N.L. government commits to establishing sexual assault nurse examiner in Labrador

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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — The Newfoundland and Labrador government's recent commitment to bring a sexual assault nurse examiner program to Labrador is being applauded by an advocate in the region.

"I think it's great," Deirdre Connolly of the Labrador office of the Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre said in an interview Monday. "I think it's the next best step for ensuring appropriate and safe post-assault medical care."

The commitment comes after The Canadian Press reported that in 2019 the rate of sexual assault in Labrador was more than four times the national average. Though the region is home to just five per cent of the province's population, it accounted for 25 per cent of the province's police-reported sexual assaults last year.

Sexual assault nurse examiners are trained to work with victims and guide them through the process of reporting to police. Newfoundland and Labrador's Office of Women and Gender Equality confirmed Sunday that $225,000 has been earmarked for the expansion of the program to Labrador and central Newfoundland.

"Based on the statistics at work that we've all learned ... it certainly is a priority," Pam Parsons, the province's Minister for Women and Gender Equality, said in an interview Monday. "Labrador deserves to be a priority, and we're doing everything that we can to make that happen."

Parsons said she expects that nurses who are already working in Labrador will be trained to become sexual assault nurse examiners, noting that the program has been successful in other jurisdictions such as St. John's.

Connolly said she was pleased to hear local nurses will likely be trained. "There are nurses here in Labrador that are ready and willing and wanting the training," she said.

Advocates like Connolly say Labrador's high rates of sexual assault are the result of long-standing systemic problems like income inequality, housing shortages and intergenerational trauma. Statistics Canada data shows just over 40 per cent of Labrador residents identify as Indigenous, and advocates have said the lack of resources for sexual assault victims is an example of systemic racism.

Parsons said the government is working with Labrador-based community groups and organizations to address larger issues, and they will be at the helm of any solutions. "Labrador will be the lead on the things that need to happen in Labrador," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2021.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press