PCs refuse to declare intimate partner violence an epidemic despite repeated calls, overwhelming evidence
On October 23, shortly before 10:30 p.m. 44-year-old Bobbie Hallaert began a killing spree in Sault Ste. Marie. He shot and killed his partner, 41-year-old Angie Sweeney, before travelling to another home where he shot and killed three children— aged 12, seven and six — and wounded another woman. He then turned the gun on himself. The tragedy shook the northern Ontario town, with many shocked by the level of violence, and the lack of action in a case of intimate partner violence where police were well aware of previous complaints made against Hallaert.
A week later, City councillors in Sault Ste. Marie declared intimate partner violence an epidemic.
Shortly after the murders, NDP Leader Marit Stiles called on Premier Doug Ford and his PC government to take action and declare intimate partner violence an epidemic in Ontario — something it has repeatedly failed to do despite repeated pleas from elected officials, municipalities and advocacy groups.
“Tragically, gender-based violence and femicide is on the rise, and we are long overdue for urgent change,” Stiles stated.
When asked if he would change his mind on declaring intimate partner violence an epidemic, Ford avoided giving a direct response during a press conference earlier this month, instead expressing condolences, stating “my heart goes out to obviously the victims and the family and the whole community up in Sault Saint Marie… I’m there to support them anyway I can and we’re just there to support them. What a tragedy. What a senseless waste of life. My heart breaks for that whole community.”
On average, a woman is killed by an intimate partner every six days in Canada. With attempted murders included, the figure becomes one almost every other day. These violent crimes, which are too often overlooked by the criminal justice system despite the obvious warning signs.
Since 2009, there have been 66 femicides in the Region of Peel. In recent years, Peel Police have reported that the highest number of citizen-initiated calls are related to family and intimate partner violence. The Region’s police force reported six femicides connected to Peel in the first half of 2023 — four of them in July alone.
Between 2015 and 2020, Peel Regional Police reported that the number of domestic violence calls went up by 74 percent. 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.
These numbers only scratch the surface as these crimes are known to be vastly underreported, meaning the true scale of the issue is likely much worse. Police reported data only captures those forms of violence that meet the criminal threshold and, as such, do not monitor emotional, psychological or financial abuse which are common forms of intimate partner violence.
Data collected and compiled in the Statistics Canada 2014 General Social Survey on Canadians’ Safety (Victimization) estimated 70 percent of spousal violence is not reported to police. Keeping with that trend, according to the 2019 General Social Survey on Canadians' Safety (Victimization), only one in five (19 percent) victims of self-reported spousal violence indicated the violence they experienced was reported to police. Even more alarmingly, in 2019, the vast majority (90 percent) of victims who reported the violence they experienced to police themselves said they did so to stop the violence and receive protection. The days and weeks after the violence is reported are often the most dangerous.
A 2022 Coroner’s Inquest into the murders of three women in Renfrew County — nearly seven years after the women were murdered — resulted in 86 recommendations intended to prevent intimate partner violence. As of February, the provincial government was working to address roughly half of the recommendations. Declaring intimate partner violence an epidemic is the first recommendation made in the inquest, and is one of the suggestions the Ontario government has repeatedly refused to act on.
In June, in response to the coroner's inquest, the Province stated “Intimate partner violence (IPV) would not be considered an epidemic as it is not an infectious or communicable disease.” However, as defined by 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.”
Among the multiple requests made to all levels of government to declare IPV an epidemic, ‘femicide’ has been requested to formally be recognized to aid in creating effective legislation.
During an announcement on October 31, Premier Doug Ford once again dodged questions when asked if the province would declare intimate partner violence an epidemic.
(Government of Ontario)
“It's very concerning, especially because so many regions and so many associations have declared intimate partner violence and gender-based violence an epidemic. This is not something that is new and it's not something that's surprising. However, to not have the Province recognize it as an epidemic, it is unfortunate,” Samiya Kebir, program supervisor at Armagh House, told The Pointer, noting it's especially concerning because the organization has not received concrete funding since the mid-90s when it was completely defunded.
“I think that's part of the reason why it's gotten worse. It's a feedback loop, because there has been a lot of focus from the Province on emergency and crisis shelters, and then child and youth care and the idea was that if they put funding into those two pieces, that it would somehow decrease the incidences of intimate partner and gender-based violence,” Kebir explained. “However, the pipeline of the services provided is not being looked at in a holistic way.”
While the PC government has been failing to follow through on the main recommendation from the Coroner’s inquest, Ontario municipalities have since made symbolic declarations of their own.
More than 60 municipalities across Ontario have made the declaration at the local level, including the Region of Peel and the cities of Brampton and Mississauga. The federal government also described gender-based violence as “an epidemic” in August in a formal response to the 2022 coroner’s inquest. In a letter to the Ontario coroner’s office Justice Minister Arif Virani said that his government is committed to ending the gender-based violence epidemic “in all its forms, and is working to address any gaps in the Criminal Code to ensure a robust justice system response.”
The federal government received roughly a half-dozen recommendations from the jury, including a call to add femicide (which refers to the gender-related killings of women and girls) to the Criminal Code as a specific offence. Other recommendations included calls to criminalize coercive control — a pattern of behaviours intended to isolate, humiliate, exploit or dominate a person — and to review the current offence of criminal harassment. Virani said both recommendations are “aligned with the Government’s ongoing efforts to prevent and eradicate” gender-based violence.
While the declaration is a measure that has been viewed as a performative task rather than tangible action, advocates have also acknowledged it’s a first step in starting the conversation to raise desperately needed awareness and hopefully, if the Province can get on board, much-needed policy change and funding.
“Our provincial leaders still refuse to listen to our call and the call of communities and advocates across the province to do the same,” Rebecca Pacheco, coordinator of the Peel Committee Against Women Abuse (PCAWA) previously 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 resources we do have available, it's really frustrating to be met with this kind of inaction from our political leaders.”
PCAWA coordinator Rebecca Pacheco has voiced her frustration with the lack of action from Ontario Premier Doug Ford and his government during delegations to the Region of Peel and Mississauga council.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
At the local level, a City of Mississauga motion in September requested council “take a stand and advocate” with municipalities across the province, including Brampton and the Region, that have declared intimate partner violence an epidemic in order to grab the attention of Ford and his PC government. 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.
Earlier this month, St. Catherines City Council approved a motion requesting that Ford and his PC government “re-consider their previous decision and declare intimate partner violence and gender-based violence as an epidemic” and act on each of the recommendations laid out in the Renfrew County Inquest that fall under provincial jurisdiction. The motion also requested a copy of the motion be shared with each of the Region of Niagara’s MPPs.
“It is shameful that the Ford government not only rejected many of these recommendations, but also chose to not declare intimate partner violence an epidemic,” Stiles said in her statement. “We don’t have time to waste. We should be doing everything we can to prevent even one more death from intimate partner violence.”
Sandra Rupnarain, executive director of Family Services of Peel, said the reality is intimate partner violence should be declared an epidemic by the Province, but she questions whether the community has made enough of a concerted petition to the government to do that.
“Government takes action when people protest or raise their voices, and I think that’s something that's not happening. It’s little pockets, but it's not coming together in a big voice,” she told The Pointer.
Between 2018 and 2022, the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability has tracked 850 killings of women or girls throughout the country. According to the organization’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 report, which analyzed sex/gender-related killings of women and girls in Canada between 2018 and 2022 found the killing of women and girls involving male accused in Canada increased by 27 percent in 2022 (184) compared to 2019 (148). The largest group of women and girls killed in 2022 were in Ontario (36 percent) with 66 women of the 184 that were killed last year. This is attributed, in part, to Ontario being the most populous province. In 2022, on average, one woman or girl was killed every two days in Ontario.
Family and intimate partner violence continues to be among the top most frequent incidents reported to Peel Regional Police.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
The Observatory has been calling on the federal government and other leaders to recognize femicide as a distinct crime, which the organization says at its most basic level means “officially recognizing those killings in which women and girls were killed because of their sex or gender as femicide.”
“Official recognition of femicide would help to make femicide visible and legitimize it as a social problem worthy of urgent attention,” the report states. “The official recognition of femicide is a small, but important, step toward real and social change — change that has so far been elusive for women and girls in this country and globally.”
A 2018 overview of intimate partner violence in Canada notes women disproportionately experience the most severe forms of intimate partner violence such as being choked, assaulted or threatened with a weapon, or being sexually assaulted. Women are also more likely to experience more frequent instances of violence and more often report injury and negative physical and emotional consequences as a result of the violence. While most instances of intimate partner violence are not reported to police, women comprise the majority of victims in cases that are reported.
In many cases of intimate partner violence, 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.
“It's already so difficult to leave an abuser, whether it's the financial reliance or the emotional reliance, fear of leaving your abuser or just the physical inability to leave,” Kebir explained. “And so once a woman does finally [leave], the resources need to be available and readily there for them to access. When they're not there and they go back to the abuser that's the root of femicide. That's what happens, women are murdered.”
To help fix the broken justice system, the Province is considering its own version of Clare’s Law that could protect women in relationships when patterns of behaviour point to the risk of domestic violence. The landmark UK legislation, ratified in 2014 and known as “Clare’s Law”, has been instrumental in combatting intimate partner violence. Known formally as Domestic Violence Disclosure Schemes, such laws permit individuals to seek, and police to release, information about their intimate partners’ past abusive history.
The proposed legislation would see the province “adopt mechanisms for disclosure” to allow access to violent offender information if a person feels a partner might pose a risk. It would give police the ability to disclose information to those who are considered vulnerable. Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba and Newfoundland have all adopted similar legislation.
However, much of the responsibility continues to fall on the justice system as the recourse for reform despite the data and information that has been brought to the forefront in recent years. It’s a reactive measure for addressing violence after it has already been committed. It’s not a solution.
The simple reality remains that there continue to be gaps in the system despite efforts to introduce more resources to women in these situations.
With the current housing crisis and an already exhausted shelter system, women have nowhere to turn to when fleeing an abusive or violent partner. 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.
When a woman accesses a crisis shelter, she can only stay there for three or four months, depending on the region. After that, she either has to find a place to rent, which with the current rate of inflation and the housing market is very unaffordable, or she is forced to shelter hop which can be challenging given the current strained shelter system. She could also apply for subsidized housing, but the waitlist for subsidized housing can take years depending on the region. Or she can return back to her abuser.
“Women don't have any other option. Even if they make it into a crisis shelter, after that couple months is done they don't have the option to then go ahead and live independently away from the violence so they're forced to go back,” Kebir said.
“That's where second stage shelters and transitional homes kind of fill in that gap of ‘where do you go after your shelter stay is complete?’ Because if you have to go back to your abuser, which is more often than not the case, once your stay in a crisis shelter is over, the rates and the severity of the violence increases substantially, and oftentimes, this is when we see femicide occur.”
But women are being turned away as shelter systems are drastically underfunded. Since April 2020, the federal government has provided $300 million in emergency pandemic funding to organizations that combat violence against women. Nearly half of that amount, approximately $145 million, went to women's shelters. On average, each shelter received nearly $130,000 extra a year under the pandemic program — a funding stream that was set to expire in September.
As the only second-stage supportive housing program in all of Peel Region, Armagh House is always at maximum occupancy, having to turn away more women and children than the organization is able to help. Kebir said the organization is “turning women away in hoards.” The organization operates on a two-year program and each time a unit becomes available, which Kebir said is not often because of the two-year turnover rate, she receives roughly 40 applicants of women and families waiting in the crisis shelter system to come into the program. Armagh House is currently undergoing an expansion and will be opening up 10 more units in 2024.
“When I'm only taking in one person out of those 40, we're looking at 39 families having to go back into the cycle of violence, because they don't have any other option. So it's very, very concerning that this has not been recognized. Because we see the impact that it has, when you don't recognize it as an epidemic and you don't put the proper holistic and wraparound funding into the entire pipeline.”
In February the Province announced it would be investing up to $6.5 million to help women and children who have experienced violence access the support and services they need to stay safe and rebuild their lives. The announcement came as part of the government’s larger investment of $18.5 million over three years to support survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking by increasing access to safe and affordable housing, employment assistance and childcare through the Transitional and Housing Support Program.
In a November 7 statement from Michael Parsa, Minister of Children, Community and Social Services in response to Woman Abuse Prevention Month he noted the Province is investing nearly $247 million to support victims of violence, and almost $29 million in violence prevention initiatives. Despite acknowledging “It is absolutely unacceptable that one in three women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime,” stating/asserting “Our government has zero tolerance for violence against women and children in all its forms,” it continues to fail to declare intimate partner violence an epidemic.
The money being invested by the PC government could be easily outweighed by the economic toll intimate partner violence can have on the economy.
A 2009 analysis from the federal Department of Justice estimated that IPV had an economic cost of $7.4 billion annually to deal with the aftermath of spousal violence alone and sexual violence a cost of $4.8 billion annually. Due to data unavailability and the limitations of existing data in many areas of research, the estimate of $7.4 billion is a conservative estimate, the government report notes.
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.
On November 15th, the federal and provincial government announced a bilateral agreement that would see the federal government invest $162 million over four years as part of it’s National Action Plan. The joint plan is focused on three priority areas: increasing prevention efforts; reaching underserved and at-risk populations; and stabilizing the gender-based violence sector.
Declaring intimate partner violence an epidemic at the provincial level could jump-start much-needed funding to address the crisis. Kebir noted this declaration is an important first step in setting the stage for tangible change.
“I think that once it is declared an epidemic, those conversations can begin. And we can create action plans that we can actually put funding and action behind to actually see the proper funding and resources come to fruition and really provide the sustainability that these agencies that answer and support survivors of violence need to actually operate,” she said. “That's what we're looking for just operation funding to be able to exist and continue providing the programs and supports that we're trying to get these women.”
It’s an approach Kebir said needs to be holistic.
“The Province needs to look at the entire pipeline of supports when it comes to supporting women who are fleeing violence, that putting money only into the emergency shelter system, while it is helpful as an immediate response, it doesn't actually address the root issue, which is, these women often find themselves stuck in the cycle of violence, because they don't have access to the proper resources to build lives, free from violence that are sustainable, in which they don't have to rely on the abuser or on external services.”
“Violence doesn't stop after the four months in a crisis shelter. And so that holistic view and looking at the entire picture is very, very important. And something that I hope the Province looks at, when and if they do declare this as an epidemic.”
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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