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Canadian law 'offers very little' to women followed by strangers: expert

Last Updated Mar 24, 2021 at 11:01 am PDT

(CityNews Image)

In Canada, the behaviour commonly referred to as stalking is covered by the offence of 'criminal harassment'

A professor explains how the law offers little recourse for women followed on only one occasion by a stranger

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — If arrested, the man caught on camera following a woman through downtown Vancouver won’t be charged with stalking, and a law professor explains how the Criminal Code of Canada “really offers very little” to women who find themselves in a similar situation.

A video recorded by Jamie Coutts last week of a man following her at a close distance for an extended period of time has since gone viral, and the Vancouver Police Department has confirmed an investigation is ongoing. On Saturday, police announced a “person of interest” had been identified in what a statement described as “the stalking file.”

Const. Tania Visintin said in an email to NEWS 1130 that while there is no offense called “stalking” in the Criminal Code of Canada, police used the term because “it was just simple language used for what has been spoken about this week.”

What is criminal harassment? 

Isabel Grant is a professor at UBC’s Peter A. Allard School of Law with expertise in legal and policy issues surrounding male intimate partner violence against women and sexual assault.

Grant explains that, in Canada, the behaviour commonly referred to as stalking is covered by the offence of “criminal harassment” which was added to the Code in 1993. The law was enacted in response to high-profile murders of women after they had been stalked by former intimate partners. It covers a range of actions that become criminal if they cause another person to “reasonably” fear for their safety or the safety of “anyone known to them.” Often a perpetrator will engage in several of the behaviours listed in the law such as repeated unwanted communication, threats, and surveilling someone’s home.

Following someone is one of the behaviours listed, but Grant explains that charging the man who was filmed following Coutts with criminal harassment would be a challenge because of how the law is worded.

“There are four different ways you can commit this crime. One of them is to repeatedly follow from place to place another person or anyone known to them. The problem with that is the word repeatedly. In this case, there was one very long incident of following,” she says.

“The legislation isn’t entirely clear on how often you have to do that but where it’s following, it has to be ‘repeatedly.’ In other words, women are supposed to tolerate just being followed once.”

If the case goes to court, the Crown will have to prove that the man knew his behaviour was harassing which too often leads to victims’ behaviour being scrutinized. For example, police may try to find evidence that a woman told the man to stop following her, that she changed her phone number to prevent unwanted contact, or that she sent a text telling him to leave her alone.

“The responsibility gets placed on to women to take steps to protect themselves,” she says.

‘Here is someone who was able to document what we all know happens every day’

Grant thinks one of the reasons Coutts’ story has resonated is because of how familiar the feeling of fear she captured is for so many women walking on the city’s streets.

“Most women I know have been in a position where they hear footsteps behind them on a street, and immediately feel apprehensive, or don’t go into an underground parking lot at night or whatever it is for the particular woman,” she says.

“Here is someone who was able to document what we all know happens every day for women and that women internalize so much that we live our lives around it. We don’t walk at night alone, or we take routes where we know there will be other people on the street — so many things that are in our day-to-day behaviour that are designed around avoiding either male violence or at the very least male attention.”

RELATED: Another Vancouver woman speaks out about being followed by a man downtown

Overall, Grant says the criminal justice system is unlikely to offer a remedy for women like Coutts or consequences for the man who followed her.

“There’s very little in the Criminal Code to deal with this,” she says.

The Vancouver Police Department’s quarterly and annual reports on crime in the city don’t include statistics about criminal harassment. The most recent data available from Statistics Canada is from 2009 and points out it is a crime “most often perpetrated against women,” and three out of four victims are female. In these cases, more than half of the perpetrators were current or former intimate partners, and 11 per cent were strangers.

Grant says while the fear women experience in public is ubiquitous, and violent attacks by strangers do happen — the greatest danger to women is from men they know

“Most of the violence, the abuse, and the harassment that women experience is not from strangers. We do experience that, we all fear that, but most of the violence and the threatening that we experience is from the men that we know, often the men who have been in intimate relationships with us, men that are supposed to either have loved or still love us,” she says.