Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton overwhelmed by demand

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A recent series of public allegations about sexual harassment and violence at the workplace may be contributing to a spike in demand for services at the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton, a spokesperson says.

Women coming forward to speak publicly about sexual improprieties — in Hollywood and locally at Edmonton bars — may be contributing to a sense of "strength in numbers" by victims, said Mary Jane James, the centre's executive director.

Demand for the centre's counselling services is up 53 per cent compared to last year and the wait list time has climbed to six to eight months, said James.

James said she doesn't know if the increase is due to more cases of sexual assault or more people speaking out. But she said there has certainly been an increase since the series of allegations of sexual assault, harassment and rape surfaced against Hollywood celebrities such as movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

"That number has spiked since Harvey Weinstein and the Me Too Campaign," said James. "We've had a lot of people coming forward who feel ready to share their story, so that amps up the traffic to our crisis line and to our intake department for counseling requests."

Locally, Brittany Lyne Rudyck is one of the latest women who has spoken publicly about allegations of sexual harassment at a local bar. She has accused one of the owners of The Needle Vinyl Tavern, where she worked until recently, of groping her despite her repeated pleas for him to stop.

'I know I'm not the only one'

According to Rudyck, she's not alone. She claims other women at the bar have been harassed and that the problem is industry-wide.

"I know I'm not the only one who has been victimized by people in positions of power, so I knew this wasn't just about me," said Rudyck. "It was about everyone in the industry who faces this regularly. I can say with almost 100 per cent certainly that every woman who has worked in the bar industry has received some sort of unwanted advance."

An ongoing Edmonton court case suggests The Needle situation may not be an isolated incident.

Former Edmonton nightclub employee Matthew McKnight is facing sexual assault charges after more than a dozen women came forward with accusations in 2016.

Investigators say he used his position to target the complainants who were within the same industry.

'We all have a responsibility'

James isn't sure how Edmonton's bar scene compares to other industries when it comes to sexual assault.

"I don't know that it's any more prevalent in the bar industry than it is in any other industry," she said. "Certainly the use of alcohol and drugs as a facilitator for sexual assault is very, very common ... naturally it would fit that there would be a higher level of this activity."

James believes we've only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ongoing revelations about sexual assault.

"That makes me very sad. But on the flip side it also gives me great hope that maybe finally we're seeing the heightened dialogue surrounding this issue at a level that I haven't seen in my 10 years at the sexual assault centre."

Providing help to the victims is a huge challenge, but preventing the crimes is also difficult.

"I think as a community we all have a responsibility," said James. "It can start with very simple things such as educating our children about what consent is, what respect is, what healthy relationships are."

James is also calling on people who witness anything to speak up even if they're not the victim.

"I'm hopeful that maybe with the increased attention that people are going to start getting the message ... and start asking what they can do to stop it."

Still, James said the demand for services has left the centre struggling for resources. Other sexual assault centres in Alberta are in the same boat, she said, and need help.

"We cannot keep up with the demand for our services," she said.

"More resources have to be thrown at the issue, we have to increase capacity," she said. "We are going full out, we can not work any harder at what we're doing here and we just can't keep up."