Sexual assault survivors rally at RCMP detachment to protest dismal 'unfounded' rate
VANCOUVER -- As a vulnerable Indigenous teenager in B.C.'s child welfare system, Aden Withers reported a sexual assault to the Kelowna RCMP in 2012.
The experience – in which an RCMP officer who questioned her for two hours asked whether she had been "turned on" during the alleged assault, and warns her that making a false report is a crime – has left her today still dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and a crippling fear of the police.
Data recently released by Statistics Canada showed the Kelowna RCMP classified 40 per cent of 2018 sexual assault cases as "unfounded" – three times the provincial average.
Hearing about that report spurred Withers to come forward to speak publicly about her experience. She joined other sexual assault survivors at a rally on Saturday at the Kelowna RCMP detachment to call for action.
Among them was Heather Friesen. In her first public interview with CTV News earlier this month, Friesen outlined the chilling details she relayed to investigators last year.
More than three decades ago she was found naked and unconscious in a barricaded room at a spring break party. Her case was also deemed unfounded by Kelowna RCMP.
“I want the system to be torn down and rebuilt,” Friesen told CTV News at Saturday’s rally. “The system isn’t broken, the system is working exactly as it was intended. Until things have changed, why would you report a sexual assault in this city? It breaks my heart to say that but it’s true.”
Friesen and Withers stood side-by-side at the rally, compelled to speak out after hearing the statistic confirming what they had suspected: Their experience was not unique.
"They're telling me the same story that I heard from my own experience, where cops aren't taking them seriously, especially Indigenous women," Withers said of other victims of sexual assault she's spoken to.
The RCMP's national Sexual Assault Review Team is now reviewing the Kelowna detachment. The team was originally formed to review all 2,200 RCMP sexual assault files deemed “unfounded” in 2016, but the Kelowna review is the first detachment-level review the force has carried out, according to the RCMP.
But Withers isn't satisfied with that action. She and other rally organizers want to see a civilian agency investigate how the RCMP handles sexual assault reports. After the experience of being interviewed alone, as a teenager, Withers is also calling for better and faster supports for victims as they go through the police reporting process.
"We're also hoping that the RCMP officers involved in these cases be let go," Withers said.
Seven years later, Withers said she's still struggling with the emotional and mental health effects of how the RCMP dealt with her case. The video of her interview with a Kelowna police officer was first reported by APTN in May 2019, and spurred widespread condemnation from experts and federal politicians.
"Watching the interrogation was really hard because as a parent now, standing over watching what was happening to a child, it just breaks my heart that no one was there to advocate for me in that room," Withers said.
Withers has complex post-traumatic stress disorder, which at times affects her ability "to do the simplest tasks," such as going out of her home to check for mail.
"Every time I see a cop I freeze up and I get very afraid and I start wondering what I'm doing wrong … even though I haven't done anything," Withers said.
Despite her experience, Withers said she would still encourage someone who's been assaulted to report the incident to police.
"But I'm afraid of the reporting process for them," she said.
With files from CTV News Vancouver's Penny Daflos