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Crime victims, the ‘sacrificial animals’

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It’s a word you hear so often on the crime beat it might start losing its meaning.

Victim. What does it mean? How do we use one simple word to impart the trauma each victim suffers at the hands of crime?

The Latin roots of the word mean ‘sacrificial animal’ – or victima.

It couldn’t be more accurate, this root, especially after some experiences lately which lend credence to the idea victims (and their loved ones) are often treated as the disposable afterthought.

Recently, I got the chance to sit down with Const. Julie Sproule of the Victims Services Section and volunteer caseworker Hugh Ritchie.

The piece focused on robbery victims and led with a bank teller I interviewed, but the VSS works with over 10,000 victims each year from all sorts of crimes ranging from sex assault to homicide.

Both Ritchie and Sproule had some valuable insights into the nature of what it’s like to be a victim, which gave me a lot of thought after I attended a series of recent seminars organized by the Manitoba Organization for Victim Assistance (MOVA).

MOVA is for family and friends of homicide victims, some of whom have told me their stories.

At these meetings, I was reminded again the recurring experience of being a victim – a sacrificial lamb at the feet of a large and elaborate justice system – is powerlessness.

It’s the powerlessness of finding out where police investigations go, or ignorance of how police work in the first place. This causes angst on both sides.

It’s powerlessness of finding out how the court process grinds on, or how Crowns decide to prosecute accused.

Powerlessness over what happens when trials go sideways. It’s material things – powerlessness over what happens to their loved ones belongings, a pair of old shoes or a jar of pennies.

And don’t worry, I’m not going to let myself off the hook here – it also included powerlessness over how the media covers things.

"The media unfortunately doesn’t give victims a voice. They want to report on the accused, and unfortunately, that what’s been sensationalized in our society. They don’t want to hear how a victim is coping with what’s happened to them," said Sproule. She made me think.

The greatest irony, of course, is those that will suffer the most after a crime will end up retaining the least amount of power over how that event will be investigated, discussed or resolved.

The VSS – which is largely run by volunteer caseworkers – attempts to mend this great, gaping powerlessness by providing people with updates about cases and listening to their tales.

Ritchie said the most important thing is to listen to victim’s tell their stories, like people impacted by break-and-enters.

"You don’t understand how that has impacted on the whole family. Someone was robbed, our attitude is basically ‘get on with it, get on with your life,’" said Ritchie.

MOVA has also made one small step in reclaiming this powerlessness by bringing together a group of people stitched together by horrific common experience, a small sparkle of hope in a life-obliterating experience.

I already think about victims when I am doing my job – I argue they are the most compelling people who drive police and lawyers and social service workers (and media) to do their best.

They make me think of this quote by legendary Miami crime reporter Edna Buchanan, which I often repeat: "People ask if I am callous and cold after years on the police beat. Quite the contrary. You cannot grow calluses on your heart.

If I have become anything, it is more sensitive, because I now know the truth: The victim will most likely be victimized again, by the system."
This word, victim, though – that label I do not like. They are more than lambs to slaughter, or animals destined for sacrifice.

I just don’t have the words yet to impart the gravity of their experience, the depth of their loss, the strength of their resilience. They stagger me.

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About Gabrielle Giroday

Gabrielle has handled the police and crime beat for the Winnipeg Free Press since 2009, meaning she’s seen the best and worst humanity has to offer.

Covering the crime beat in a city known for its homicide rate and violent crime can be challenging, but Gabrielle tries to look at the more complex factors that drive violent events. She began the beat after originally joining the Free Press in June 2005.

Her previous experience contributing to the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business magazine, the National Post, Maisonneuve magazine and NOW Magazine. She was also a member of the editorial board of the Queen’s University Feminist Review, and completed a degree there in politics and English. Some of the Toronto native’s favourite adventures include hitchhiking in the Cuban countryside during a stint studying in Havana, and hanging off the back of a jeep climbing the Kanchenjunga mountain in Nepal.

Gabrielle also felt privileged to write about the first-time elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the summer of 2006, and received a grant from the Canadian Association of Journalists and Canadian International Development Agency to write about sexual violence there.

She recently went to Cameroon in fall 2010 as part of an expert election monitoring team, on behalf of the Commonwealth.

When she’s not chasing a story, Gabrielle can be found jogging every morning by the Legislature and down Portage Avenue.

She’s always enthusiastic about stories that involve investigating the road less travelled or the opinion less broadcast.

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