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A Mountie botched her assault investigation when she was 14. The RCMP apologized 20 years later

Jennifer Johner’s voice shakes when she reads the RCMP report from the night of Dec. 9, 2001 — the night she told police she’d been attacked by a man she knew.

Just a glance at those two pages of handwritten scrawl is enough to bring the fear and pain flooding back.

“It broke me apart,” she said.

Just 14 years old at the time, she was lying in an emergency ward with two shattered teeth — courtesy, she said, of a man who “made sexual advances which I did not want” — when an RCMP officer arrived to question her.

He was impatient and dismissive, she said.

“I was trying to explain what had happened and the officer was very aggressive,” she said. “He would keep interrupting me to tell me that he couldn’t understand me.”

A black and white photo of Jennifer Johner when she was 14.
Jennifer Johner aged 14. ‘I had gauze, swelling and … fractured teeth.’ (Submitted by Jennifer Johner)

Johner said the medical gauze in her mouth made it hard to speak. The officer’s notes show he believed she was intoxicated.

“The emergency room doctor report shows that I was alert and coherent and that I didn’t have any alcohol,” she told CBC News in Edmonton, not far from where she’s now living.

“I had gauze, swelling and the fractured teeth. And he didn’t provide me, you know, maybe a piece of paper to write down anything or a witness statement. He just dismissed me.”

Johner said the officer didn’t take photos or a written statement.

“He left a card and left me there at the hospital,” she said.

Two decades of anger

In the police report, the officer said he tried to follow up with Johner but she had moved apartments. Johner she said hadn’t gone anywhere.

With no access to victim services, and living on a low income, Johner said she wasn’t able to access proper dental care.

“My teeth were glued together, which was supposed to be temporary … [They] were glued together for three years,” she said.

“It absolutely affected my confidence in myself, [my] esteem.”

WATCH | RCMP apologize 20 years later: 

RCMP apologizes for failed sexual assault investigation 20 years later

14 hours ago

Duration 2:09

The RCMP are apologizing for failing to properly investigate a sexual assault allegation in 2001. Now, the survivor at the heart of this story is urging others in a similar situation to make their voices heard — no matter how much time has gone by.

She said she tried to carry on with her life but couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d been robbed of justice.

“I was speaking to someone and they told me that anger isn’t a bad emotion, that it is your body’s way of telling you that something’s wrong or an injustice has happened,” she said.

“And that’s stuck with me. It got me thinking. I got curious and I needed to know why the police didn’t help me.”

While many details about her case have been purged from the RCMP’s database due to privacy law and the force’s retention guidelines, she was able to obtain the officer’s notes through a freedom of information request. 

That’s how she learned he thought she was intoxicated and had changed addresses.

“He made a lot of assumptions,” she said.

“The worst part was that he ended his police report saying that if Jennifer would like to move forward, we can do so. And that’s what I thought I tried to do when I was 14 years old. I got the doctor to call the RCMP so that I could explain what happened.”

Johner launched a formal complaint against the investigating officer in 2022.

Last year, more than 20 years after the fact, the RCMP detachment in Burnaby, B.C. sent Johner a letter admitting the officer had failed to conduct a thorough investigation and supporting her claim that he’d neglected his duty.

“It is very unfortunate that you had this negative experience with an RCMP officer at a young age. In particular, I am concerned that [the constable] was not more sensitive and diligent in his investigation involving a young victim,” says the letter, signed by Chief Superintendent Graham De La Gorgendiere and shared with CBC News.

“On behalf of the RCMP, I wish to convey to you my regret over this oversight. Please accept my apology for any distress you may have experienced from this incident.”

Too late to pursue charges, RCMP says

The letter goes on to say that, given the time that has elapsed, the force would not pursue charges against the alleged perpetrator.

“It is important to note that had [the constable] explored these steps at the onset, an offence location would likely have been identified and perishable physical evidence may have been preserved,” it says.

Chief Superintendent De La Gorgendiere told Johner that since the officer in question is now retired, he couldn’t be compelled to take part in the investigation of her complaint. He wrote that while “reasonable attempts have been made” to persuade him to engage with the complaint, “he has chosen not to respond.”

Jennifer Johner reads over the RCMP's letter acknowledging the officer didn't properly investigate her matter
Jennifer Johner reads over the RCMP’s letter acknowledging its officer didn’t properly investigate her case. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

With that letter in hand, Johner said, she was finally deemed a victim of crime and was able to access counselling.

“That felt very validating,” she said. “It also brought a lot of anger.

“Because I was a 14 year old girl. I didn’t know how to process what had happened, and at that age I needed someone who was trained to walk me through those emotions and those feelings that I didn’t know how to process. Having the person that you think will help you dismiss me was something that I carried to this day.

“Have I been healed by anything that the RCMP has done or said? No. But advocating for myself and getting recognition that what happened to me was wrong and that it was a crime, and that I am a victim, was vital.”

RCMP reviewing past sexual assault cases

The RCMP launched a project to review previous sexual assault investigations after an explosive 2017 report by the Globe and Mail exposed flaws in the way police across Canada handle sexual assault claims.

The newspaper’s investigation found investigators dismiss about one in five sexual assault cases as unfounded — a far higher rate than for other types of crime.

The RCMP says it has reviewed more than 30,000 of its previous sexual assault investigations and has found “consistent deficiencies” in how they were handled — including some instances of investigators failing to interview victims and suspects.

A spokesperson for the RCMP said its National Office of Sexual Offence Investigative Standards recently reviewed cases involving victims between the ages of 12 and 17, but the data isn’t yet available.

RCMP Sgt. Kim Chamberland said that in the wake of the Globe’s report, the force also set up Sexual Assault Investigations Review committees in each RCMP division to “ensure that best investigative practices in cases of sexual assault are followed by investigators before concluding the file.”

Flowers stuffed animals and homemade signs are seen along a Nova Scotia highway.
A memorial is seen along the road in Wentworth, N.S. on Friday, April 24, 2020 after a man went on a murderous rampage, killing 22 people. (Liam Hennessey/Canadian Press)

But the RCMP still comes in for criticism over how it handles allegations of sexual assault and domestic violence.

Last year, the inquiry investigating the April 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia recommended increasing supervision for front-line police officers. The inquiry cited shortcomings in how Mounties handled the cases of Lisa Banfield, the common-law spouse of the gunman in the mass shooting, and the murder of Susan Butlin of Bayhead, N.S.

The gunman was abusive toward Banfield for years and was reported to police for domestic assault, issuing threats and possessing illegal firearms. No police investigation or charges followed those reports.

Butlin reported to police that a neighbour had sexually assaulted her and was harassing her. Several officers who looked into her complaints reported no indications of criminal offences. Butlin was shot and killed by that neighbour in September 2017.

“The examples reviewed … suggest that some — perhaps many — front-line police are not sufficiently familiar with the existing criminal law and with patterns of gender-based violence,” says the final report of the Mass Casualty Commission, which investigated the 2020 massacre.

RCMP needs to be more transparent, advocate says

The RCMP’s watchdog, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC), has frequently taken the Mounties to task for bungling sexual assault investigations.

In one redacted case, the CRCC wrote that an “RCMP member’s approach and questioning of the woman was based on inappropriate myths and stereotypes about the conduct of sexual assault victims.”

Sunny Marriner is the Canadian lead on the Violence Against Women (VAW) Advocate Case Review, an oversight project that works with police to review sexual assault investigations that don’t lead to charges. She has been demanding more transparency from police services like the RCMP about sexual assault investigations.

“Most sexual assault investigations for people who are over the age of 12 still come down to a fundamental assessment of credibility of that survivor,” she said.

“With the cases that have been looked at, how many of those have resulted in additional investigative steps being taken? How many of those have resulted potentially even in a perpetrator being charged? Until we can kind of see the outcomes, it’s very difficult to say.”

A woman is shown speaking to the camera with a bookcase behind her.
Sunny Marriner, the Canadian lead on the Violence Against Women (VAW) Advocate Case Review, has been calling for more transparency from police agencies on sexual assault investigations. (CBC)

Marriner said she fears that while many sexual assault cases are no longer labelled “unfounded,” many cases still don’t proceed to charges.

“The number one goal that survivors share with us about reporting, the reason that they do it, is for the protection of others,” she said.

“So is that goal being achieved through the criminal justice system? That’s what I pay attention to.”

Officers’ decisions ‘have lasting results’: Johner

Marriner said anyone who takes on the RCMP like Johner did should have a personal support system and keep in mind what they can and can’t control.

“What we can’t control is whether or not police believe survivors, or whether or not the criminal justice system believes survivors, or … whether the public is going to believe survivors. Nobody can make that happen,” she said.

“If their end goal is so that they know that they fought, or that they did everything that they could do, or that they weren’t going to feel OK if they hadn’t … stood up for themselves, then you can accomplish that. You can absolutely accomplish that goal by going back and attempting to move the case forward.”

While Johner said the apology was far too little and very late, she doesn’t regret fighting for it.

“I would do it again. I think that victims that have dealt with negligence, dealt with bias, need to be heard,” she said.

“It was a hard process. It was a long process. But I hope sharing my story lets other people know that they’re not alone in that.”

She said she also hopes the RCMP is listening.

“I want them to learn that the choices that they make in the field have lasting results and that something that an officer may just dismiss will live with that victim for the rest of their lives,” she said.

“This officer is now retired and he gets to go on and enjoy his life and his retirement. And I have to deal with his actions.”

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