The rate of reported sexual assault in Alberta jumped 21 per cent last year, numbers released by Statistics Canada this week show.
A similar trend is unfolding across the country. The national rate of sexual assault reported to police increased 18 per cent in 2021 to its highest level in more than two decades, the agency said.
Those who work with victims believe the uptick is at least partly due to a cultural shift that took off in 2017 with the #MeToo movement, according to Deb Tomlinson, CEO of the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services.
Since then, centres across the province have heard from a growing number of people who want to share their stories, she said.
"I've worked in this field for 25 years — in the last five years, I've never seen anything like this," said Tomlinson.
According to Statistics Canada, the reported sexual assault rate has been on the rise for the past five years, aside from a dip during the first year of the pandemic in 2020.
In Lethbridge, demand at the Chinook Sexual Assault Centre has steadily grown since the agency was established around four years ago. In 2021, crisis calls rose by 37 per cent, said CEO Kristine Cassie.
Some people are reporting recent assaults. Others were hurt years ago and are just now ready to talk.
"This is a crime of such intimacy that it really impacts the soul of a person," said Cassie. "Maybe they weren't believed … maybe it was dismissed by the first person that they told. So many will hold on to pain that they've gone through for sometimes months, or even years.
"We welcome people to reach out at any time."
Rise largely driven by 'Level 1' sexual assaults
The increase in reported sexual assault in 2021 is primarily driven by a rise in "Level 1" sexual assaults, according to Statistics Canada. This is defined as an assault that violates a person's sexual integrity but doesn't involve a weapon or cause bodily harm.
"You'll find that most of the sexual assaults are charged at Level 1, so that doesn't surprise me," said Tomlinson. "That is where we most commonly see most charges sitting."
The Alberta RCMP said the rate of Level 1 sexual assault rose 34 per cent between 2020 and 2021 in its jurisdiction. There was about a 10 per cent drop from 2019 to 2020 but a steady increase in the three years prior, according to numbers provided by police.
Police and advocates say help is out there for people who need it, and they encourage victims to contact a service called Alberta's One Line for Sexual Violence. The number is available to call or text at 1-866-403-8000.