P.E.I.'s minister of justice and public safety says the province needs to do better when it comes to supporting survivors of sexual assault and when addressing the significant number of unfounded cases of sexual assault across the province.
Bloyce Thompson made the comments in the legislature Tuesday, responding to questions from the opposition as well as ongoing reporting from CBC news on the high number of sexual assaults to police in P.E.I. and the high number of sexual assault complaints deemed "unfounded" by Island police departments.
Unfounded is the label used if police determine a crime did not take place, nor was one attempted.
P.E.I. continues to have the highest rate of so-called unfounded sexual assault cases in the country. A recent report from Statistics Canada put P.E.I.'s rate at 25 per cent in 2019, the most recent year statistics are available. That's more than double the national average of 10 per cent the same year.
Green MLA Stephen Howard raised concerns about those numbers and about the number of cases that go unreported because people are too afraid to come forward.
"Only about five per cent of survivors actually report their assaults to police. We see the tip of the iceberg but much more danger lurks beneath the data," Howard said.
"Why does this minister think that almost all cases go unreported, and what are you doing to investigate why the number of unfounded cases is so high on P.E.I.?"
'We have to do better'
Thompson said those numbers are troubling and P.E.I. needs to do better.
"We have to do more, we have to discuss with the police to make sure they are doing all they can," Thompson said.
"Of course this is a very serious matter that we have to take a deep dive into, Mr. Speaker, because we have to do better."
Howard also pointed to the committees the RCMP set up across the country to review sexual assault files that didn't result in a criminal charge. On P.E.I., the Sexual Assault Investigation Review Committee was created last year and has representatives from RCMP, Child and Family Services, Victim Services, the Mi'kmaq Confederacy, the P.E.I. Rape and Sexual Assault Centre and UPEI.
Howard asked when community police forces in Charlottetown, Summerside and Kensington would also become part of that process.
Thompson said the province will discuss the issue with the police chiefs.
"It has to be about the victim here," he said. "We will continue to focus on and have the discussions with the chiefs."
Third option yet to roll out
Thompson also apologized for failing to deliver so far on a promise for what's called a third option for survivors to report a sexual assault on P.E.I.
The third option allows sexual assault survivors more time to consider whether they want to pursue a formal complaint. It allows a survivor to have physical evidence taken and stored for up to a year, during which time they can decide if they want to report what happened to police.
There are a lot of things that are out of my control ... but I can ensure that the third option is coming." — Bloyce Thompson
The third option is currently in place in several other Canadian jurisdictions. In 2017, PC MLA Sidney MacEwen — then in opposition — called on government to make the option available on P.E.I. In 2019, Thompson said his department had been working on the issue for some time and said he would like to see the third option in place on P.E.I. within a year.
Green MLA Karla Bernard raised the issue, asking Thompson how much progress has been made to bring this option to the Island. She said when she last raised it, Thompson said the third option would be rolled out in July 2020.
"Here we are now at the end of March and it still hasn't happened yet," Bernard said. "What is the latest implementation date for the third option and will this one actually happen?"
Thompson said government has missed two previous deadlines, for which he apologized.
"I do have to own that," he said. "There are a lot of things that are out of my control, Mr. Speaker, but I can ensure that the third option is coming."
"I apologize, I do want to get this right and it will be delivered."
Service to be offered at 4 hospitals
After question period, Thompson told reporters that nurses are in training to provide what's needed for the third option, and the service is ready to be launched at Prince County Hospital in Summerside.
But he said the province plans to wait until it is prepared to offer the service at four hospitals, including Western Hospital in Alberton and Kings County Memorial in Montague, which would only provide the service during daytime hours, and at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown.
He said physical evidence will be stored with the RCMP.
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