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This week’s newsletter was written by Pamela Cross, the advocacy director at Luke’s Place in Ontario’s Durham Region, where she leads the organization’s work to make systemic change and improve legal outcomes for women fleeing abuse.

On June 28, 2022, along with a few dozen others, I was sitting in a Pembroke, Ont., hotel conference room, waiting to hear the jury’s verdict in an inquest examining the circumstances of the deaths of three women: Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam. All were killed by the same man on the morning of Sept. 22, 2015. Each had had a past relationship with the killer, and the jury was called upon to examine their deaths in the broader context of intimate partner violence (IPV) and femicide in rural communities.

I had appeared before the inquest as a witness and had been present every day of the proceedings. Now, we would hear what the five jurors had made of what they’d heard and read over the previous three weeks, and what their recommendations would be to the provincial government.

When the foreperson of the jury began with the words: “Recommendation one: We call on the government of Ontario to formally declare intimate partner violence as an epidemic,” it was as though the air had been sucked out of the room, so stunned were we all by the brilliance of this simple idea.

Surely, the government would accept this recommendation. After all, in May of 2020, just a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, UN Women had declared gender-based violence, with its rapidly increasing rates, to be a shadow pandemic.

The numbers in Canada are staggering. One woman is killed by an intimate or former intimate partner every six days. Almost half – 44 per cent – of Canadian women report having been subjected to some form of IPV and are disproportionately the victims of the most severe forms of abuse. Approximately 3,500 women and 2,700 children live in shelters for abused women every night of the year, while more are turned away because there is no room.

In my own work, I have seen the isolation, shame and self-blame many IPV survivors feel, believing that they are alone in experiencing this abuse; that they are, somehow, responsible for what is being done to them; that there is no way out because no one will believe them. Naming IPV to be an epidemic would help these survivors cast off the shame and self-blame and find safety for themselves and their children.

Much to the disappointment of those of us involved with the Culleton, Kuzyk and Warmerdam inquest, the provincial government did not make any moves to implement or even acknowledge this recommendation.

But then, something miraculous began to unfold – advocates and communities decided to take matters into their own hands.

As I travelled from one small community to another throughout the fall of 2022, speaking about the inquest, I heard one comment again and again: Community leaders told me they were not planning to wait on the government to do the right thing. They were going to take action anyway, to make sure the women and children in their community were safe.

That December, my friend and colleague Erin Lee, the executive director of Lanark County Interval House and Community Support, spoke to the Lanark County Council near Ottawa, encouraging them to declare IPV as an epidemic in their county. They did just that, and the floodgates opened.

Over the next few months, one rural community after another reached out for the wording of the Lanark County motion. We put together a toolkit to assist folks who wanted to get involved. One more council passed a motion declaring IPV an epidemic, then two, then four, then 10. As of today, 72 municipalities large and small have made this declaration. The Association of Municipalities of Ontario has acknowledged that gender-based violence and IPV are an epidemic. The federal Justice Minister has done the same.

The grassroots work continues. On Nov. 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the Canadian Federation of University Women is launching a campaign to have every municipality in Canada, including the 444 in Ontario, declare IPV an epidemic. Community organizations are working to develop new and stronger protocols for cross-sectoral collaboration to keep women and children safe.

To date, the government of Ontario has remained firm in its stance: It officially rejected the epidemic recommendation in its formal response to the inquest in June, stating that the word epidemic refers to “the spread of disease,” understood to be “infectious or communicable.”

The province is wrong to resist this recommendation. Declaring IPV to be an epidemic has both symbolic and practical value. It validates the experiences of countless women, thousands of whom carry shame about the abuse they have been subjected to. It moves IPV out of the shadows and into the public health realm, where it belongs. It shines a light on this serious issue and opens the door to the all-of-government and all-of-society discussions that are needed if we are going to eradicate it.

I’ve been an advocate for women for three decades. Change comes so very slowly, and it’s easy to become filled with despair and disillusionment. The grassroots activism related to declaring IPV an epidemic has given me hope, though. It’s reminded me of an important truth: When people choose to act, we can do anything.

What else we’re thinking about:

Increasingly, I find myself looking for hope. The world can be a very difficult place; the climate crisis, war, racism, poverty, gender-based violence – all are deeply entrenched problems with difficult-to-find solutions. But, with hope, we can find the strength to continue our collective work to make the world a better place. As Rebecca Solnit, author of Hope in the Dark, has written: “Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”


Open this photo in gallery:

Marianne Kushmaniuk for The Globe and Mail

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