Saturday, August 15, 2009

Holly Desimone and the progress of Victims Rights in Canada

A story so good it deserves to be printed in its entirety:

On the night she was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance, Holly Desimone became a member of a club no one ever wants to join: that of crime victim.

"It was the most alone I've ever felt in my life," says the 47-year-old Calgarian as she looks back on the events of Dec. 14, 1990, when the then Red Deer resident was brutally attacked by Ali Rasai, an Iranian who had fled an attempted

rape charge in Australia and entered Canada on a fake passport.

"I called a friend and her advice to me was, 'Never, ever, tell anybody, no one will believe you.' "

Those first few days were just a taste of how alone Desimone would feel in the coming days, weeks, months and years after she decided to speak out and fight for justice. Ultimately, her courage helped spur improvements in attitudes and legislation regarding victims' rights across the country.

Today, funds help victims attend parole hearings and laws prevent criminals from profiting off their crimes, such as from books.

Victims' rights are also high on the agenda of federal and provincial politicians. In June, the Harper government said it wanted to give more rights to victims of crime, including enshrining in law the right to participate in parole board hearings.

But when Desimone began her struggle with the justice system nearly 20 years ago, there seemed to her to be little consideration for those most greatly affected by murder, rape or other criminal acts.

For her, the first blow came in the spring of 1991, when an Edmonton judge granted Rasai--a man who would later be charged with the sexual assault of two more women--$3,000 bail.

A week later, Desimone walked out of her apartment building and saw Rasai standing in the street, watching her.

"I couldn't believe my eyes," she says, noting she hadn't been warned about his release, and there was no order from the judge to stay away from her.

Rasai fled Canada, and it seemed there was little interest in finding him.

That's when Desimone did the unthinkable for sexual assault victims at that time: she went public. She contacted the Calgary Herald and set a Canadian precedent by allowing her name and photograph to be published. Stories of Desimone's fight for justice put pressure on politicians at both the provincial and federal levels.

"No one was working on my behalf as a victim," says Desimone. "I had to be my own advocate."

Her dogged determination eventually paid off: Rasai was brought back to Canada in 1996, where he was convicted of sexually assaulting Desimone and two other women, and sentenced to four and a half years in prison.

In 1998, Desimone travelled to Manitoba to attend Rasai's parole hearing. However, since the federal government had yet to begin providing funds for victims to attend parole hearings, which it does today, the young victim had to rely on the help of a friend.

Even though the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, which came into force in 1992, allowed victims to witness parole hearings by this time, Desimone's appearance was considered a bold move.

"Before this happened to me, I knew nothing about our country's justice system," she says. "I had to educate myself, in the days before the Internet, because no one else was going to fight on my behalf."

Back in the early-to mid-'90s, much of what is taken as a given today for victims of crime was either non-existent or still in its infancy, such as the presence of victim-support workers in courtrooms, the inclusion of victim-impact statements and organizations that provide information and support to victims of crime.

"There was pretty much nowhere, or no one, to turn to," says Desimone. But her fight prompted change: in Alberta, then-attorney general Ken Rostad demanded an accounting of the bungling in Rasai's case; victims of major crimes would now be alerted when their accused attackers sought bail. Her case also helped change Canada's Immigration Act, inserting into it provisions that would allow officials to turn away would-be immigrants who are believed to have committed a crime outside Canada punishable here by a term of 10 years or more.

Like many who came before her, Desimone learned the hard truth that the court and prison systems often treat offenders more favourably than victims, according them the kinds of adequate services, compensation and rights that until recently have been out of reach for those who find themselves on the receiving end of crime.

"People like Holly forced incredible change in the country," says Steve Sullivan, the new federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, who back in 1998 accompanied Desimone to Rasai's parole hearing, in his previous role as the head of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime. "These were people who suffered horrendous tragedies, who you could understand if they were unable to even get out of bed in the morning, and here they were fighting for rights that we now have today--they are true pioneers."

Today in Canada, most provinces and territories have instituted compensation programs for victims of crime. In 2007, Alberta enacted a Victims of Crime Act, which outlines rights to be accorded to victims such as providing them with information and support about both the criminal justice process and the details of their individual cases. Most police departments across the country have victim support units that guide victims through every step of the process. In 2007, the federal government set up the Office of the Ombudsmen for Victims of Crime, which works in co-operation with several agencies that have sprouted up over the past two decades to assist victims.

But recognition of crime victims has been a long time coming. "It's only been 15 years since victims of crime have been allowed to attend parole hearings," says Sullivan. "In a legislative arena, that is a very short period of time."

While many today see victims' rights as part and parcel of a truly just system, Doug King says it's understandable why it's taken so long in the context of our criminal justice system.

"When you see R. versus an accused (on court documents), it means Regina, which stands for society at large," says King, chair of justice studies at Mount Royal College. "The real victim has always been treated as secondary."

While this might sound patently unfair, King says the Canadian style of criminal justice has worked well.

"It's a balancing act, courts have to keep a certain distance away from the emotion of the victims--once you lose the presumption of innocence, you can make some terrible mistakes."

But he sees the incredible growth of services for victims over the past decade or so as an important trend.

"We need to make sure the right person is convicted of an offence, but we also need to work to heal the harm done to the individual victims," he says.

"This is a movement that has been largely propelled by the victims themselves."

No discussion of those pioneers can overlook people like Gary and Sharon Rosenfeldt, whose experience as victims of crime led to a lifelong commitment to the cause.

"We were just incensed by the way we were treated, we had to do something," says Sharon, whose 16-year-old son Daryn was murdered in 1981, becoming one of the 11 young victims of serial killer Clifford Olson. (Gary Rosenfeldt died in February of cancer at age 67.)

The Rosenfeldts suffered a host of indignities that included everything from the RCMP initially refusing to take their son's disappearance seriously, to an officer calling up Sharon one day and casually telling her that a body found was that of her child. The parents also learned that Daryn had been sexually assaulted before being killed by Olson, by reading that in a newspaper.

"There was nothing for us, nowhere to turn," says Sharon of a justice landscape that had yet to be peopled with victim support workers, compensation programs or any other kind of help.

But there was inspiration from another growing movement: that supporting victims of sexual assault.

"Shelters had started to spring up around the country, and people were speaking out on behalf of those victims," says Sharon, who with Gary started Victims of Violence, a national organization that through promoting the rights of child victims has had a large impact on the rights for all victims of crime.

"We were the first to be allowed to have an office servicing victims in a courtroom," says the former Edmontonian who runs her organization today from Ottawa, to be closer to the country's decision-makers.

"At the time, there were offices serving offenders, and what we were doing was considered highly controversial."

Rosenfeldt says that while there has been incredible progress made since her first experience as a victim of crime, there is still room for improvement, as Canada is "still in the pioneer stage of victims rights."

More is needed in educating people, aiding victims and changing attitudes, she says. "We want to see victims' rights entrenched into the Charter of Rights," she says. "Until we're there, there will never truly be victims rights."

Nearly two decades after her ordeal and eight years after her tormentor was deported from Canada, Desimone shares her fellow victim-turned-activist's determination.

"Stepping forward unequivocally changed my life," says Desimone, who says she continues to suffer emotional and physical problems stemming from her victimization.

"But I did it to survive. We all need to care about the rights of crime victims, because it can happen to anyone--and it does, every single day."


Assistance to victims of crime in Canada has grown in leaps and bounds over the past decade, but is it enough? Are we doing all we can as a society to help heal victims?


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