It was a chance encounter among strangers that’s shedding light on a group that some refer to as ‘silent survivors’, and for a mother and daughter, it’s an issue that needs to be an open discussion.
Alejandra Bravo and her daughter Gayla were coming back from a night out with friends, when they say they noticed a woman in her 20’s who appeared shaken, scared and unable to move, inside St.Clair West subway station around 1 a.m. on Friday.
“She was crying and attempting to contact her family and friends, but she couldn’t get through, and the more she felt hopeless, the more upset she got,” said Gayla. “She just looked at me and told me where she had been, she said ‘I think I was drugged.'”
The anonymous woman was apparently at a bar in the Annex earlier that night, and was attempting to make her way home. Alejandra said the woman explained that she hadn’t had too many drinks, but was suddenly confused about where she was.
“When she finally communicated with a friend, she said something that broke my heart, she said ‘It’s okay, I’m with friends now’ and that made us feel that we were there for her,” she said.
The mother and daughter say the incident has prompted them to question if drugging at bars is even tracked at all. CityNews asked that question to Toronto Police on Sunday, but was told due to the holiday, more time would be needed to track down that data.
Viktoria Belle, who is the founder of an advocacy group to end sexual violence, the Dandelion Project, says these incidents aren’t tracked.
“Most people don’t even know that it’s happened to them, they don’t know the signs, they don’t know where to go for help, they’re confused and they don’t want to disclose,” she explains. “So it’s really unreported and uncharted.”
Belle, who is also the program manager at Maggies in Toronto, says troubling incidents like drugging drinks tend to increase over the holidays as more people are out celebrating.
The Dandelion Initiative is pushing for drinking establishments to be more accountable to their patrons, to incorporate policies and procedures in their workplaces and empower staff to be proactive in making the bar environment safer. ‘The Safe Bars Project’ is an initiative that provides the community with leadership tools to change the culture of sexual assault through education, awareness and dispelling stigmas. The project targets bars and restaurants, because Belle says, they serve the substance that is most commonly used in sexual assaults.
“Unfortunately drug facilitated sexual assault is very common, and the most common substance used is alcohol,” she explains. “Oftentimes, perpetrators are people we know, so it’s really important for bars and restaurants to be accountable during this time, and create a safe space for people to go and say ‘I’ve been drugged or dosed, can you help me?'”
Over 20 establishments are listed on the website as upcoming participants of the program.
Following the completion of the program, the establishment will be listed on a public safe space list and receive a dandelion sticker that can be put on display, indicating to potential clients that the business is a safe space.
But Belle also wants to stress to victims and survivors of sexual assault that they don’t have to suffer alone in silence.
“Just because someone is drinking heavily, just because someone is using drugs, it doesn’t mean they deserve to be sexually assaulted, it doesn’t mean it’s their fault or they invited that,” she explains. “That’s why education is so important around consent and substances.”
Belle suggests victims of sexual assault can contact the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre, which offers free services and is open 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, and also reach out to the Dandelion Initiative for any support that’s needed.