The town of Banff has seen an increase in sexual and domestic violence this year at a rate police say is out of line when compared to other communities.
"More people than ever before are reaching out via our crisis line," said Ebony Rempel, CEO of YWCA Banff. "More people than ever before are reaching out to access our shelter services."
Banff RCMP says crimes involving violence are up 35 per cent this year compared to 2021 — but that increase represents visitors returning after lulls related to pandemic health restrictions. The figures line up with the level of violent crime the town saw back in 2018.
But what's concerning is the number of sexual assault cases RCMP in Banff is investigating.
Typically between January and August there are about five reports of sexual assault in the town, according to Staff Sgt. Mike Buxton-Carr, Banff RCMP's detachment commander. This year, during that same period, they have seen 20.
The number of instances of domestic violence this year rose 10 per cent above what Banff RCMP saw in 2018.
"Banff stands out as a bit of an outlier in terms of the rate of the increase, but not in terms of the rate of overall occurrence," said Buxton-Carr.
"Certainly there are plenty of communities that have far more than 20 occurrences in that time span. It's just that we are increasing at a rate that is a bit unusual."
'Creating a culture of respect'
At YWCA Banff, Rempel said the organization has seen more people than usual look for emergency housing this year, and their domestic and sexual violence shelter intake is up 46 per cent over the last fiscal year.
"So is that a result of the pandemic? Probably," said Rempel.
"What we know for sure is that more people than ever before are reaching out for support, and so we would like to think that's because people are feeling more comfortable doing so."
Sexual violence, Rempel pointed out, is notoriously under-reported. While these kinds of jumps in reports or cases can be because of an increase in sexual assault or domestic violence in the community, it could also be that the rate of reported cases is on the rise.
The Banff & Lake Louise Hospitality Association has been working in partnership with YWCA Banff and other local organizations for years to offer a host of training for workers in the area, whether they are front-line hotel and restaurant staff or those working behind the scenes.
Wanda Bogdane, executive director of the association, says these efforts are ramping up in this post-pandemic-restriction era.
With the rise in crimes, Banff RCMP is looking to be involved in training too.
"There's been a lot of delivery and training around creating a culture of respect for gender and sexual diversity, mental health supports ... to just understand and educate through what this can be like from a workforce lens," Bogdane said.
So far this year, community organizations have hosted a bystander intervention training session. Bogdane said hospitality partners are eager to see what other opportunities arise to broaden training for their employees.
'Failure to respect or abide by someone's consent'
The majority of sexual assaults reported in Banff happen behind closed doors, according to RCMP. Buxton-Carr said 19 out of the 20 sexual assault cases were between people who knew each other, which he said makes it difficult to tackle the issue with policing alone.
"We're not seeing people approached in dark or unlit areas and being offended against by strangers," he said. "It's a failure to respect or abide by someone's consent."
The threat of violent crimes was one of the concerns Buxton-Carr tried to help ease at a town tall at the end of October. Many Banff residents took to an open mic question-and-answer session to tell RCMP they aren't sure how safe the community is after this summer's homicides.
In terms of domestic violence, Buxton-Carr said most of the cases reported to the detachment are visitors who are moving through the community. But the sexual assault cases tend to be from residents who have been in the valley for several years.
"We have what we call a trauma-informed approach," he said.
"We want people to know that when they contact the police, they will be listened to and they will be respected in terms of their wishes and their privacy and how they want the investigation to unfold."