (and most likely would) further erode their reputation.
Activists, non-profit leaders and an MP believe that an internal investigation is not enough. Another MP is of the view that a RCMP looking into the matter is sufficient at this time. The mayor supports the steps taken by the RCMP and states city council should not become involved with a solution until the internal review is complete. One city councillor disagrees and believes that city council needs to better understand how the RCMP is dealing with sexual assault reports in our community, regardless of what the review says.
As it stands, no one is on the same page.
This presents a problem because it means that those in positions of power in our community are not talking to each other. And not talking to each other about how to deal with an issue that affects one in three women and one in six men is unacceptable.
Combatting rape culture in the RCMP is not an issue that can be fixed by a single entity. It requires a community response. And this response is not possible if there is not communication happening at all levels in the community.
While city council is not responsible for the RCMP, they are responsible for making sure the needs of their community are being met, especially on matters of safety. The same can be said for local MPs. They are not in charge of the RCMP, but they were elected by constituents to ensure a proper distribution of services.
An internal review would be helpful for the RCMP to understand the problems that exist within their own ranks, but an external investigation is necessary to ensure transparency and accountability. This is particularly needed when there is already a lack of confidence present.
As of January 24, 2020, SART has completed their investigation and sent their findings to Kelowna RCMP. “The Detachment is currently looking over the findings and will provide a public update soon,” Cst. Solana Pare said in response to media inquires.
Responding to questions from The Phoenix of when the Kelowna community can expect an update, Cpl. Jocelyn Noseworthy said, “we are expecting to be able to release this information within the next week or so.”