With hundreds of sexual assaults each year, women are trying to protect themselves despite the consequences
Jane was on her way home from her job at a downtown Calgary restaurant late one fall evening when a catcalling stranger began trailing her.
Refusing to interact with him, she arrived at her apartment building and pulled the door shut — holding it closed for a few nervous seconds until the lock finally latched.
Frustrated, he began "freaking out," said the woman, whom CBC News agreed not to identify due to concerns she could be targeted.
"I don't even know why I walked you home.… I should have just let you get raped in the street," she recalled him shouting, replaying the incident from nearly three years ago.
Because of incidents like this — and reports she sees on social media — Jane carries protection, including pepper spray.
She's not alone.
This spring, CBC News asked a local Facebook group focused on women's safety whether anyone armed themselves for protection. Roughly two-thirds of the near 500 respondents said they did.
But legal and personal safety experts say people who choose to arm themselves for self-defence should be aware it can lead to other risks.
Hundreds of sexual assaults each year
There are hundreds of sexual assaults every year in Calgary, ranging from groping to armed, physical attacks.
In 2021, there were 744 sexual assaults against adults reported to Calgary police, with 699 of those offences resulting in minor or no physical injuries to the victim.
Thirty-eight sexual assaults were carried out with weapons or threats, or caused bodily harm.
There were also seven offences that police categorize as the most severe, resulting in wounding, maiming, disfiguring or endangering life. All seventargeted women.
Of the total number of offences, more than two-thirds were against females. In about a quarter of the reported assaults against women in 2021, the offender was a stranger.
A small arsenal for protection
To protect herself, Jane carries a small arsenal when she heads to her job. She works downtown as a server, usually leaving after last call, and walks about nine blocks to her apartment.
"I have an alarm, I have pepper spray and I have, it's like a little dagger, basically," she said, referring to a small tool designed for breaking glass.
When CBC News asked others in the Facebook group what items they carry for protection, the list included purse-sized cans of hairspray, specialized keychains and knives.
"After being assaulted many times by an abusive partner, I won't go anywhere without at least one knife," one woman said.
The legal risks of arming yourself
But while carrying an item for protection may seem like a simple solution, it can lead to a complicated ordeal.
Long-time Calgary lawyer Balfour Der has prosecuted and defended women charged in self-defence cases — and he says there's no guarantee the self-defence argument will shield someone from charges.
Der said cases of people being charged while defending themselves don't happen often, but they are possible.
"Even having something for self-defence can be — can amount to — an offence under the Criminal Code for possession of a weapon for a purpose dangerous," Der said.
Claiming an object is for self-defence "may make the punishment a heck of a lot lighter, but you still could be found guilty if you have something that can be a weapon and your sole purpose [for having it] is self-defence," Der said.
This means that certain items are legally riskier than others.
For example, there's probably no reason to carry a knife in your purse when out for a walk other than for self-defence. A pen, on the other hand, is a common item many people would keep in their bag that could also be used to fend off an attacker.
A Calgary police spokesperson said in an email that officers have discretion.
"If the object that you're carrying is intended to cause harm to another individual and is not used as a typical tool, then you can be caught and charged with carrying a concealed weapon," police said.
When it comes to pepper spray, Der said someone convicted with carrying a prohibited weapon in this instance would likely face just a fine. But that might not be the end of it.
Conviction for carrying a prohibited weapon could still prevent someone from travelling to the United States due to a criminal record.
Justice system can be a blunt instrument
For Jane, the idea she could be charged for defending herself is inconceivable.
"I can't imagine, though, being pulled into a court and being like, 'Well, it was either I get attacked in the streets or I pepper sprayed this person,'" she said.
But Lisa Silver, a former criminal defence lawyer who teaches in the University of Calgary's faculty of law, describes the justice system as a blunt instrument.
"The law basically says if you've got problems, you should be going to professionals — and that would be the police," said Silver. "But of course the police aren't around all the time."
Last month, a woman was walking in Mission, an inner-city community in southwest Calgary, when a man exposed himself to her from his truck. She screamed. The truck left. She then called the police, but after a 40-minute wait, she got a friend to take her home.
While the police response drew some criticism, Insp. Clare Smart of the Calgary Police Service said how the woman handled herself is a model for personal safety.
"The victim did an excellent job of reporting. What she did also was using her voice … and getting the attention of bystanders as well as scaring away the individual," Smart said.
Despite overseeing initiatives like the Stephen Avenue Safety Hub, which provides more police visibility in the downtown core, Smart knows officers can't always be present.
"We're out there 24/7, but we can't be in every location."
Staying safe on city streets
It's not just the legal repercussions people need to consider. Lorna Selig with Safe4Life, a company that teaches self-defence, also warns against arming yourself.
"Carrying something that would produce harm in somebody else is probably not a great idea, mostly because it can be turned around and used against you," Selig said.
She said things like personal safety alarms are helpful in an emergency.
Selig added practising personal safety drills can better prepare someone for an assault, rather than relying on a weapon that you may not have time to access.
"Everything that we need to defend ourselves, we already have in our bodies — we have our minds, we have our voices and we have our fists and our feet to fight back."
Part of what Selig teaches includes keeping tabs on who is around and their proximity, and staying away from dimly lit areas. No one can control the actions of others, she said.
Selig noted that knowing what to do can catch an attacker off-guard.
"The mere fact of someone shouting at them and fighting back very often will cause them to change their mind about that person being an easy target," she said.
Community vigilance is also a critical tool, added Smart.
"We're one piece of the puzzle, and having people come forward with what they're seeing or if something is happening, that is what assists us in moving forward with our investigations."
As for Jane, she said she has weighed the pros and cons of carrying a weapon.
"But I'd rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jo Horwood is a CBC News video journalist based in Calgary. She spent her internship at CBC News Network in Toronto and previously worked at CityNews Calgary while wrapping up her broadcast media studies degree at Mount Royal University. If you want to shine a light on a story you think is important, contact her. Jo.Horwood@cbc.ca
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