Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Nunavut August 11, 2017 - 6:59 am

Nunavut RCMP apologizes for advice to women on sexual assault

"The way it was worded rubbed me the wrong way, and a lot of other women”

The Nunavut RCMP have apologized for issuing advice to women on how to avoid sexual assault, saying they didn't intend to offend anyone. (FILE PHOTO)
The Nunavut RCMP have apologized for issuing advice to women on how to avoid sexual assault, saying they didn't intend to offend anyone. (FILE PHOTO)

The Nunavut RCMP has issued an apology for advice given to women to be “vigilant and keep safe” to avoid the risk of sexual assault.

The advice, which offended some women, came within a news release on the Aug. 5 arrest of a Clyde River man, Mark Paneak, 21, who is accused of sexually assaulting a woman in the Baffin community of about 1,050 people.

Paneak, described as “well known to the police” in the Aug. 8 release, has been charged with sexual assault, break and enter and resisting arrest.

To avoid the threat of assault, the RCMP encouraged women “to be alert to who and what is around you,” carry a backpack or purse with a strap and stay off cell phones while walking alone.
“This will ensure that your hands are free to defend yourself at all times,” the release said.

Rates of assault in the territory are high, and the initial release does state that RCMP “know women aren’t to blame for tragic assaults.”

But words used later in the release were seen by some Nunavummiut, who reacted on social media, as treating women like victims and putting extra responsibility for sexual assault prevention on one gender.

Janet Brewster, an Iqaluit resident, took to Twitter following the release, which, for her, triggered an emotional response.

“Seeing that release and seeing some of the other people’s reactions to it caused me to think deeply about how I have been impacted by sexual violence in my lifetime. When it begins in childhood people tend to be ashamed and to not speak out.”

“I appreciate the apology,” Brewster said.

She said it’s important to do public education and prevention, but this effort was not the right one, because the message puts the onus on women to protect themselves.

“I feel like it’s victim blaming,” she said.

Elisapee Sheutiapik, the chair of Qulliit Nunavut Status of Women, said she understands the message that the Nunavut RCMP was trying to get across.

“But the way it was worded rubbed me the wrong way, and a lot of other women,” she said.

“If you’re going to come out and say something, say [the assault] is unacceptable. And target it at everyone.”

Instead, the news release focuses on what women can do to try and prevent getting attacked, which is the wrong approach, she said.

“If they’re trying to make a statement about safety, they should do it separately and not make it about women. It’s a matter of reminding people to be respectful.”

Police could play a more active role in preventing assaults and abuse, Sheutiapik said, especially at this time of year when Inuit youth spend long hours outdoors, away from their parents.

There also tends to be more drinking during the summer months, Sheutiapik said, which can put people in more vulnerable situations.

“Police could be sending a message like ‘if a person says no, it means no’ and we need to understand that,” she said.

In an added effort to show why language used in the release would be rejected by women in the territory, Nunatsiaq News spoke with Senator Kim Pate, a former executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, an organization that works with marginalized women in the criminal justice system. 

Pate also visited Iqaluit in May to speak on police accountability in the territory.

“The police are trying to help, but these sorts of messages unfortunately reinforce myths and stereotypes that characterize women as responsible for preventing men from assaulting them,” wrote Pate in an email response while travelling.

Pate noted the effort by the police to say that women are not at fault for attacks on them, but said, “despite the caveat, this essentially deputizes and hyper responsibilizes women to defend themselves.”

Pate said the incident speaks to a larger need to ensure “issues of women’s economic, racial and social inequality are remedied.”

In the apology, the RCMP said that the suggested safety tips are useful for anyone.

“Keeping our residents safe is always our top priority, regardless of one’s gender… we should not have implied that females should be especially vigilant and take extra precautions,” the RCMP said.

“Absolutely no offense was intended, and we wholeheartedly apologize.”


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