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Charting the evolution of sexual assault response in Whistler

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month 
N-Sex Assault 29.14 GETTY IMAGES
The Howe Sound Women’s Centre has been instrumental in improving sexual assault response in Whistler and the Sea to Sky.

In a number of ways, the qualities of Whistler that make it so appealing to visitors the world over are the same factors that can make it difficult to prevent and respond to sexual assault: a sports-centric town with a thriving party culture; a young, transient international workforce; and a hotspot for tourists coming and going from the resort. 

Like so many other locally available resources, the ever-shifting nature of our population can make awareness of the supports offered to survivors a challenge. That’s why Sexual Assault Awareness Month—which the councils of Whistler, Pemberton and Squamish have proclaimed—is such a critical time for groups like the Howe Sound Women’s Centre (HSWC), the Squamish-based non-profit that offers a range of programs throughout the Sea to Sky. 

“It’s really about hitting the pavement and making us known over and over,” said Kelsey Watson, drop-in support and outreach worker for the HSWC-operated Whistler Women’s Centre. “That one person at one bar, that one staff member— whoever—that may have experienced a sexual assault, someone around them may not know about the resources, so it’s really keeping the awareness up.” 

Evolving responses

The HSWC has made significant headway over the years in creating a more robust sexual assault response in the corridor. Last year, the centre received just under $300,000 from the province for its Traverse Project, funding that has allowed the organization to set up a five-person, 24/7 mobile response team covering the entire corridor. 

“We received two and a half years of funding to provide sexual assault response as a mobile team, so we can go to where people disclose if they have been sexually assaulted,” explained Shannon Herdman, sexual assault response and prevention coordinator for the HSWC. 

Response workers meet with survivors at a location of their choosing, can assist them with safety planning and follow-up resources, advise them of their rights and legal options, and connect them to emergency or transitional housing. They can also link visitors to supports in their home community, if necessary. 

With the funding extending until March 2023, the HSWC is hopeful it will be able to access a chunk of the $22 million Victoria has earmarked for community-based sexual assault response services, starting in 2023-24. Incredibly, due to budget cuts, it’s the first time since 2002 that B.C. has committed stable funding for sexual assault response in the province. 

“We feel pretty confident we’ll be fortunate to be selected as a service provider since we’ve basically been working on this initiative since 2005,” Herdman noted. 

Last year saw two of the organization’s other long-held visions for Whistler become a reality: a temporary, emergency safe-house program, using unoccupied short-term rentals and hotel rooms, as well as affordable, second-stage housing in the form of a Whistler townhouse for women and gender non-conforming individuals fleeing gender-based violence. That’s in addition to the existing transition house in Squamish, which accepts individuals from across the corridor and can house up to seven people at a time, along with a safe house in Pemberton, which can house a small family. 

Long overdue for Whistler, demand for the housing options has been high throughout the pandemic. 

“I don’t know if it’s a sign of the stressors brought on by the pandemic or the fact our collective population is growing so fast in in our region, but we’ve always been full,” Herdman said. 

The HSWC was also instrumental in advocating for third-party reporting of sexual assault in the Sea to Sky, which allows survivors 14 and over* to report anonymously to police through a trained support worker. That initiative launched in 2018. 

Two years later, forensic sexual assault exams became available in Whistler and Squamish 24/7. Previously, the exams were only available during business hours Monday through Friday at the Squamish General Hospital. These days, nurses can travel between health-care centres in the corridor, “so just having that mobility … I think is leading to more disclosures,” Herdman said. 

Breaking down the stigma

Like so many other social issues, the HSWC has noted a shift in the way we understand and talk about sexual assault in the pandemic. Part of that is breaking down the stigma that has historically followed survivors, particularly in a party town like Whistler. 

“I think there’s an openness to ask for help—and I think people want to develop the skills to be of help. Things like mental health first aid, it would be nice if there was an equivalent first aid available for sexual assault response that the public could easily access,” Herdman said, adding that will likely be one of the recommendations that comes out of the Traverse Project. 

Increasingly, support workers at the HSWC are meeting clients seeking to better understand if what they experienced constitutes assault. 

“With the trauma response, of course, people sometimes are in denial. Maybe they don’t want to acknowledge what really happened,” Herdman said. “And so it takes a little while before they wrap around it. Often the first disclosures are with trusted friends, trusted family.” 

Especially in a community as seasonal as Whistler is, everyone from hospitality and bar staff to managers and even average citizens have a role to play. 

“What is après ski culture? It’s another way of saying hook-up culture, and within that vein, there are people who take advantage of people who want to have a genuine good time and they turn it into something tragic,” Herdman said. “So if we can keep an eye out for those predators … then that’s a victory.” 

According to the Whistler RCMP’s most recent annual report to mayor and council, reports of sexual assault decreased from 29 incidents in 2019 to 17 in 2020, although, of course, Whistler’s nightlife and tourism sectors were at a standstill for much of the year due to COVID-19-related closures. Domestic violence, however, was up 31 per cent, from 32 reports in 2019 to 42 in 2020, reflecting a wider national and international trend during the pandemic. 

Girls and women under 25 have the highest rates of police-reported sexual assault in the country, accounting for more than half of all survivors. The rate of self-reported assault among Indigenous women, meanwhile, is nearly three times that of non-Indigenous women, while people with disabilities, especially women with mental disabilities, are also at a higher risk of being sexually assaulted. The number of police-reported sexual assaults in B.C. is known to be “a vast under-representation” of the issue, according to the province, with “most survivors never involving police.” Some estimates indicate as little as 10 per cent of all sexual assaults get reported to authorities. 

The HSWC is hosting its annual Denim & Diamonds fundraiser on April 22 at the Longhorn Saloon. Tickets are available at

The non-profit has also partnered with Mountain Jiu-Jitsu in Whistler to offer free self-defence classes for women. The classes run April 14, 21 and 28 on the second floor of 1420 Alpha Lake Road in Function. Email [email protected] to register. 

The Traverse Project’s response team can be reached by call or text at 604-389-9168. 

For more information, visit

*An earlier version of this article stated third-party sex assault reporting was available for those 19 and up. In fact, it is available for anyone 14 and up.