Some Winnipeggers are calling for solutions to make the Red River trail system safer following a series of attacks targeting women.
Police say they’re investigating several incidents that happened between April and August of this year involving women and girls, age 15 to their late 30s, being accosted at various points along the Red River trail system.
In one of the more severe attacks, a 15-year-old girl was grabbed by a man and sexually assaulted early Sunday morning behind Churchill High School.
A spokesperson for the Winnipeg Police Service says police are investigating the incidents.
Const. Dani McKinnon also said more officers are patrolling the areas, but she would not reveal how many.
“As these investigations progress, we do let the public know that,” she told Faith Fundal, host of CBC Radio’s Up to Speed.
“However, there are circumstances in any investigations … where evidence and information does have to be held back in order to further the investigation. And then there’s a pertinent time for that to be released to the public.”
McKinnon, who said she has used the trail system herself, urged other women to take an alternate path for the time being. If people continue using the trail system, she said they should do their part to protect themselves — especially since the attacks happened at different times of day and appear to be random.
“Because of the randomness, we have to add that extra layer of protection,” McKinnon said.
Those “common sense” tips include things like not wearing headphones, travelling with a group, bringing a panic alarm and letting someone know what route you’re planning to take and when you plan to be finished, she said.
“At the end of the day, when we’re talking about women being victimized versus men … there’s things that are really obvious. There’s size disparity. There’s strength disparity,” McKinnon said.
“Those are real factors that we have to consider. And I think it’s really important that everybody takes care of their own safety.”
Onus shouldn’t be on women
While police are warning people to avoid using the trails alone and be aware of their surroundings, some say that’s not the answer.
Lindsay Somers is an avid runner and knows the trail well.
“It’s very concerning that women can’t be out in our communities and be safe when they’re alone, especially if they’re trying to exercise and spend time outside in nature, and I feel awful for those women that experienced that violence,” she said.
She says she thinks police should be doing more to stop violence against women, instead of putting the onus on women to change their behaviour.
“The response isn’t for women to stop wearing headphones when they run, the response is to stop the violence against women,” she said.
Somers says she doesn’t plan to stop using the trail. Neither does Harpa Isfeld-Keiley, who says the trail system is one of her favourite parts of the area.
“I want to continue using my space in a way that I feel free but I’m certainly thinking about it.”
Isfeld-Keiley says she thinks making the trails easier to use so that foot traffic is increased could help people feel safer.
Coun. Sherri Rollins (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry) says she’s working to get better lighting for the trails in her ward, but says she thinks the issue is much bigger than that.
“Sex assault is about power … and so identifying the barriers to gender equality has to be a focus in order to ensure that women are empowered in all city settings,” she said.
She said all people deserve to feel safe and free to enjoy Winnipeg public spaces, and plans to advocate for more initiatives that encourage that.
McKinnon said police don’t want people to be afraid if they continue using the trails — but they do want them to be vigilant and report anything suspicious they see.
“We want you to continue to exercise, be with your friends, do the things you enjoy, whether it’s biking, walking, cycling, but take some of these safety tips with you,” she said.
“We have to stick together here as a community.”
McKinnon says you should call 911 if you are attacked on the trails or see someone else attacked. If you have information about any of the attacks but want to remain anonymous, you can contact Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477 or submit a secure tip on its website.