It’s being called the “shadow pandemic.” After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of women and girls killed at the hands of male partners in Canada spiked by 50 percent, sounding alarm bells across the country.
In 2019, Statistics Canada reported that 60 women and girls were killed by partners (and former partners). According to Myrna Dawson, director of the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, the number grew to 78 in 2020 and reached 92 in 2021.
“Violence is much more severe and much more acute,” confirms Anuradha Dugal, vice president of community initiatives for the Canadian Women’s Foundation. “The harms are worse, the harms are much more serious and people are waiting longer before they’re getting help because of COVID.”
In fact, soon after the pandemic began in 2020, UN Women flagged the issue, stating that, “Shelters and helplines for women must be considered an essential service for every country with specific funding and broad efforts made to increase awareness about their availability.”
Anti-violence experts in Canada are raising their voices in response to the crisis, calling for a ramped up, multifaceted and holistic approach to services for those who have experienced domestic violence, as well as fundamental changes to the courts and police, and improvements to women’s income security and access to affordable housing.
“Violence is much more severe and much more acute,” confirms Anuradha Dugal, vice president of community initiatives for the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
Last year, Women’s Shelters Canada, a cross-Canada network, developed a visionary document called Roadmap for the National Action Plan on Violence Against Women and Gender-Based Violence. The report details 100 policy actions and goals aimed at preventing gender-based violence and improving support to survivors. The recommendations describe how to create more accessible, community-specific services and supports, all within a framework of feminist intersectionality, while recognizing the differences among women.
Income security is a vital key to rebuilding a person’s life after they leave their abuser. Pam Hrick, executive director and general counsel for Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), says there is “a tie between income security and creating the circumstances to allow women and gender-diverse people to live free from violence.”
Kendra Nixon, director of RESOLVE, a tri-prairie community-based research network aimed at reducing gender-based violence, agrees. “Income support is a huge thing and poverty is a huge thing. Poverty makes it very hard for women to leave, but it also sometimes predisposes them [to violence].”
Adequate resourcing is essential for shelters as well, and many emergency shelters have wait lists that range from days to months. Next up is dismantling the roadblocks in the legal and social systems that prevent victims from rebuilding their lives. “How many systems are involved?” asks Nixon. “Police, housing, family court, income assistance, maybe child welfare. For someone to navigate all that, especially someone for whom English isn’t their first language, and you are doing this having been traumatized for a number of years.”
The legal system can be challenging, from obtaining protection orders to dealing with custody issues in family court. As many as 50 percent of protective orders requested in Canada are denied, and the process to request and obtain protection orders and police assistance is inconsistent and challenging for those who urgently need help.
“Not only are protection orders often not granted, but a lot of people don’t apply for them,” says Nixon. “Either they don’t know about them, or they are hard to get, especially if you are not in [an urban area].”
The enforcement of protection orders is patchy. “A particular person may have to get those kinds of protection orders from several police forces at the same time, and then it’s applied by the Court, then the police have to enforce it,” says Dugal of the Women’s Foundation. “Women have said that they don’t find the protection orders actually keep them safe, necessarily.” Technological options, such as electronic ankle monitors for abusers and emergency cell phones for victims are available in a few provinces and territories only and without proper police support.
Experts advise that police are often still reluctant to lay charges when a woman reports violence and threats. “A change that could happen would be for police to take women a ton more seriously,” Dugal says. After a woman is killed, a review committee looks at what went wrong. “Many, many times, the death review committee has identified that the woman knew how much danger she was in, and she tried to alert the authorities. And the authorities did not take her seriously,” Dugal says. Police responses should be more consistent, thorough and quick so that people know help will be available.
Better support for women seeking legal advice and dealing with the family court system will also keep more women alive. “The risk for a woman is actually at its peak when she starts a legal case,” says Deepa Mattoo, executive director and lawyer at the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic in Toronto. “When she starts to actually go to the family court, or take any legal action, that is the point when the abuser feels he has lost control the most.”
“The risk for a woman is actually at its peak when she starts a legal case,” says Deepa Mattoo, executive director and lawyer at the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic in Toronto
The experts agree that changes must happen not only within these systems, but within the people who work in them.“The reality is too that for a lot of the groups that are disproportionately impacted by intimate partner violence—so I think of Indigenous women, trans women, Black women, racialized women, non-binary people—the criminal justice system is not an attractive and friendly place for them,” says Hrick. “These are systems that are not safe for many of those people.”
All the systems that deal with the aftermath of domestic violence are rife with attitudes of colonialism, racism and misogyny observes Krys Maki, research and policy manager for Women’s Shelters Canada and one of the authors of the 2021 Roadmap report.
“If we really want to end gender-based violence and address this issue,” says Maki, “all systems need to actively be addressing the harms that they are causing the communities and working on the prevention aspect, which includes educating themselves.”
“Here’s an essential service that breaks the cycle of abuse and prevents homelessness and closes the housing gap, and yet these governments are not even funding it,” says Kris Maki
Professionals are part of the solution, too. “Systems are part of the society, and the systems evolve and change as the society evolves and changes,” adds Mattoo. “The people who run those systems are part of society.”
Anti-violence workers see potential in an integrated approach they call “wrap-around services.” As Hrick says, the goal should be “trying to make it as easy as possible for someone who is in that moment of crisis, who is experiencing violence to go to not five or six different places to get support for counselling, legal advice, social support, housing. Trying to create a system that allows a single point of entry for that person
to receive the supports they need.”
This type of housing is described by Dugal as “a series of three or four, maybe five or six apartments that come pre-furnished. They are obviously in a building that is confidential, and they have a staff member who comes in during the day. She manages the office, makes sure the apartments are taken care of and she helps women navigate the next steps. It really helps women get back on their feet gradually, with the intensive support.”
“Of course, we need shelter spaces, no question,” Dugal confirms, “But shelter spaces are still only the emergency service. So, why do we need more shelters? Because women don’t have safe housing to go to so that they can leave the shelter. So that’s why we need to think about more affordable housing and more safe housing.”
The housing crisis is especially acute in First Nations communities, where domestic violence survivors often find themselves returning to their abuser because they can’t find an affordable place to live. Ottawa is being asked to prioritize the creation of second-stage housing when it rolls out Canada’s national housing policy.
As Maki says, “Here’s an essential service that breaks the cycle of abuse and prevents homelessness and closes the housing gap, and yet these governments are not even funding it.”
Emergency shelters will remain central to the country’s anti-violence efforts. Until violence abates, Mattoo stresses, “there is need for better investment in those organizations […] doing the work that is critical for the safety, security and dignity of survivors. The sector needs stable funding, the sector needs full funding.”
More emphasis must also be placed on education and prevention aimed at creating a full-scale cultural shift in society as a whole. As Nixon notes, “Changing that culture, so that victims and survivors can feel confident that they will be safe and get help, and that they do not have to be silent and ashamed, is crucial.”
Echoes Maki, “We talk about that broader cultural, societal shift that needs to happen, which requires us to be having conversations about respect, about relationships.”
These conversations will further raise awareness of women’s rights, shift attitudes and behaviour around masculinity and teach children of all genders about healthy relationships and consent. The roadmap has clearly defined targets and goals, but ultimately, in order to succeed, it needs strong leadership and greater accountability at all levels of government. Adequate and sustained funding for services should be available to women everywhere, not just in urban settings. “Supports in your community shouldn’t rely on your postal code,” Maki notes. “It should be equal everywhere.”
Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has led us to talk about “building back better” and creating a care-based economy, it’s time to walk the walk on intimate partner violence. Improving access to affordable housing, making social and legal systems safe places for survivors and addressing toxic masculinity to prevent violence will go a long way toward ending intimate partner violence. Δ
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