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Bail in sexual assault case needs answers

News that a Ndilo man has been charged with two additional sexual assaults after being granted bail on a previous sexual assault charge has raised questions about whether public safety is a priority when people charged with sexual assault are released before trial.

In March, the RCMP issued a warrant for Peter Tsetta's arrest, for charges of sexual assault and forcible confinement. He has previous convictions, spanning from petty crime to violent offenses.

But on April 3, despite opposition from the Crown prosecutor, Tsetta was released by Justice of the Peace Ruth McLean. It was while out on bail that he is alleged to have sexually assaulted two more women.

None of the charges have been proven in court but the situation certainly merits reflection.

Lyda Fuller, executive director of the YWCA, said she was “appalled” by his release, and questions how the Department of Justice defines threats to public safety when a Justice of the Peace is assessing release conditions for a person charged with a sexual offence.

Adding to the uncertainty in this case is the RCMP's refusal to say whether a risk assessment on Tsetta was provided for his bail hearing.

Justices of the peace often preside over bail hearings in the Northwest Territories, as they do in many other jurisdictions, except in cases where the charge is murder. While they do receive training, justices of the peace do not typically have a legal background.

A department spokesperson said there is “no set rule or guideline” for when a Justice of the Peace presides over a bail hearing as opposed to an actual judge.

Whatever the reasons Tsetta was granted bail, and given the troubling charges that occurred afterwards, people are right to question whether sexual assault cases are treated seriously enough in the Northwest Territories.

Is it appropriate that bail hearings for such a serious charge be handled by the same court that dishes out fines for traffic tickets?

According to Statistics Canada, as of 2013, the rate of violence against women in the NWT is nine times the national rate. Statistics Canada found that there were 138 cases of sexual assault reported to the RCMP in 2016 -- but these numbers are far from accurate. Research shows that sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes.

Status of Women Canada reports as many as one in three women will be sexually assaulted in Canada -- and that doesn't include male victims, who are even less likely to report it.

For Indigenous citizens, it gets worse. Status of Women found that sexual assaults account for one third of all violent crimes committed against Indigenous women, who are already more likely than non-indigenous women to experience violence.

It's not good enough that Justice Minister Louis Sebert had no comment about Tsetta's case. The justice departments needs to do more than comment -- it needs to prove the system in place works to protect women.

An important step would be to educate the public on how bail works and to publicly examine whether there are any problems with it.

Someone you know, someone you care about, someone maybe sitting right next to you while you read this has been raped, and has more than likely not reported it. One of the main barriers to reporting is the fear that one will not be believed, or that there will be no justice served.

Confidence has been shaken. The justice department needs to take steps to restore it.