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Sexual violence in Alberta reaches crisis point

“There’s a crisis of sexual violence across the province,” said Reave MacLeod, director of advocacy and community programs at YWCA Banff.
Banff Townsite from Tunnel Mountain2
A view of the Banff townsite from Tunnel Mountain. RMO FILE PHOTO

BANFF – The Banff YWCA says current provincial funding is not enough to provide the services necessary to deal with a sexual violence crisis throughout Alberta.

Across the province, the number of people seeking specialized sexual assault services is at an all-time high, spiking in 2017 with a massive culture shift linked to the global #MeToo movement and Alberta’s own #IBelieveYou campaign, and increased yet again due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The growing number of people in need of help has resulted in lengthy wait times for trauma counselling, sometimes up to 15 months, while Banff’s YWCA continues to lobby for more provincial dollars to be able to even offer therapeutic counselling.

YWCA Banff officials say the local organization continues to hear that sexual violence in the community has increased dramatically, as it has across the province, and wants to be able to offer the full range of services to survivors, including therapeutic counselling.

“There’s a crisis of sexual violence across the province,” said Reave MacLeod, director of advocacy and community programs at YWCA Banff.

“People are coming to us and saying this is an issue in our community. The Banff RCMP has come to us and said, ‘look, we’re seeing this increase higher than we’ve seen in five years’, and then we don’t even have the full spectrum of services to respond.”

YWCA Banff is a member of the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services (AASAS). The organization has 15 sexual assault centres in the province, and the local Y is one of only two that do not offer therapeutic counselling.

Last May, AASAS presented the provincial government with a comprehensive business case for increased funding in order to increase specialized support and prevention services across Alberta, asking for an additional $14.2 million to bring the total provincial investment to $31.2 million.

The ask included dollars to increase immediate, specialized counselling to survivors to substantially reduce wait times, expand prevention education, ongoing specialized police and court support services, development of an online 24/7 third-party reporting software platform, and pilot a new core service designed to support wait-listed counselling clients.

The government’s response was to provide an additional $3.67 million for one-time funding for counselling services, but no dollars for access to justice or prevention.

Hunter Baril, the press secretary for the office of the minister of seniors, community and social services, said the proposal from AASAS will be reviewed over the coming months.
He said budgets for sexual assault centres were increased over three years in 2020, bringing the ministry’s sexual violence prevention investment to $13.8 million. Overall, the government provides more than $17 million across four ministries.

“Alberta’s government is committed to combatting sexual violence and ensuring proper care is available to victims,” said Baril in an emailed statement.

Currently, Banff YWCA’s Harmony Project is funded in specific areas, including sexual violence prevention and awareness, and support for survivors and people supporting survivors. There has been no funding for any therapeutic counselling.

“We’re not funded for the full spectrum of services,” MacLeod said, noting the additional one-time funding offered to AASAS by the provincial government starting April this year is not workable from a practical or ethical standpoint.

“It can take up to six months to hire qualified therapists and train them in your organization, so by the time that was done, us and other places would have to be giving notice to counselling clients that the program would end in six months.”

Counselling is offered in the Banff community, either through Alberta Health Services’ Addiction and Mental Health or by a number of private practitioners, and MacLeod said the YWCA works closely with them.

“But it’s about if somebody wants the specialized service or somebody has a relationship with us and they want to access it through us, the thought was we want to be able to do that,” she said.

In 2020, AASAS released the findings of a study that found that 43 per cent of the 1,500 Albertans surveyed had experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, which equates to a staggering 1.8 million Albertans.

According to the association, sexual violence is a known risk factor for a range of other public health issues such as addictions, suicide, homelessness, and domestic violence. While the overall rate of violent crimes in Canada has decreased over the past 15 years, the rate of sexual assault has not.

In 2021, police-reported sexual assault increased by 21 per cent in Alberta, according to Statistics Canada.

A recent report to Banff town council indicated an escalation in police-reported sexual assault and spousal abuse crime rates were a growing concern in Banff.

“Since things like the #MeToo movement and Alberta’s #IBelieveYou campaign, and then the pandemic,  the rates of help-seeking have gone up,” said MacLeod.

“Certainly there’s no doubt across all our programs, the pandemic has caused increased complexity and increased need for the people we serve.”

Banff Mayor Corrie DiManno said increased sexual violence throughout Alberta and preliminary evidence that it has increased in Banff too is “disturbing and not something that our community stands for.”

The mayor said there is work being done to address sexual violence as a community.

“When I look at what the YWCA is supporting with this proposal, I would say that I believe that our community needs this support,” she said.

“We have seen folks experiencing sexual violence, especially post-pandemic, and if there are people in our community who would like to access this therapeutic support then they should be able to do so in Banff.”

MacLeod said Albertans are encouraged to contact their provincial government representatives to advocate for recovery and healing programs, as well as prevention and justice services.

“Encourage your MLA to make sexual violence prevention, and the health of Alberta communities a priority by providing adequate and sustainable funding for sexual assault services,” she said.

MacLeod said she met with Banff-Kananaskis MLA Miranda Rosin last fall and went through the AASAS business case with her.

“I would say she was especially receptive in terms of the counselling ask,” she said.

Rosin was not available for comment by the time the Outlook went to press.

• The YWCA Banff Harmony Project offers support services to anyone who has been impacted by sexualized violence. Services are free, confidential and available seven days a week to anyone in the Bow Valley area. Contact the Y at [email protected] or 403-762-3560.

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