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Standing up for victims

When Tamara Horsey first encountered Yukon's criminal justice system, it was not her choice. She had committed no crime.

When Tamara Horsey first encountered Yukon’s criminal justice system, it was not her choice.

She had committed no crime. Exactly eight years ago today she was tied up, raped and kidnapped in a violent ordeal that lasted more than two days, before police found her and arrested her attacker.

Today, she is still fighting a system that doesn’t always have her rights at the front of mind.

She fights not only for herself, but for other victims who are going through the system and may not be able to advocate for themselves.

“In my opinion, the system is very much revolved around the perpetrator, not the victim. The perpetrator has all the rights, the victim doesn’t. The perpetrator can cancel a hearing with two minutes notice, and a victim can’t.”

Horsey recalls flying to B.C. for a parole hearing scheduled for just two days before Christmas.

She had to cancel holiday plans to prepare to face her attacker, again, in hopes that her words would convince the parole board to keep him locked away.

“I was allowed to write letters and send it,” she said. “But they’re not getting my emotion by reading it. They’re not getting my facial expressions, they’re not getting how hurt I am just by reading a letter.

“About five minutes before the hearing was supposed to start, they cancelled it. So we flew there for no reason.”

Parole hearings and the like should revolve around what the victim needs, not the perpetrator, she said.

Horsey’s attacker is scheduled to be released in February.

She’s now fighting for him to be barred from the Yukon, or other legal protections that could help keep her safe.

“He’s said he’ll come back and get me,” said Horsey. “Now I’m right back in the system, talking to the RCMP, talking to the Crown, trying to see if this stuff is possible. I might even have to go back to court and face him again, just to get that stuff, to prove that I have a right to be scared, and I have a right to have this stuff in place for the rest of my life.”

* * *

Tamara has never been shy about telling her story.

More than two years ago she shared the horrible details with the Yukon News, hoping it would help other victims feel safe coming forward.

Women did reach out to her after that, and she began reaching out as well, hoping to change the system so it does a better job for future victims.

She started with Justice Minister Mike Nixon.

“I’m one of those people - I go to the top and work my way down,” she said.

From there she connected with Victim Services and networked with other advocates in the territory.

Horsey has volunteered with just about every Yukon organization that deals with victims of crime. She has run peer-support groups for women who have experienced violence.

She has spoken at the last two Victims’ Forums hosted by the Yukon government about how professionals who come into contact with victims through their work can do a better job to support them.

This week Nixon presented Horsey with a Community Safety Award for her volunteer work advocating for victims.

“She’s an amazing woman,” said Nixon in a recent interview.

“It gives me goosebumps, even talking about it. She’s a remarkable person. I think she’s done far more for our community than she knows she has.”

She finds time to help others in addition to her full-time job and the time she needs to “deal with my own stuff.”

That alone is a lot of work.

“I don’t think people realize, it’s a full-time job to be a victim. It really is.

“Even me. It’s been eight years, and every day I have some sort of struggle.”

* * *

When Horsey started advocating for victims about two years ago, some changes were already in the works.

Yukon launched a Victims of Crime Strategy in 2009, and in 2011 it proclaimed the Victims of Crime Act.

“Our government started recognizing that victims do play a role, and have an important role in our justice system, and that it’s time to give victims a voice,” said Annette King, director of Victim Services, in an interview this month.

Community groups were pushing for change in the wake of high profile cases like the death of Raymond Silverfox in RCMP custody in 2008 and allegations of sexual assault against two Watson Lake RCMP officers in 2009.

A full review of Yukon’s police force was conducted in 2010. Many recommendations from the Sharing Common Ground report have since been implemented.

One big change is that, since 2011, Victim Services will help any victim of any crime. It used to be specific to victims of domestic and sexual assaults.

There does not have to be a charge or a conviction in order for a victim to access services. The victim does not have to report to the police or be willing to testify against the perpetrator.

As of last year the RCMP has a dedicated unit with special training to handle domestic abuse, sexual assault and child welfare cases.

And Victim Services is doing more to have a presence outside of Whitehorse. There are offices in Dawson City and Watson Lake, and every community has a victim support worker assigned to it.

Horsey’s advocacy for victims began at a crucial time, when the Justice Department was in the middle of a lot of these big changes, said King.

By telling her story, she helped to guide real changes.

“She kind of just brought to life and put a face on the issues that we were looking at strategically.”

Horsey is able to speak for victims who don’t feel they can speak up, while still understanding that every victim’s experience and response is different, said King.

* * *

Beyond navigating a justice system that can make little sense to a victim, the worst part of Horsey’s experience were the attitudes she faced along the way, she said.

“Everybody kept assuming I was in a relationship with this guy, so more or less I was asking for it. Stuff like that that you really don’t want to hear when you’ve just been through something so traumatic. You want people to stand behind you, not be like, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have done this,’ or ‘Maybe you should’ve done that.’ Or ‘You shouldn’t have been wearing this,’ or ‘You shouldn’t have been drinking that.’ It’s like, OK, to me it doesn’t matter. I can wear what I want, I can drink what I want, and that’s not an invitation.”

Attitudes like that are part of the reason that fewer than one-in-10 sexual assaults in Canada are reported to police, according to a 2004 Statistics Canada survey.

Here in the Yukon we have a particularly long way to go. The territory’s rate of reported violent crime against women was four times the national average in 2004.

In a small community, it can be harder to escape violence and abusive situations, said Horsey.

With some of the women she’s worked with, they keep getting victimized by the same person, over and over again, she said.

People will always ask why she doesn’t leave. But the important question is, “How does he keep forcing her to go back? What is he controlling, that’s making her come back?” she said.

“It’s just heartbreaking. You put them in support groups, you’ve given them some tools, but obviously they’re not the tools that they need. So you have to keep juggling different tools and go, ‘OK, try this basket of tricks, OK try this basket of tricks.’ You have to find out what keeps getting them to go back. Is it the kids? Is it the finances?”

Until you can figure out what her abuser is controlling and how to make it so he no longer controls that thing, not a lot else will work, she said.

* * *

The attitudes that victims face and the services available have improved significantly in the eight years since her kidnapping, said Horsey.

“Things are getting better. But if I were to say on a scale of one to 100 how much better things have got, I’d say we’re maybe only a quarter of the way.”

Her dream is to start a non-profit organization, a sort of umbrella group that would advocate and provide services for victims of all crimes.

“I always, always feel hopeful,” she said. “I think that’s the reason that I got into this. Because I hope for a better future for other victims. I hope to change even just one little thing for them, just to make their journey that much better.”

Success for a victim can be as simple as getting out of bed in the morning, said Horsey.

“Gold star for you if you can get up in the morning. That is quite a task for some. It’s not easy. The easy thing to do would be to dig a little hole and climb in it. So if you don’t do that, you’re successful in my mind. And even if you do dig that hole, you’re still successful in my mind. As long as you’re not dead, and you’re living, you’re successful.”

It’s important to give victims credit for the work they have done, she said.

“If you can just remind yourself how awesome you are, and how strong you are, and how far you’ve come, and get over that trigger for the day, that’s success to me. Even if you have the same trigger the next day. Whatever, you got over it yesterday, you can get over it today - I don’t know if ‘get over it’ is the right word. You can work through it.”

The work that Horsey has done wouldn’t be possible without a great network of groups and individuals fighting to see change in the system, she said.

“One person cannot fight a community worth of problems. You need the whole community.”

Victim Services is located at 301 Jarvis St., and can be reached during office hours at 667-8500.

Twenty-four-hour support is available by calling VictimLink at 1-800-563-0808.

Conatct Jacqueline Ronson at