'Victim blaming,' police accountability in Canada under question after Sarah Everard murder

Elisabetta Bianchini
·7 min read
Una fotografía de Sarah Everard se ve entre flores y velas en un altar improvisado en Clapham Common, Londres, el lunes 15 de marzo de 2021. (AP Foto/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Earlier this month, the tragic death of Sarah Everard, the 33-year-old U.K. woman who was last seen walking home after visiting a friend, sparked outrage across the country and internationally about gender-based violence.

Active police officer Wayne Couzens has been charged with kidnap and murder of Everard, raising questions around reporting and response to these attacks, particular when the people who are supposed to protect us have a history of being the aggressor.

"I think we need to really be thinking about a person in a position of power, specifically policing, that's supposed to protect us can harm us and when given unaccountable power that will continue to happen," activist Farrah Khan told Yahoo Canada.

"The fact is that a lot of focus of this murder, of Sarah, has been about street harassment when I really think conversation needs to be about policing. Here's a person in a position of power who thought he could get away with this, who thought he was above accountability."

Activists in Canada are calling out policing operations, particularly when many cases of gender-based violence are not actually reported.

'There's a lot of victim blaming that happens'

According to a report from the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, a woman or girl is killed in Canada every two and a half days, 160 women and girls were killed by reported violence in Canada in 2020. A total of 90 percent of these deaths involved a male who was identified as the accused. The report also highlights a gap in data based on undercounted statistics, due to a known lack of reporting.

Nicole Fontyn-Taylor, program manager of the survivor-led activist group WomenatthecentrE, also highlights that statistics on reported cases of gender-based violence "disregards" the fact that many survivors don't report their experiences.

"I know that there have been some challenges with survivors reporting to police," Fontyn-Taylor told Yahoo Canada.

"There's a lot of victim blaming that happens, even myself as a survivor reporting to police. There [are] questions like, well were you running alone? Were you wearing headphones? These questions that are asked are problematic because it insinuates that if you weren't walking alone or if you weren't wearing headphones that this wouldn't happen to you."

Khan echoed Fontyn-Taylor's comments and stressed that there are women who feel they won't be believed by police.

"They don't feel trusting that the police can protect them," she said.

The report from the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability also identifies "gaps" in the documentation of race-based data in cases of gender-based violence. In 2020, race was not documented for 65 per cent of women and girls who experienced violence and 90 per cent of those accused.

"There needs to be more research on the intersections of race, gender, and violence... specifically Black, Indigenous and women of colour, what their experiences are of gender-based violence," Fontyn-Taylor said.

"One in 10 women actually report, I wish we could break it down by demographics because if we're looking at the intersections of race and gender, I could probably tell you that it would be significantly less for Black, Indigenous and racialized women, because I think there's a significant level of distrust there with the police and we have to take into account historical and current context for that."

The Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability report indicates that despite gaps, there is continued overrepresentation of Indigenous women and girls, more than one in four women or girls killed by a male accused are Indigenous women and girls.

"For too many years, the scarcity of this information has created gaping holes in our collective knowledge about the crimes being perpetrated against members of racial and ethnic groups, especially Indigenous women," a statement from Lorraine Whitman, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada reads, after Statistics Canada and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police agreed to collaborate to enable police to report more race-based crime statistics.

According to Statistics Canada, one-third of Canadian homicide victims in 2019, both men and women, were identified as visible minorities.

A report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) that looked into racial profiling and racial discrimination found that Black people disproportionately "arrested, charged, subjected to use of force by Toronto police," reinforcing concerns around trust between police and Black communities.

"It is time to make transformative changes in the institutions and systems of law enforcement that produce such disparate outcomes – community trust and safety, especially the safety of Black lives, depend on it," a statement from Ena Chadha, OHRC chief commissioner reads.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 15: Members of the public hold up signs during a protest in Parliament Square against the The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and criticising the actions of the police at Saturday night's vigil on March 15, 2021 in London, England. Hundreds of people turned out at Clapham Common on Saturday night to pay tribute to Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old London resident whose kidnapping and death - allegedly at the hands of an off-duty Metropolitan Police officer - prompted a wave of concern over women's safety. The same police force is being criticised for its response to the vigil, where they forcibly arrested several participants for violations of pandemic-era rules on public assembly. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 15: Members of the public hold up signs during a protest in Parliament Square against the The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and criticising the actions of the police at Saturday night's vigil on March 15, 2021 in London, England. Hundreds of people turned out at Clapham Common on Saturday night to pay tribute to Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old London resident whose kidnapping and death - allegedly at the hands of an off-duty Metropolitan Police officer - prompted a wave of concern over women's safety. The same police force is being criticised for its response to the vigil, where they forcibly arrested several participants for violations of pandemic-era rules on public assembly. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

'We have to work with and alongside both parties to be able to create change'

Fontyn-Taylor shared that WomenatthecentrE conducted surveys and focus groups with more than 400 survivors across Canada to inform the Canadian government's National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence. Accountability in policing systems was one of the key themes that emerged from this work.

"We need to ensure that police and the systems that exist are being held accountable for perpetuating violence," she said.

"I think, specifically when we're talking about police, their investigations are done internally and there's also a culture within the police departments that support and legitimize the culture of violence... I think that that's a huge issue that needs to be addressed."

While doing research with survivors of sexual violence across Canada, specifically research that involved looking at the challenges with the criminal legal system, Fontyn-Taylor shared survivors expressed that the system was not working.

"It was almost more traumatizing going through the criminal legal system than the actual violence itself," she said. "To us, that just shows us that there needs to be something entirely different than what we're seeing now."

Fontyn-Taylor believes that funding that's usually put into police operations should be redirected to community-based services and response.

WomenatthecentrE has an initiative on transformative accountability and justice, which looks at an alternative model of justice for survivors of sexual violence, completely outside of the criminal legal system, and there is not just support for the survivor but also for the aggressor.

"I think that that, to a lot of other gender-based violence organizations, might sound concerning but we have to work with and alongside both parties to be able to create change," Fontyn-Taylor explained.

"We have this belief that harmed people harm people and so I think a lot of aggressors really need to work through their trauma to transform, really, and to kind of understand and debunk their biases."

She added that conversations about "healthy masculinity" with boys and men need to start at an early age.

Khan also wants to see the culture of misogyny and patriarchy addressed, which "underpins" violence against women.

"What do we tell young men from a young age? We tell them they can't cry, we tell them they can't have emotions, and we definitely mock and shame them when they don't fit certain courtship rituals," she identified.

"We have to treat sex as a collaboration not a conquest so that when men are dating they are not treating this like a hunting ground but are treating this like a collaboration, and if someone says no they take that rejection fine. Not take it as a blow to their manhood or masculinity."

Khan also stressed that men being accountable for their actions should be a core part of conversations around this violence, instead of just telling women to "be safe" or "stay home."

"The onus on women continuously to protect ourselves from violence is a ridiculous burden that women have to carry because we should not have to carry the burden of being safe. It should be held by everyone in the community and everyone has a responsibility, especially men who commit this violence, time and time again," she said.