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Call me Controversial – The Winnipeg Transit Sexual Assault

photo credit: Jezz via photopin cc
photo credit: Jezz via photopin cc

At 11:00 am on October 11th, a woman with an intellectual disability was sexually assaulted on a Winnipeg Transit bus.  It happened in broad daylight, in front of a multitude of witnesses, for a shocking 10 minutes until the perpetrator attempted to take the 19 year old young lady off the bus and a bystander stepped in to help her.

Her support worker was a couple of rows up, with her headphones in, and didn’t notice the assault until it was over.

Call me controversial, but I don’t think it was the support worker’s fault.

It’s been a rough couple weeks for Canadians; the horrifying shooting in Ottawa, the Jian scandal.  Sexual assault and violence, words not usually associated with our country, have been linked with the maple leaf heavily these past couple of weeks.

My thoughts on Jian are for another forum.  However it’s kicked loose a powerful national discussion on sexual violence.  Women in Canada aren’t safe, the degree to which they are not safe is gut wrenching.  1 in 3 women will be assaulted in Canada over the course of her lifetime.  For women who are vulnerable, the statistics are particularly grim.  83% of women with disabilities will be assaulted.  That’s 4 out of every 5!

To be clear: I don’t condone negligence or sexual abuse.  I’m the #1 fan of accountability and consent based sexual conduct.  I believe in protecting the people we support, being vigilant, reporting allegations, and supporting whistleblowers.

But I reiterate, I don’t think it was the support workers fault that this young woman was assaulted.

If the support worker was intentionally neglectful, if she had no relationship with the woman she supported, if she didn’t think the bus was a safe environment, then she was negligent.  Or if the woman supported was uncomfortable with the bus, or was unfamiliar or incapable of being on the bus with that degree of independence then I would say it was abuse and that this woman’s support agency was negligent in training their staff.

But I don’t think any of that is true.

The media mistakes support for caregiving.  There is a reason support worker’s aren’t called health care aids, nurses, or caregivers.  Support is a carefully chosen title.  Direct support is about maximizing independence and providing support where needed.

Many supported persons are very comfortable and familiar with taking the bus.  They have every reason to expect to be safe on the bus.  As do their support workers.  It’s a low risk place to exercise one’s independence.

I’ve had the pleasure of taking a leadership course with Linton Sellen.  One of the many things that struck a chord, is how often we judge people based on the results of an action.  Not addressing the action itself.

I think this woman’s support worker is guilty of wearing headphones at work.  That was wrong.  She should face the consequences of those actions.

She couldn’t possibly know about the violent man prepared to sexually assault the person she was supporting that morning.  The only person responsible for the assault, is the man who committed the assault.

Supports are held accountable for the well being of a person and their independence.  That is a notoriously difficult line to walk.  Some have ascribed this difficulty to lack of pay, communication barriers, and training.  To some degree all three are true, but I don’t think it has to do with money.  If we need to pay people to motivate them to prevent sexual assault we have a much larger problem on our hands.

I don’t think the Changes employee incorrectly evaluated the risk of taking the bus that morning.  I think she expected it to be safe.  I think she felt that the person she was supporting knew how to ask her for help and was comfortable in the environment.  Those are reasonable things to expect at 11am on a Winnipeg Transit bus and in a healthy support dialogue.

If she didn’t feel that way or knew otherwise…well I’d have different things to say.

Once again, I want to be clear that I wholeheartedly support keeping people safe.  But I also support people exercising their independence and the risk that goes along with it.  I won’t defame an agency or a support worker acting in good faith towards those goals.  Changes and their employee should not be held accountable for the unforgivable actions of a disturbed man.


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  1. I cannot tell you how angry this article makes me. I worked in this industry. I want you to answer some questions for me.
    1. Was the support worker hired to “support “this woman? Do you know what the word “support” means in this context? Does it imply that the worker will protect and advocate for this woman. Can you do that sitting 2 seats up in the bus with your headphones on?
    2. If a woman who does not have an intellectual disability is fearful of reporting sexual assault, if that woman possibly is so afraid during that attack that she can’t ask for help, how did this young woman have a chance.
    3. You stated “I think she expected it to be safe. I think she felt that the person she was supporting knew how to ask her for help and was comfortable in the environment”. How was she supposed to ask for help, when suddenly her environment became unsafe and she was trapped in her seat by a sexual predator? Was she supposed to jump over him? Was she supposed to leap across 2 seats? Was she supposed to call out hoping that her support worker would hear her over her headphones?
    As a support worker I would hope the bus was safe, I would hope that a predatory person would not hurt the vulnerable person I was being PAID to support, but would I bank on it? No I would not. In Manitoba support workers who take care of intellectually disabled persons have to take a course on the VPA (Vulnerable Persons Act).
    “Direct support is about maximizing independence and providing support where needed.” If you support someone and they want True but the support worker was there to provide support where needed and FAILED in such a huge way. She failed the person she supported. Did she do it intentionally? Maybe not, but she failed her all the same. If you support someone and they are forever damaged by your action of inattention you should not be working in this field.

    • Hi Margaret, your questions will get a full response. I received your email and am currently drafting a reply. Thank-you for bringing your concerns forward.