More sexual assault victims are seeking services in Halifax, but advocates say there's not enough funding


Published on March 10, 2017

Protesters of Judge Gregory Lenehan in Halifax on Tuesday.

©Jeff Harper/Metro

Halifax’s Avalon Sexual Assault Centre has experienced a surge in calls this past week, and employees are hoping it highlights the urgent need for funding of their services.

“In particular since Tuesday, we have seen an increase in people contacting us. Some people are looking for counselling services, and we have a lot of people from the general public who are just calling to seek clarification around laws or to understand what’s going on or who are wanting to show support,” said the centre’s executive director, Jackie Stevens.

“We have people calling about how they can help in terms of volunteering. We’ve had requests from people who want to do placements, and we’ve had a number of people looking for legal support and advocacy and sharing their stories because they’re aware people have taken action around this situation and so they’re reaching out.”

Judge Gregory Lenehan’s handling of cab driver Bassam Al-Rawi’s case last week and his comments that “clearly a drunk can consent” resulted in nationwide condemnation, protests and petitions.

Earlier this week the Crown said it will appeal the cab driver’s acquittal.

“These kinds of high profile cases do validate people’s experiences when they see that the general public is rallying and speaking out for changes to the laws or questioning what is happening and how people are being treated,” Stevens said.

“It does make (victims) feel believed and supported and so they do reach out for services … What’s really important is that services across the province that currently exist are sustained.”

Stevens said Avalon and other centres offering similar services in Nova Scotia struggle on limited funding. With increased demand on their services, and demand for additional services, she’s hoping for more funding.

“We’ve been identifying since 2009-2010 that our current service delivery was not possible in terms of our sustainability, in terms of resources, staff, finances,” she said.

“Every year our numbers have been increasing and we’ve been saying we can’t sustain this.”

Despite the struggle to provide services to an ever-increasing population of clients seeking their help, Stevens said they don’t want victims to ever hesitate to access the resources available.

“We don’t want to discourage people from coming forward … These issues are in the forefront right now and they’re not going away,” she said.

“Lots has been done but this just highlights how much more there is to be done.”

Police also encouraging victims to come forward

Halifax Regional Police are also encouraging victims of sexual assault to report it, saying they’ll be supported.

“We certainly don’t want what happened (last week) to dissuade victims to come forward, because ultimately we are here to help them. We have a trauma-informed approach,” said Const. Dianne Penfound.

“It’s a very personal crime, and having to talk about that to strangers is very daunting, but at the end of the day it is a crime, you did nothing wrong, and we are here to help.”

Penfound said in addition to having a victims’ services team, the police force has sexual assault investigators who are passionate about their work.

“They really care about their victims and want to do everything they can to bring the cases before the courts if possible and to help the people through the process because it’s not an easy process and we understand that,” Penfound said.