Why a French-speaking woman was denied a rape kit at a Montreal hospital
The process to get a rape kit in Montreal is being questioned after a sexual assault victim was reportedly brought to three different hospitals before receiving the service.
The 2020 incident has also triggered an investigation by Quebec's language watchdog, the OQLF, as the victim was initially redirected because she speaks French.
Advocates say the woman's story, recounted to a judge last week during her aggressor's trial, reflects larger accessibility issues in reporting sexual assaults and a need to update a protocol that hasn't changed in decades.
A 'WELL-KNOWN' AGREEMENT
According to reporting from La Presse and the Journal de Montreal, police first brought the victim to the Montreal General Hospital, but she was referred elsewhere on account of her mother tongue.
This is because of a specific, language-related protocol used to treat sexual assault victims in Montreal.
On nights, weekends and holidays, "the Montreal General Hospital ED [emergency department] is mandated to provide services to English-speaking [sexual assault victims], and the ED at Hôpital Notre-Dame to French-speaking patients," reads a statement from the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), which oversees the General Hospital.
"This arrangement is well known to all those involved in the management of these cases," the statement continues.
The procedure is part of a "long-standing agreement" with the Centre pour les victimes d'agression sexuelle de Montréal (CVASM), the city's "designated centre" for medical intervention in sexual assault cases, which operates during business hours.
The CVASM, for its part, offers services in both French and English.
"Outside normal hours [...] it is our duty to inform French-speaking victims that Notre-Dame is the designated hospital. However, under no circumstances [do] we refuse to treat anyone who prefers to stay at the Montreal General Hospital, regardless of language," the MUHC wrote.
A FAILED ATTEMPT AT THE CHUM
But reports claim the woman wasn't sent directly to Notre-Dame, as protocol requires. Instead, she was reportedly directed towards the Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal (CHUM), where rape kits haven't been administered since 2017.
"In good faith, the police officers followed the hospital staff's instructions and accompanied the victim there [the CHUM].They were then redirected to Hôpital Notre-Dame, which provided the necessary care and services to the victim," reads a statement from the Montreal police department (SPVM).
But the MUHC denies this, telling CTV News that "the triage nurses in our ED are all well aware of the long-standing entente of many years that specifies that Hôpital Notre-Dame is the designated centre providing care at night and during weekends and statutory holidays for victims of sexual abuse who speak French. As such, a patient would not be redirected to the CHUM by the MGH [Montreal General Hospital]."
When asked why, given the language protocol, the victim was brought to the Montreal General Hospital in the first place, the SPVM said:
"When someone is sexually assaulted, the primary concern of police officers is to reassure and reassure the victim. With this in mind, the victim was taken to the nearest designated center to receive medico-legal and medico-social follow-up as quickly as possible -- in this case, the Montreal General Hospital."
Despite the confusion, the victim was eventually transported to Hôpital Notre-Dame, where the rape kit was administered.
Three years later, evidence collected during the procedure would lead to her rapist's conviction, who was sentenced to 18 months in jail last week.
FRENCH-LANGUAGE WATCHDOG INVESTIGATING
The OQLF confirmed it's launching an investigation into the Montreal General Hospital.
"This situation is unacceptable. The facts reported by the judge are extremely disturbing. Our hearts go out to the victim," reads a statement from French Language Minister Jean-François Roberge's cabinet.
"All hospitals in Quebec must offer services in French. The OQLF will investigate the availability of French-language services at this hospital."
The MUHC executive director, Dr. Lucie Opatrny, said in her own statement that the "reported facts point to an event that is unacceptable and incompatible with the MUHC's responsibilities, values and mission," noting that an internal investigation has been launched.
"We never refuse any patient. We are proud to offer care and services in both French and English, depending on the patient's preference, in all our sites," Dr. Opatrny said.
A SYSTEMIC ISSUE?
Deborah Trent, director of the CVASM, believes the problem runs deeper than language.
"The fact that we have this protocol and that it's based linguistically, of course, does not mean that the Montreal General cannot provide services to people who are francophone. So it's not a linguistic issue from our perspective, it's a protocol issue," she explained.
She said the current system has been in place since the 1970s.
"The reality -- linguistically, demographically -- of Montreal has altered and changed, and is it the best way to provide the service going forward? Absolutely we need to look at that," she said.
"Forty-some years later, we should sit down and look at the protocol and make sure, is this the right way of doing it?"
Justine Chenier, spokesperson for RQCALACS, a Quebec coalition of sexaul assault centres, says the situation reflects the province's overall lack of resources when it comes to administering rape kits.
"Effectively, there's a lack of personnel," she said, explaining that specialized training is needed as the evidence gathered during the process could be used in court.
She said that while she applauds investigative efforts by the OQLF and MUHC, the underlying need for accessibility has to be addressed.
"What we hope is to have to have better acess to legal medical services for people who have been sexually assaulted," she said.
"It's by forming and designating more centres, but also by training workers to give this type of service [...] and guaranteeing people access in their language."