Photo: Avalon/Facebook

Money. Never a lot of money. But supportive of services provided by the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Halifax, I often contributed to the organization’s fundraising campaigns.

Like many people, I have friends who are survivors of rape, a violent criminal offence that is exacted upon women every 17 minutes in Canada. The Justice Institute of British Columbia notes that one in four girls and one in eight boys will suffer sexual violence before age 18. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented additional challenges for sexual assault survivors and service providers. Among them: decreased access to in-person counselling, hospital accompaniments, and court procedures.

My professional alliance with an administrator at one of the first sexual assault crisis groups in North America also influenced my decision to support Avalon. Founded in 1972, Seattle Rape Relief helped to educate the public about the personal and political consequences of sexualized violence. This, during an era when women were routinely blamed, shamed, and silenced for their plight as rape survivors.

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See the movie The Accused — starring Jodie Foster in an Oscar-winning performance — for a portrait of the hell women endured. In Carnal Crimes: Sexual Assault Law in Canada, 1900-1975, University of Ottawa legal historian Constance Backhouse recounts the experiences of several women who were subject to sexual victimization, including a Halifax woman allegedly raped by a Dalhousie Medical School student, in 1925.

After the incident, the future physician reportedly begged the woman “not to cry because she was making him ‘feel bad,’” Backhouse writes, adding that rape charges laid against him were ultimately dismissed.

A tireless force against sexualized violence, my Seattle colleague countered the stress of her job by tending tropical fish in a spectacular aquarium that spanned an entire wall in her living room. The breeding and caretaking of ornamental fish dates back to ancient times. Contemporary studies reveal that people who observe aquatic life gain health benefits such as lower blood pressure, better quality sleep, less stress/anxiety, and overall improved productivity. 

A woman standing before a poster
Lucille Harper

I remembered the solace my associate found in her aquarium when reading about Lucille Harper, the former director of the Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre and Sexual Assault Services Association who was recently appointed to the Order of Canada. “It was an absolute honour,” Harper said in media reports.

The national recognition of Harper’s work also prompted thoughts on Avalon, which began operations in 1983. In a disquieting turn of events, last August Avalon reported an alleged misappropriation of funds to the Halifax Regional Police. A news release further noted that in early 2021, following an audit, the agency contracted a chartered professional accountant who reviewed its finances and “identified discrepancies related to the expense reimbursements of an Avalon employee.” Another external investigator reported, in June 2021, that it appeared as if funds had been misappropriated “over the course of four years.”

The agency’s 2019-2020 annual report — the most recent available — showed a deficit of about $181,993 over expenses and listed numerous government, business, and community donors including: the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services, Nova Scotia Health Authority, Jazz Aviation, Killam Properties, Inc., Coastal Brave Clothing, and Saint Mary’s University Athletics Council.

“To protect privacy, we do not list donations made by individuals,” states the report.

Avalon began a widely publicized restructuring of its staff and board of directors in 2019. Those who’ve left the organization within the past year include former executive director, Jackie Stevens, who is now employed by Nova Scotia Community College. In June 2021, operational and strategic support manager Joanne Kerrigan took over as Avalon’s interim executive director. She resigned from the position in December 2021 and has since been named the first-ever executive director for Women in Film and Television Atlantic.

The agency’s new interim executive director, Dr. Sarah Rodimon, began a six-month appointment on December 6, 2021. About changes at Avalon — which include a now unionized workplace — Rodimon and board chair Meaghan Norris issued a statement to the Examiner that read, in part:

The organization remains strong and continues serving the community as best we can during this challenging time. Avalon has been conducting annual audits and regular financial reviews as required by its bylaws and has acted as diligently as possible to address this issue as soon as it was brought to light. … Avalon has followed every recommendation made by experts in fraud detection and prevention.

The statement continued:

We realize that this information is distressing and worrisome to our staff, clients, funders, stakeholders, and our community. … Over the last year, the organization has been in a period of exciting transition. The Board Governance Committee has been working hard to ensure our organizational policies and practices are reflective of our feminist, intersectional, and anti-oppressive, anti-racist guiding values and principles. … We look forward to continuing to serve our community, to show up for one another, and to enter into this new phase of repair, regrowth, and regeneration.

Rodimon also dispatched the agency’s community report for 2021.

In her more than six decades as a social activist, Gloria Steinem has become familiar with the difficulties that women-led organizations confront and overcome. “In my experience, we often do avoid conflict, whether on the grounds of feminist solidarity or conflict-avoidance,” the co-founder of Ms. magazine told me. “It’s usually better to deal with an incident as soon as possible when memories are fresh, and with as many witnesses as possible.”

As for the trouble at Avalon, independent sources suggested a possible six-figure misappropriation of funds. “No charges have been laid before the courts in this case,” said Constable John MacLeod, Halifax Regional Police Public Information Officer. “The matter is proceeding through an alternative justice process.”

A Halifax resident who, like me, has also made financial donations to the organization (and encouraged others to do so), said that she was heartened to learn that the agency is moving forward. “They seemed to have gone silent for a while,” the woman said.

Another stalwart supporter of Avalon put it this way: “Sexual violence is a 100% preventable crime. And this deserves our continued outrage.”

The author of Alice Walker: A Life, Evelyn C. White is a freelance writer in Halifax.

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Evelyn C. White is a journalist and author whose books include Chain, Chain, Change: For Black Women in Abusive Relationships (Seal Press, 1985,) The Black Women’s Health Book: Speaking for Ourselves...

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