The Tip of the Iceberg: survivors grapple with the criminal justice system

When gender-based violence happens in our communities, we all feel it. As women and as people supporting women in our community, we know that the impacts of violence are as pervasive and widespread as the rates of violence occurring. This week alone, we have seen four new cases of sexual assault happen St. John’s. This comes after last Friday’s announcement of a mistrial in the ongoing Snelgrove case, a consequential result of the judge’s error in jury dismissal. To be clear, these are only the instances this week in St. Johns that have led to arrests and media coverage. We are holding space for Jane Doe this week as we collectively reel, and for all the other Jane Does – those whose stories we know, and those we don’t. What we know to be true about gender-based violence in our communities is that this is just tip of the iceberg.

Taking a closer look at gender-based violence in our city and across Newfoundland and Labrador, some of us are even more at risk of experiencing violence. Women who are living in poverty, who are criminalized, living with disabilities, experiencing homelessness, sex workers, queer, trans and non-binary folks, Indigenous women and women of colour are particularly vulnerable. These realities persist not because of weakness, but because of the real and compounding oppressions and stigma that are working against our neighbours, family and loved ones. This is magnified when vulnerable people are disproportionately neglected by, cannot access, or are disbelieved by systems that are intended to keep people safe. With that said, gender-based violence knows no bounds. It happens across class, race, gender, geography and culture. We know that across the globe, across Canada, and here in St. John’s most people who experience violence are women (cisgender and especially trans women) and most women who experience violence do so at the hands of people known to them, often in their own homes.

The ripple-effects of survivors being harmed through the criminal justice system run deep. As a community, we have been watching the Snelgrove case build and unfold for more than six years. The judge’s decision leading to the recent mistrial was preventable, and so was the harm that it has caused. That mistake was hugely consequential, most directly of course for Jane Doe, but also for so many others. When systems re-victimize and re-traumatize us, women and survivors of violence experience this in a visceral way. It comes up in our headlines, in staff rooms, around the dinner table, in our group chats and across social media. Cases of police and state violence are always shocking, always devastating, but they’re not new. The injustices survivors so often experience in the criminal justice system are unacceptable, unfathomable – but they’re not new, either.

In spite of this, women have always and continue to organize, gather, check in, create plans, and do what’s needed to help keep each other safe. Women have been doing this for centuries and long before colonization. Women deserve to be supported and have increased access and safety connected to police reporting and the criminal justice system. We commend those who report violence they have experienced. It is incredibly difficult, courageous work to face these processes and the consequences of how they might unfold. As a community we must do better to support survivors of violence when they come forward, and if they choose to report that violence to police. We also need to support people when they don’t, because we know that reporting violence isn’t always a safe option and almost never leads to conviction. We recognize that the criminal justice system, like so many of our systems, are often harmful and ultimately were not built to keep women safe.

As we grapple with ongoing injustices and staggering rates of violence, where do we find ourselves? What are we left to do with these collective experiences of grief and rage? We are urged to keep organizing, to keep finding healing for ourselves and our communities that exist beyond the patriarchal and colonial constraints of the systems available to us. Men and allies, we continue to ask you to show up, to hold yourselves and each other accountable. Let us raise our children to create and uphold a culture of safety for themselves and future generations. Let us continue to check in, believe in, and do what we can to build safety for each other. Let us stand in the legacy of women and communities who have come before us, those who have survived against all odds, and in memory of those who did not. Let us be ready to build and rely on our own processes, and seek avenues towards justice on our own terms.


Bridget Clarke

Advocacy Coordinator – St. John’s Status of Women Council