Far from home: What happens when a Canadian is sexually assaulted in a foreign country

LONGREAD: Emily Spanton reported that she was gang-raped while on vacation in Paris. She’s been navigating the French justice system for more than four years—and Canada has done little to help her
By Viviane Fairbank - Published on June 4, 2018
Emily Spanton at Niagara Falls. (Photos by Viviane Fairbank)

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Around 2 a.m. one night in April 2014, Emily Spanton, 34, staggered down a winding flight of stairs toward the main floor of what was then the headquarters of the Paris police. Her tights and glasses were missing; her shoes were in her hands. Her body was sore, covered in bruises and scrapes.

Just a few hours earlier, at a nearby Irish pub, she’d been enjoying a night out—one of her last in the city, where she was taking a week’s vacation from her real-estate job in Toronto. At the pub, she’d met some officers from an elite police taskforce, all men in their late 30s and 40s, dressed in street clothes and enjoying a night off. After sharing a few drinks with Spanton, some of the officers invited her to see the place where they worked: 36 Quai des Orfèvres—commonly known as “36”—the iconic 19th-century building on the bank of the Seine.

A couple of hours later, they followed Spanton down the stairs. One of them told the building’s on-duty officers—who had seen the group enter earlier but thought nothing of it—that Spanton was merely drunk and upset. Over and over, Spanton, who speaks some French, repeated that she had been raped. But “officers and witnesses said she was screaming, ‘They robbed me,’” Sophie Obadia, Spanton’s Paris-based lawyer, says. (In French, the word violée means “raped”; volée means “robbed.”) Though Spanton repeated her accusations in English, getting someone to understand her—and believe her—was a challenge.

In the building lobby, she sat on the floor and asked to speak with a woman. “I didn’t want to leave until they listened,” she says. A few of the officers she had met at the bar stood around, quiet and looking embarrassed. They told their colleagues at the station that it was all a misunderstanding; they mentioned a stolen jacket. Two servers from the pub, women who spoke a bit of English, were finally brought to the scene to translate. As Spanton waited for help to arrive from another station, one of the servers lent her a cellphone, and she immediately called her dad, a police officer in Toronto, to ask for advice about pressing charges. Eventually, a lieutenant arrived, and around 5 a.m., Spanton gave a formal statement.

After an hours-long wait in another police station that morning, Spanton was taken to hospital, where she completed a rape kit, a forensic exam in which doctors noted her injuries and took various samples from her body. “I will never forget that they let me pee and wash my hands before going to the hospital,” she tells me, upset that some evidence might have been lost. She was tested for drugs, though the police officers were not. She was taken back to the scene of the incident the following day and asked to describe who had done what, where, and for how long. Returning so soon to 36 made her vomit. Later, a psychologist interviewed her to assess her credibility, and an investigative judge (a formal title in France for the person who, separate from police, investigates a crime before consulting with the prosecution) searched her hotel room and her computer while she watched. Spanton didn’t get a chance to sleep during the 48 hours that followed the incident.

Spanton endured 35 hours of legal proceedings over the course of one and a half years to prepare for a trial that hasn’t happened yet — but she has received virtually no support from the Canadian government.

It was on the second day of the investigation that Spanton contacted the Canadian government. “The first time I walked up to the embassy in Paris, I cried,” she says. “It filled me with a sense of having people, of no longer facing this alone.” On the fourth day of investigation, three officers—whose names are protected by French law because they work for an elite force—were placed on probation: two faced criminal charges, while one was named an “assisted witness” (meaning he was under suspicion but had not been criminally charged). The men were being investigated on charges of viol en réunion—that is, gang rape—but also for disrupting the crime scene: liquor bottles had disappeared from 36 that night, as had Spanton’s tights. The tights were never recovered. During those first hours after the event, when Spanton was sitting on the floor and the most evidence was available to be collected, no one treated the location as a crime scene. “They think, here, the police is very important,” Obadia told me. “And she is only a Canadian tourist.”

Spanton grew up in the east end of Toronto, but after returning from her trip to Paris, she left her job in the city and moved to St. Catharines to be closer to family. I met her there, near the shores of Lake Ontario, on a misty afternoon last December. We drove to Niagara Falls and sat on a bench in front of the cliff, watching one lake pour into another. There, we discussed what Spanton had experienced in the aftermath of that night in Paris. The case has captured the attention of the French public but has barely registered in this country. And despite having endured 35 hours of painful legal proceedings over the course of one and a half years to prepare for a trial that hasn’t happened yet, Spanton has received an almost total lack of support from the Canadian government.

a building on the bank of the Siene river

In 2016, 244 Canadians reported to the federal government that they’d been assaulted abroad. When someone comes forward with a complaint, Global Affairs Canada opens an electronic file for their case, updating it with any new developments. The department also offers immediate assistance: by paying for a flight home, for example, or providing a list of helpful foreign lawyers and doctors. But it seems there is little Canada is willing to offer in the long term.

Nearly four years later, Spanton says, she’s on her own: “You have to figure out how to pay for your return to the country where you were assaulted so you can face them in court.” Having sent multiple emails to the provincial and federal governments about access to mental-health services, disability payments, and financial aid — emails that Spanton says went unanswered, with the exception of one to which the Ministry of Finance replied — she feels forgotten and ignored.

Spanton did receive help after she contacted the embassy that first week. A worker from the embassy accompanied her to appointments and provided moral support. Global Affairs arranged to reschedule her flight home so that she could comply with the investigation. They helped her find a doctor, by providing a list of names—but the consultation fee, had the doctor she visited not chosen to waive it, would have been Spanton’s responsibility. They gave her some money to buy food, but when she returned to Canada, she says, they asked for a refund. Spanton believes that in her case, it was clear that the government was concerned with getting her home safely and little else. (Global Affairs refused to comment on the case, citing privacy concerns.)     

Canadians have started to have long-overdue conversations about sexual assault: we’ve begun to understand how frequently it happens, how rarely perpetrators are held accountable, and the life-changing effects it can have on survivors. But too often, when stories of sexual abuse come to light, we focus on the brutal act while ignoring the hardships that survivors face immediately afterwards—like having to endure lengthy and painful criminal investigations and find access to mental-health services and support. Pamela Cross, a Toronto lawyer and educator who specializes in violence against women, says that people who try to press charges for sexual assault end up in “no-man’s land,” isolated and alone. Those stories are important. They underscore just how unwelcoming our mechanisms are to those who have experienced sexual assault—both within and beyond our borders. “The system is supposed to facilitate a long-term solution,” Spanton says. Because of the lack of communication and support, she feels the government has failed her.

“In France, we’ve been talking about sexual assault every day for the past two months,” Obadia  told me in late November. The topic had been in the news ever since the New York Times first published an article in early October detailing allegations that Harvey Weinstein had sexually harassed and abused multiple women. 

When Obadia and I met, on the second floor of an office building in one of Paris’s main business districts, a few blocks from the Champs-Élysées, headlines about “L’Affaire Harvey Weinstein” were dominating the news. Obadia and her associate, Marie de Sanderval, agreed that, in this context, Spanton’s case is incredibly significant. Online comments on French news articles about Spanton have not been friendly: readers have criticized her looks and accused her of making the story up. Spanton is brave for not giving up, Obadia says, but “it’s been four years of fighting now”—and as time has passed, Spanton has become quieter, more discouraged. 

Accusing someone of rape in another country is tremendously taxing. It requires being able to navigate two countries’ bureaucracies—and cultures—at once. Most of the Canadian clients Obadia works with in Paris are accused of a crime, not accusing other people of one. Obadia and de Sanderval can list examples of foreign women who told them they’d been assaulted in France, spoke about pressing charges, then flew home and stopped replying to emails. But Spanton reached out to Obadia right after she returned to Toronto from Paris, and they’ve stayed in touch ever since. The two women didn’t meet in person until the fall of 2015, when Spanton came back to Paris to undergo another step in the criminal investigation.

French proceedings for investigating sexual assault are far different from those in Canada—“outdated” is how Obadia described them. Because Spanton is pressing charges in France, she has to do what French officials ask of her. In 2015, that meant complying with investigators who flew to Ontario and spoke with her parents, colleagues, friends, boyfriend, and acquaintances. They discussed her appearance and clothing, her drinking habits, her sociability. Spanton says they even asked her when she had lost her virginity. “It took a long time to be able to face that this isn’t some Kafkaesque nightmare but the reality of my life,” she says.

Later that year, in September, she flew to Paris, accompanied by only her mother, and participated in three straight days of so-called confrontations, during which she met with the three officers (the two accused and the assisted witness) in succession in front of a judge and gave her statement about that night three more times. The practice, typical in French sexual-assault investigations, is meant to provide the judge with an opportunity to weigh the credibility of the two parties side by side. Spanton described the experience as “taking the stand in a trial, only in a little room, and repeatedly.”

French investigators spoke with her parents, colleagues, and friends. They discussed her appearance and her drinking habits. “This isn’t some Kafkaesque nightmare,” Spanton says, “but the reality of my life.”

De Sanderval accompanied Spanton to the confrontations, held at the Palais de Justice—right next door to 36. At least seven people crammed themselves into the judge’s small office for each one: the judge and her stenographer sat on one side of the desk; on the other were Spanton, de Sanderval, a translator, an accused officer, and the officer’s legal team. “We were all sitting within 50 centimetres of each other,” de Sanderval says. “We were literally squished together.” Spanton says it was difficult to be so close to the accused and to describe the events of that night again. She listened as each officer gave his version of the incident, then responded with her own.

Since 2014, the officers’ respective stories have changed: first, there was barely any touching at all; then, according to two of the men, it was consensual sex. Over the course of the pre-trial inquiry, more evidence has emerged: text messages sent between the officers’ phones that night; security-camera footage showing their whereabouts; and forensic evidence that seems to support Spanton’s narrative. Sébastien Schapira, the lawyer for one of the officers accused of rape, has refused to comment for this article (in comments to French media in 2016, he maintained his client’s innocence); neither the other officers’ lawyers nor the French prosecutor’s office have responded to interview requests.

At the end of the third day of confrontations, the judge requested a reconstitution—a re-enactment of the assault. The proceeding is typical for certain crimes in France, such as homicide, but highly unusual in cases of sexual violence. “It’s the first time I can remember that happening,” Obadia says. The fact that Spanton is accusing elite police officers, Obadia adds, puts her at a considerable disadvantage. That evening, the officers returned to 36 and acted out their versions of events one by one, while the judge read from Spanton’s declaration (and, Obadia says, used a human-sized doll in Spanton’s place). Spanton refused to participate—she felt as though she had “already been humiliated in every way possible.”

In the summer of 2016, nearly one year after the confrontations, the charges against the police officers were dismissed due to insufficient evidence. The prosecutor had recommended going to trial—and the inquiry report concluded that Spanton had been firm in her accusations and in her recollection of the events—but the judges disagreed. The reason for the non-lieu, Obadia told me in November, was that “Emily was a free woman coming from abroad with a personal attitude that showed she might have consented.” Women I’ve spoken to in France have told me they were shocked by the decision. French citizens have been following the case closely—it made national headlines when, in an attempt to find a match for one of several sperm samples collected during Spanton’s rape kit, investigators asked 138 police officers and staff to submit to DNA tests in 2015. But in Canada, Spanton’s story is not as widely known. “The [embassy] emailed me one week after the dismissal,” Spanton says. They wanted to check that she had received the news. Spanton says it was the first time she had heard from the Canadian government in nearly two years.

a woman sitting at a desk in an office

It’s likely that many more Canadians have been affected by violence abroad in recent years than Global Affairs’ figures indicate: most people don’t press charges, and few report violent crimes in the first place. Cultural differences between Canada and other countries—differences that could, for example, require a survivor to participate in a re-enactment of her assault—can discourage women from trying to find justice.

There are also very few resources available for travellers. Paula Lucas, the founder of Sexual Assault Support and Help for Americans Abroad, based in Portland, Oregon, whose goal is to help American survivors of sexual assault across the world, says that as far as she’s aware, hers is the only program of its kind. In 2016, she helped 132 people, mostly women. Emmanuelle Piet, president of the Collectif Féministe Contre le Viol, in France, says her organization recently started printing flyers in English after an Australian woman called asking for help, and stressed that there exist no resources for tourists who experience sexual assault in the country.

It’s impossible to tell how many Canadians have left for vacation, returned wounded, and kept silent. “We don’t have a handle on the situation at all,” lawyer Pamela Cross says, “and that is largely because even if the woman chooses to pursue a criminal proceeding, it’s going to happen somewhere else.” But, as Cross points out, if the proportion of survivors who report their rape abroad is anywhere near the 3.3 per cent who report their rape in Canada, then thousands of women’s stories are lost. It’s staggering just how inadequate our picture of the problem is, partly because not enough people are paying attention. The government counts only the number of assaults reported to Global Affairs each year by Canadian travellers—it compiles no data on the type of assault, case progress, or resolution. While we know that 244 Canadians reported assaults to Global Affairs in 2016, we don’t know how many had been sexually assaulted, nor how many later reported to foreign police and decided to press charges.

At police headquarters, the officers acted out their versions of events using a life-sized doll in Spanton’s place. She refused to participate—she felt she had “already been humiliated in every way possible.”

“When a Canadian is assaulted abroad, they may report to local authorities and not to Global Affairs Canada, they may report to GAC and not to local authorities, they may make reports with both local authorities and GAC, they may make reports to domestic law enforcement or victim support groups only once back in Canada, or they may never report the assault,” says John Babcock, a spokesperson for Global Affairs. “GAC is not in a position to provide statistics or estimates on these questions.” He also points out that some Canadians are assaulted abroad and seek help from the department in different ways—such as by asking for financial assistance or to be issued a new passport. Those cases aren’t included under the “assault” category.

Numbers aren’t everything, but it’s hard to understand the scope of the problem without them. For example, the Globe and Mail’s “Unfounded” project, published in 2017, compiled data from more than 870 Canadian police forces and determined that police dismiss one in five complaints of sexual assault without investigating them. Now, dozens of law-enforcement authorities are looking again at previously closed files—and we have statistics to back up the notion that police often don’t believe women’s stories. The same thinking can be applied here: it seems most survivors feel helpless and unsupported, and they choose not to press charges. But we have no numbers to prove it. Determining just how many women are assaulted abroad would be a start. And knowing how many try to find justice and then change their mind—or, as is often the case, are ignored by foreign authorities—would be a step toward building a better framework for support.

But when it comes to travelling, we’re stuck in an old-fashioned mindset: we treat danger as something women need to plan for. The Canadian government website offers a downloadable “safe-travel guide” for women, called “Her Own Way.” It features such categories as “The promises and perils of international romance” and “Preventing sexual assault.” Global Affairs' page on sexual assault advises women to take self-defence classes and provides a basic how-to guide for filing police reports abroad. I asked Babcock about the purpose of the travel guide, and he responded: “Depending on the destination, individuals from the LGBTQ2 community and women can be more at risk when travelling. Publications … aim to provide specific advice to targeted audiences to help them plan their travel and to be informed of the risks while travelling.” According to Babcock, the guide was consulted more than 40,000 times online in 2017, while the PDF version was downloaded more than 1,000 times.

As travel becomes more accessible, more Canadians will be assaulted in foreign countries. So why do we focus only on those who have experienced trauma on Canadian soil?

Beyond prevention and repatriation, there is no real support for people who have experienced sexual assault, and, as Spanton points out, little interdepartmental coordination. No one is checking in with Spanton, now that she’s in Canada, to see whether she requires financial assistance or finds a therapist. No one is asking whether she’s had any trouble with the French government or judicial process. Still no one has answered most of her past emails to government, though she’s now made contact with her local MP in St. Catharines, Chris Bittle. Before Spanton met with Bittle in March, one of his assistants tried to get in touch with the Victims Abroad Fund—a federal government initiative meant to support Canadians who experience a “serious violent crime” outside the country—about financial assistance for Spanton, who says she never received a response. When he didn’t hear back from them either, he emailed her, writing, “I see now how difficult this can be to navigate.”

As travel becomes more accessible to more people, more Canadians will be assaulted in foreign countries. So why does our national dialogue focus only on those who have experienced trauma on Canadian soil? Perhaps the solution is a national organization that could support survivors in the long term and equip them to make informed decisions about dealing with sexual assault abroad: How likely is it that a charge will go to trial and lead to a conviction? What other options are available for those who don’t want to go through a criminal investigation? What kind of mental health and financial supports are available abroad and in Canada? What will survivors’ day-to-day life look like now, in two years, in 10 years—and how can the government help? “That would be a really great place to start,” Cross says.

a building on the Siene river

Last September, French prosecutors successfully appealed the dismissal of the charges against the officers, who will now go to court in November 2018. Since the appeal, there has been renewed attention on the case in France, which Obadia and de Sanderval say could revolutionize how the country handles sexual-assault cases. “What France needs is a change in mentality,” de Sanderval says. “Sexual-assault trials take too long, and that’s not good for the accused or for the victims.”

In St. Catharines, Spanton doesn’t leave her house at night anymore, unless it’s with someone she trusts. She doesn’t like crowds, and she gets anxious around authority figures. She worked for a time at the local YWCA but quickly found that she wasn’t in the right frame of mind for the job: “I went to work with women, feeling I couldn’t empathize with men, but I found the women’s stories too triggering for me.”

These days, Spanton occupies much of her time with community-advocacy work: She is part of Save Thundering Waters Forest, a group that opposes the construction of a housing and retail development just south of Niagara Falls. Last August, she and several others camped out in the wetlands in protest. Spanton attends and documents local council meetings for A Better Niagara, a coalition of “local residents frustrated by the nature of politics” in the region. Last year, she received a conservation prize from the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority. More recently, she’s started writing columns for a local arts-and-culture monthly in Niagara.

Though she studied politics and human rights in university, Spanton has never been so involved in local government. The change is partly because of her experience in Paris, she says: “How does someone who tries not to drink, doesn’t go to bars or clubs, and can’t work anymore meet people? By becoming involved with the community.” She has been so disappointed by the lack of support from Canada and France that she is working to change government in the ways she can, at the regional level. “Fighting for accountability here, in my safe place, is helping me get to a point where I won’t shatter when I’m back in Paris.”

By the time Spanton and I drove back to her place from Niagara Falls, the sky was dark. Beside her house, the lake was calm. She took her small dog, Rosie, for a walk around the block—Rosie weaving circles around her while I followed. Over time, Spanton is learning one of the most valuable things for people who have experienced sexual assault: how to take care of herself. She doesn’t answer questions she doesn’t want to answer, and she knows when it’s time to stop. By nighttime, she told me that we had discussed enough for one day. In a week or so, she might be ready to chat again—about the trial, about her work in Niagara, about the ways Canada has failed her. Later, she’ll prepare for her return to Paris to testify in court. She’s trying to secure financial assistance from the government to pay for her flights and for accommodations during the month she’ll be in Paris. But everything comes one day at a time. For her, the trial—and this article—isn’t about justice or safety. Emily Spanton just wants to be heard.

Viviane Fairbank is a National Magazine Award-nominated writer and an editor at The Walrus.

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