A push to criminalize a type of domestic abuse known as coercive control is gaining momentum in Canada, after a private member’s bill put forward by the opposition New Democrats received cross-party support in Parliament on Thursday.
Lisa Hepfner, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Women and Gender Equality, told the House of Commons that the Liberal government is supporting Bill C-332 – a proposed law, drafted by NDP MP Laurel Collins, that treats repeated controlling and coercive behaviour by domestic abusers as a crime. The bill, which has now completed its second reading, also received support from Conservative and Bloc Québécois MPs on Thursday.
The backing by the four major federal parties means Canada is poised to follow in the footsteps of England, Wales, Scotland and several American states, which have all outlawed this type of behaviour.
Coercive control is a form of psychological violence that can include isolating someone from friends and family, as well as restricting their access to money, food or medicine. Abusers in these cases often make degrading comments, send barrages of electronic communications and monitor their victims through social media. Though research has shown coercive control can lead to physical violence, it is not always recognized as abuse.
The issue caught the attention of lawmakers in Canada in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. There were reports at the time that intimate partner violence was becoming more prevalent. A particular turning point was the massacre that began in Portapique, N.S., in April, 2020 – the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the country.
In the aftermath of that rampage, friends and neighbours reflected on the troubling and controlling – but not necessarily illegal – behaviour that they had seen committed by the killer, Gabriel Wortman, over the years. One recalled a time he took the wheels off his girlfriend’s car, so she couldn’t leave after a fight. Another described the control he had over her finances, after convincing her to quit her job.
NDP MP Randall Garrison, who represents Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke in British Columbia, drafted a private member’s bill in 2020, separate from the new bill discussed in Parliament on Thursday, to outlaw this form of abuse.
In 2021, the federal justice committee produced a report, titled The Shadow Pandemic: Stopping Coercive and Controlling Behaviour in Intimate Relationships. It recommended, among other things, that a task force examine whether coercive control should be added to the Criminal Code. Such a task force was never struck, and Mr. Garrison’s bill died in 2021 as a result of that year’s federal election.
Ms. Collins’ near-identical bill is an attempt to revive those efforts. In the House of Commons on Thursday, Ms. Collins, who represents Victoria, B.C., called on the Liberal federal government for support. “Two years later we are still waiting,” she said.
Ms. Hepfner told the House that she was “proud to support” the proposed law. She called it “very important legislation” to address a “pervasive” form of intimate partner violence, which she said her government is committed to ending.
But Ms. Hepfner cautioned that other places that have implemented similar legislation, including Scotland and England, have faced challenges. She said initial evaluations of those rollouts have shown that it may be best to delay the addition of a formalized coercive control law, in order to address issues such as training for police and members of the legal system.
Addressing parliamentarians on Thursday, Ms. Collins said the issue is a personal one for her. She said she first realized the severity of coercive control when her sister showed up on her doorstep, after her now-former partner took her car keys away from her.
“These stories are all too common,” she said. “I urge my colleagues, especially my male colleagues, to talk to the women in their lives. Statistically speaking, we all know someone who has been in an abusive relationship. And there’s a very strong chance that, in that relationship, they experienced coercive control at the hands of their abuser.”
Although the bill appears to have near-unanimous support in Ottawa, not everyone who has studied the issue is persuaded it is a good idea. Some academics and lawyers argue the criminal justice system – which disproportionately punishes Indigenous and other racialized people – is not the best mechanism for solving this problem.
At a news conference Thursday morning, Ms. Collins called this criticism a “really valid concern.”
“These criminal justice systems need dramatic transformation, and ensuring that we have changes to our criminal justice system to better serve survivors is part of that work,” she said.
But she also said she has heard from community organizations that racialized or marginalized women are some of the most impacted by these forms of non-physical violence. She gave the example of newcomer women, whose partners may take their immigration papers or passports.
“This is a particularly insidious way to control someone’s life,” she said. “And we need to make sure that people have the tools to report the behaviour and to have action taken.”
Parliament is expected to vote on the bill at some point over the next few weeks. The legislation would then proceed to the justice committee.
Coercive control is a type of psychological abuse and a pattern of behaviour that runs through many abusive relationships. Here's how to recognize it.
The Globe and Mail