Mississauga declares intimate partner violence an epidemic: a ‘first step’ toward desperately needed funding
“There have been 42 femicides in the last 41 weeks in Ontario — about one femicide a week. One life taken to gender-based violence a week.”
Those were the harrowing words of Rebecca Pacheco, the Coordinator of the Peel Committee Against Women Abuse (PCAWA), as she stood before Mississauga council two weeks ago.
According to national statistics, a woman is killed in Canada every six days by an intimate partner.
On September 13 City Council unanimously approved a motion declaring gender-based violence and intimate partner violence an epidemic in Mississauga. The motion, moved by Councillor Stephen Dasko, notes femicide continues to take place across Peel, with six femicides already reported to be connected to the region in 2023 — four of which were reported in July alone.
While the declaration is a measure that’s been viewed as a performative task rather than tangible action, advocates say it’s a first step in starting the conversation which could raise desperately needed awareness of this tragic issue.
The September 13 motion requested council “take a stand and advocate” with the 41 municipalities across the province, including Brampton and the Region, that have declared intimate partner violence an epidemic in order to grab the attention of the province, which has failed to do the same.
The motion also requested staff communicate to Mississauga MPs and MPPs, on behalf of council, requesting they join the municipalities and advocate to have gender-based violence and intimate-partner violence declared an epidemic at the provincial and federal levels. It also requested staff communicate with the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, and the Prime Minister, advocating that femicide be added as a term to the Criminal Code of Canada.
It also asked that staff communicate and advocate to the provincial and federal governments to provide the appropriate support necessary to address the epidemic.
The declaration is the result of a 2022 Coroner’s Inquest into the murders of three women in Renfrew County in 2015, which included 86 recommendations following the three-week investigation. As of February, the provincial government was working to address roughly half of the recommendations. Declaring intimate partner violence an epidemic is one of the top recommendations put forward and one the PC government has yet to act on.
“As we grow the list of regions, towns and counties that have declared intimate partner violence and gender-based violence an epidemic, we’re also confirming to the provincial government that this is an issue being felt across the province that requires immediate action. We need our provincial government to listen to the municipalities and the regions across the province as we are calling out for support, leadership and funding at a provincial level,” Pacheco told council.
“Our provincial leaders still refuse to listen to our call and the call of communities and advocates across the province to do the same.”
On June 28, in response to the inquest and the 86 jury recommendations, the Province stated “Intimate partner violence would not be considered an epidemic as it is not an infectious or communicable disease.” However, according to Mirriam-Webster an epidemic is defined as something “affecting or tending to affect a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population, community, or region at the same time.”
According to the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability’s 2018-2022 #CallItFemicide report, of the 150 women and girls who were killed in Canada by a male-accused in 2022, the type of relationship they shared was known for 89 individuals (59 percent), of which 52 victims (58 percent) were killed by a current or former intimate partner.
The organization also notes that in the last five years, at least one woman or girl was killed every 48 hours in Canada.
“Intimate partner violence and gender-based violence is an epidemic, it is a public health issue. Intimate partner violence is preventable yet it remains a major public health problem,” Pacheco explained.
After a motion presented by Councillor Stephen Dasko on September 13, council voted unanimously to declare gender-based violence and intimate partner violence an epidemic in Mississauga.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Violent crime of this nature continues to devastate communities, including Peel, with one of the most recent incidents taking place on July 31 when Argentina Fuentes was killed in Mississauga. Less than two weeks before her death, a case of femicide took place between July 17 and 18 again in Mississauga when Pitch “Polly” Phunpa was killed in her Port Credit apartment.
“These women deserved safety. Their family, friends and loved ones deserved to still have them here,” Pacheco said.
“We’re calling out to provincial leaders for leadership, support and solidarity but instead we’re met with inaction. As community organizations work tirelessly to support survivors and keep people safe, we are stretching the inadequate sources we do have available, it's really frustrating to be met with this kind of inaction from our political leaders.”
Pacheco added that the organization and other advocacy groups are hoping these declarations across the province will give the PC government no choice but to listen to what community members and organizations are saying about gender-based violence. She noted declaring gender-based violence and intimate partner violence an epidemic is critical to raising awareness about the scale of the issue and its impact.
In recent years, Peel Police have reported that the highest number of citizen-initiated calls are related to family and intimate partner violence. Just over halfway through 2023, Peel already had six femicides connected to the Region, with four of them taking place in July alone.
Between 2015 and 2020, Peel Regional Police saw the number of domestic violence calls increase by 74 percent. According to Region of Peel data, between 2016 and 2021, there was a 3.5 percent increase in the rate of intimate partner disputes reported to Peel Regional Police. In 2021, Peel police responded to more than 17,000 incidents of family and intimate partner violence, averaging nearly 45 disputes each day or roughly two every hour. Of the charges that were laid for intimate partner violence related incidents in 2021, 78 percent of the victims were women.
In 2022, PRP reported 9,242 reported occurrences of intimate partner disputes. This number includes interactions where criminal behaviour has likely occurred and others where abuse or harassment cannot be proven.
These statistics only scratch the surface of the situation. They do not include unreported cases.
Many Gender Based Violence cases go unreported due to a range of fears such as escalation of aggression or lack of available support when reaching out, suggesting that statistics are often worse than listed.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
As these numbers continue to rise, both the Region and its lower tier municipalities have relied heavily on the Province to provide funding support. Advocates say there is more that could be done at the local level.
Sharon Mayne Devine, CEO of Catholic Family Services of Peel Dufferin, the lead agency at the Safe Centre of Peel (SCoP), says there’s more that can be done, starting with a large-scale community conversation about the violence that can happen in families and in intimate relationships with a focus on shifting the culture around these conversations.
Elevating awareness and reducing stigma is crucial to preventing these tragedies, she explained.
“I think that there's a cloak of shame, and a culture of ‘we don't talk about what happens in people's families,’” she told The Pointer.
“I often think that if we could create a community conversation and get everyone on board around making it okay to talk about these kinds of issues, it would make things a whole lot easier for women and men to be able to talk about when they might be struggling.”
“I'd love to see all of us being able to engage in this conversation, so that there's no shame left talking about it. That's one of the things I think that really, really needs to happen. And I think for that we really need the public to come on board with this,” she explained. “I think that's the whole idea behind naming this as an epidemic. It becomes part of the entire community’s conversation.”
Mayne Devine says one of the most common things she sees on the frontline with this issue is that the community around the person experiencing intimate partner violence knew, but didn’t say anything to them.
“Every woman I've ever worked with has said to me, ‘people in my family knew, but nobody said anything to me. People in my neighborhood knew nobody said anything to me, I thought it was my fault. I thought it was okay,’” she said.
Creating community-wide conversations will make it easier for women to feel like they can step forward in these situations, she explained.
“He isolates her and then she isolates herself because of the shame. So I think that that's why declaring an epidemic is a first step that we really need to have a larger conversation.”
“One of the things that we know that happens with violence in relationships, is it doesn't start at strangulation, murder, or broken limbs. It starts with ‘where are you going? When are you getting home? I don't remember saying it was okay for you to go and do that. No, you don't have access to the money.’ Then it goes to slamming doors and fish shakes in the person's face and it escalates over time.”
Sharon Mayne Devine during a delegation to Brampton council in June.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
In many cases of IPV, psychological abuse is the first stage. Initial signs can include manipulation tactics such as gaslighting, which convinces the victim the reality they believe is false. Another step is coercive control. This includes patterns of yelling, humiliation, or intimidation used to punish or scare victims.
As Mississauga City Council declares IPV an epidemic, the City also approved a motion supporting Bill C-233 “Keira’s Law,” named after four-year-old Kiera Kagan, who was killed while in the custody of her father in 2020. The motion states “violence against women is a Canadian public health crisis that demands urgent action,” adding that “the current Canadian system is not equipped to protect women.” The notice of motion requesting support for Kiera’s Law was also approved unanimously by Regional council the following day on September 14.
“Intimate partner violence is an epidemic in Mississauga and throughout our province and country,” Dr. Jennifer Kagan, the mother of four-year-old Kiera, told Mississauga council. “It is something I hear about from women in the Region and in many regions every single day. Women who fear for their lives and for their children’s lives. Women who have nowhere to turn because the systems that are supposed to protect them are failing.”
Keira's Law, passed in June, is one of the first steps in signalling a change to the way courts approach domestic violence as the bill aims to ensure judges receive training about the impacts of domestic violence and coercive control in intimate partner and family relationship.
But there continues to be gaps in the system despite efforts to introduce more resources to women in these situations.
“At the Safe Centre of Peel, we are seeing more and more very serious incidences of abuse,” Mayne Devine said. “I think you just have to read the news, to some of the most shocking, most difficult situations, we've had a number of them, some bold things.”
“But we are seeing, since the pandemic, much more serious forms. So we know that some of the most serious things that happen are more and more women reporting things as strangulation, and very serious, serious, serious injuries, life threatening injuries.”
Despite the growing awareness and the information that has increasingly been brought to the forefront, much of the responsibility still falls on the justice system as the recourse for reform — a reactive measure for addressing violence after it has already been committed. It’s not a solution.
“The other piece that we need is we need to put resources to expand our services to women, because we just do not have enough staff to be able to respond to all of the serious cases of intimate partner violence that are coming through our door,” Mayne Devine explained.
“The reality is, if we don't do the prevention and the community conversation, we're just going to need more and more money to provide more and more programs.”
Keeping with the alarming trend in the growing rates of intimate partner violence, SCoP has also seen a significant rise in the number of clients they are tasked with helping, having served around 70 percent more clients between 2021 and 2022. Despite providing critical services to those in need, the organization is one of many social support services that is desperately underfunded.
According to the Peel Regional 2021-2022 Snapshot published by the PCAWA, there has been a 27 percent increase in survivors accessing shelter programs between 2021 and 2022 in Peel Region.
Not only does GBV impact individuals, families, and communities, but it also places a costly burden on the health, social, and justice systems. In 2009, it was estimated that IPV had an economic cost of $7.4 billion annually and sexual violence a cost of $4.8 billion annually, a report from the federal government notes.
“I have been in my role now for 10 years and I have not seen any meaningful increase to our funding at all, and that is the case with all of our partners as well,” Mayne Devine told Regional council in June.
To keep current programs running as the organization battles to handle the rapidly rising demand with limited resources, SCoP requested the Region step up with a pledge of $250,000. According to Mayne Devine’s presentation, the funds would allow the organization to expand its current partnerships, stabilize its Brampton location and start the planning work required to expand into Mississauga.
The delegation was immediately met with a motion from Mississauga Councillor Joe Horneck, for the Region to pledge $250,000 — a move Mayne Devine told The Pointer is a big step for community services — to allow staff to provisionally include the funds in the 2024 budget, dependent on provincial contributions matching it.
Mayne Devine says conversations are beginning with the province around the increased investments that are needed in Peel Region.
“It's going to take an infusion of resources in the short run, to deal with the serious issues of violence that are plaguing our community now. And at the same time that we invest there, we also, at the same time, have to make investments in early intervention prevention,” she explained.
“You make big investments now. So that then when we're successful on the prevention and earlier intervention, we're going to see less and less serious situations.”
In 2021, the federal government committed $601.3 million over five years towards advancing its National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence, a 10-year plan focused on addressing the ongoing crisis. The 2022 budget proposed an investment of $539.3 million over five years, to support provinces and territories in their efforts to implement the national plan. In July, Manitoba and Saskatchewan signed funding agreements with the federal government — committing $22.3 million over four years for Manitoba’s implementation of the plan’s objectives, and $20.3 million over four years for Saskatchewan’s.
“For too long this was an issue that the non-profit sector, especially women's organizations and violence against women's organizations, we’ve owned to the problem, like somehow we're supposed to fix it,” Mayne Devine said.
“What I've learned humbly, is, this isn't a problem that women’s advocacy organizations can solve. We can't solve it. We can lead, we can advise, we can share information, but we will not solve this problem.”
If you're in need of assistance: Call or text 211 or the Assaulted Women's Helpline at 1- 866-863-0511. If it's an emergency call 911 immediately.
Agency to End Violence Crisis Line - 1-855-676-8515
Email: [email protected]
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