When Andrea* was “plunked” into Renfrew County, Ont., she didn’t know a soul. A women’s shelter in an Ontario city had suggested she move there because there was social housing available. Her common-law husband had suffered a psychotic break and tried to kill her. Restraining orders weren’t keeping him away.
“The police’s hands were tied,” she told HuffPost Canada in an interview.
So Andrea left her home and her friends and moved to the rural Ottawa Valley. A therapist at the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County became her main source of support. More than a decade earlier, she was attacked and sexually assaulted on a date. That experience, and what happened with her husband, changed her.
“I went from a very confident, successful person to someone who was afraid to leave my bedroom,” Andrea said.
The women’s centre gives her free therapy and access to support 24 hours a day. They also provide gas cards so Andrea can drive the hour it takes to get to their office.
I went from a very confident, successful person to someone who was afraid to leave my bedroom.
“Having people to reach out to is the biggest help. Somebody who knows my story, that I don’t have to explain over and over again,” Andrea said. It’s not easy to talk to friends and family about being sexually assaulted, she said, so she’s grateful to talk to someone who “gets it.”
In Renfrew County and other rural areas of Canada, talking about sexual assault is not easy. Many people see sexual assault as something “from away,” that only affects people in big cities. Small, tight-knit communities mean that most people who are assaulted likely know not just the perpetrator, but the perpetrator’s friends and family as well.
The director of the centre that helps Andrea says rural areas are in desperate need of services for people who have been sexually assaulted or abused. The centre sees about 3,000 clients a year in a county of 102,000 people.
“So for those that would like to say that sexual violence doesn’t happen in Renfrew County: it does,” JoAnne Brooks told HuffPost Canada. In rural areas, “the push to be silent, to be quiet, to not speak up, is like a trap door being pulled over people’s heads.”
Renfrew County was shaken in 2015 when Basil Borutski murdered his three ex-partners Anastasia Kuzyk, Nathalie Warmerdam and Carol Culleton.
“That woke people up in a lot of ways,” Brooks said. “Even though it’s about homicide, femicide, that woke people up to the issue of violence against women. They could even embrace some sexual violence thoughts and concepts in ways that they hadn’t before.”
The triple murders have been referred to as one of the worst cases of domestic violence in Canadian history. The case drew national attention. And as a result, local hush-hush attitudes about sexual violence are slowing starting to change, Brooks said.
More than six million Canadians live in rural areas. The demographics of these small, sparsely populated places are different from urban centres. Rural populations tend to be older and have lower average levels of education, according to a 2015 report from the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation. Social attitudes don’t change as quickly as they do in areas with lots of young people and university campuses.
Incomes also scale lower in rural areas. In Renfrew County, the median total household income is $67,683, while in nearby Ottawa it’s $85,981. Lower area incomes makes fundraising for assault centres a challenge, Brooks said. It also means people have less access to high-cost psychologists. Even when counselling is offered for free, many have trouble paying for gas or cabs to get to their appointments, because there’s no public transportation.
Sexual assault is so normalized, people don’t realize they need help.Christopher Wildbore
That’s if people who have been assaulted or abused even seek help.
“Sexual assault is so normalized, people don’t realize they need help,” said Christopher Wildbore, a Truro, N.S. father who gets counselling at the Colchester Sexual Assault Centre. He said he’s heard women talking in a “totally blasé” way about being forced to perform sexual acts against their will.
“Every one of the towns in Nova Scotia is full of this kind of thing going on, for men and women. To the point where people hear about the allegations on the news and they’re like, ‘So? We go through a lot worse than that, and it’s normal,'” Wildbore said. He said he doesn’t call himself a “survivor” of sexual assault but rather a “thriver,” because he’s started healing and hopes to inspire others to seek help.
Brooks said there are many social factors that make it difficult for people to speak out in rural communities. Tight family ties can inhibit anyone who experiences abuse from openly talking about it with relatives.
“The other issue for rural folks is we have a lack of privacy. Because everybody knows everybody’s business,” Brooks said. “You go to the post office and you run into cousin Jane and your neighbour Sarah and your mom’s best friend … So it’s really hard to be able to trust anyone to talk about your experiences of sexual violence.”
Margaret Mauger, a therapist at the Colchester Sexual Assault Centre who works with Wildbore, said that victims may even know the police officer when they go to report a sexual assault. Most victims also know the perpetrator or the perpetrator’s friends and family, she said.
“That is a challenge. I’m pretty sure that prevents some people from coming forward and getting support.”
Mauger said they have more support from the community than not, but it’s common to run into old-school attitudes from time to time. She organizes an award for graduating high school students on her own time, separate from her work at the centre. Once, a high school refused to give out an award with her name on it because if you look up Mauger’s name on the internet, “everything about sexual assault comes up.”
‘That only happens in the big city’
“So I said, ‘Forget about it. Just pull it. I won’t give that award to your school anymore. Shame on you,'” she said. “You are perpetuating the stuff that we’re trying to eliminate in this community.”
Mauger noted that people assume certain things just don’t happen in rural Nova Scotia.
“There’s a lot that happens in our community that people think, ‘No, that only happens in the big city.'”
*Name has been changed