Sexual attacks spur residents to speak out about safety

Fear keeping children inside, Iqaluit council told

By JOHN BIRD

Many families, fearing more attacks by a sexual predator, no longer allow their children to go out alone, Iqaluit council was told last week.

What's more, said one elder, important family visiting is not happening now, since people are afraid to walk the roads at night, and many cannot afford taxis.

About 75 people turned out for a special meeting of council to discuss safety on the streets. By the end of the meeting on Oct. 21, they were offering up names of people to serve on a special committee set up by council to respond to concerns.

Council called the meeting after an open letter signed by 80 people accused them of inaction and lack of leadership following a series of incidents, including:

  • a vicious sexual assault Sept. 8 behind Inuksuk High School;
  • a second sexual assault Sept. 28 on the hill near Joamie School; and
  • a third incident Oct. 1 where a man chased a woman in the same area.

In all three cases, the assailant was described as a man dressed in black.

The apparent randomness of the incidents, and the vague but similar descriptions of the assailant, have left Iqaluit women fearing for their safety – and the safety of their loved ones.

In 95 per cent of sexual assaults in Iqaluit, the victim and the perpetrator know one another, RCMP Staff-Sgt. Kim Melenchuk told the meeting. That is not the case in these incidents.

Several people at the meeting spoke of feeling they can no longer allow their teenage and pre-teen children, especially their daughters, to go out unsupervised.

"I felt totally safe in Iqaluit a year ago," said Madeleine Redfern. "Unfortunately, in the last month I haven't felt that way."

Other people shared stories of assaults they or their loved ones had suffered in the city, ranging from years in the past to very recently.

Responding to questions, Staff-Sgt. Melenchuk admitted that the RCMP have not "initiated any extraordinary patrols or surveillance" in response to the sexual assaults.

That would require more human resources, he said, claiming the 24 officers at the Iqaluit detachment are already stretched to the limit.

He said the Iqaluit RCMP received 6,336 calls for service in the first eight months of 2008, a 27 per cent increase over the 4,996 calls in the same period last year.

He assured the meeting that officers are still investigating the assaults, and discussions continue between the RCMP and the Government of Nunavut regarding increased policing.

Melenchuk also appealed repeatedly to the public to call police whenever they think a crime is being committed, or have any information regarding a crime.

For emergencies, he said, call 979-1111, or to provide information anonymously, call Crimestoppers at 1-800-222-8477.

Facing repeated requests for the police to share more information, particularly regarding the sexual assaults, Melenchuk said he did not have the details with him. Nor did he have exact statistics related to sexual assaults in Iqaluit.

He said there had been about 30 so far in 2008.

The many suggestions for action included:

  • more lighting for identified danger spots, particularly on the hill behind Inuksuk High School;
  • RCMP foot patrols and increased "street" presence;
  • tighter RCMP control at the airport, the main point of entry for illicit drugs and alcohol;
  • more recreational facilities to give young people positive, creative outlets for their energy;
  • more counselling and a treatment centre for people dealing with drug and alcohol addictions;
  • conducting a formal needs assessment around all these issues;
  • providing an emergency shelter where woman can go as a preventive measure before they have been abused;
  • more education in the schools on risky versus responsible behaviour;
  • carrying whistles and cell phones as an extra security measure.

A number of people agreed that citizens need to take hold of the issue themselves, and the city agreed to create a public safety committee to consider the issues raised, to coordinate efforts among various agencies, including the police, and to work on developing a community response plan.

The names of interested participants were collected at the meeting, and city councillor Jim Little, who convened the meeting, said he will be arranging a first meeting as soon as possible.

Little said later that he wants to challenge both himself and the community to create a climate that will not tolerate violence.

He recalled an occasion in another community when he heard at second hand about a young woman being sexually molested by her stepfather.

To his shame, he said, "I did nothing." And the assailant "got away with it."

Victims need to know the community is supporting them, he said. "Maybe if they sense that groundswell of support," they will be more willing to go to the police

"I see significant community energy" to deal with this issue, said Little. "I feel honoured to be able to be a part of it."

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