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Lise Martin, executive director of Women's Shelters Canada, speaks during a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 27, 2019.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The federal government has doubled its emergency funding to help women and families fleeing violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, but experts in the anti-violence sector say it’s a temporary solution for a crisis that is anything but.

“These funds will make a difference, but they are nevertheless short term and are addressing very immediate needs,” said Lise Martin, executive director of Women’s Shelters Canada. Even with a boost in funding, she said, women’s shelters are chronically overcapacity and routinely forced to turn people away.

The latest funding announcement by Maryam Monsef, Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Rural Economic Development, brings the total federal emergency funding for women’s shelters and other organizations including sexual assault centres during the pandemic to $100-million.

The money comes on the heels of a report by Women’s Shelters Canada into the importance of second-stage or transitional shelters, and the gaps in the availability of those supports across the country. While there are more than 500 women’s emergency shelters across the country, there are only 124 second-stage shelters. The main distinction between the two is length of stay: Emergency shelters often have a 30-day cap, whereas women can stay at a second-stage shelter for several months to a year.

The funding model for these facilities differs from province to province, with many relying on fundraising to cover their operating costs. For example, the report notes, “second-stage shelters in Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan and Ontario do not receive any sustainable provincial government funding."

Ms. Martin said that she and her colleagues in the sector have appreciated the federal government’s support at such a challenging time – but she questions why domestic violence is consistently treated as a temporary crisis to be solved in a piecemeal fashion.

“For me, it goes back to the need for a national action plan on violence against women,” she said.

A national action plan on gender-based violence – which would co-ordinate and standardize access to supports across the country – has long been promise by the Trudeau government but has yet to come to fruition. In an interview last week, Ms. Monsef said her government’s work on a national action plan is continuing with the provinces and territories.

Ms. Monsef said that she hopes the recovery from COVID-19 “creates an opportunity to build back better a sector that is critical to the well-being of our communities.”

She said COVID-19 has led to a situation in which “we recognize and we cannot avoid the importance of care workers, whether it’s in health or long-term care, gender-based violence support. We can no longer ignore their value. And I do hope, and I do count on their expertise to help with the road to recovery.”

More than 100 women and girls have been killed across Canada so far in 2020, according to the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, which uses police and media reports to track femicide incidents on a national scale. It is an imperfect tally, the CFOJA stresses, because there are gaps in public information – for example when police do not release the names or even gender of people who have been killed.

Of those women who were killed so far in 2020, roughly a third are believed to have been killed by an intimate partner, according to local news reports on these cases.

Information about race or ethnicity is not always immediately available. But one trend that is discernible from the data available so far, CFOJA executive director Myrna Dawson says, is that Indigenous women continue to be overrepresented.

Prof. Dawson, a University of Guelph professor who leads the school’s Centre for the Study of Social and Legal Responses to Violence, said it would be premature to say whether COVID-19 has led to an increase in the number of femicides, or specifically intimate-partner homicides, in Canada.

“Just because there hasn’t been an increase in deaths doesn’t mean there hasn’t been an increase in other forms of violence against women and girls, which by all accounts there has been. And we’ve heard this from the front-line agencies that have been working tirelessly to respond to a situation that no one has been adequately prepared for,” Prof. Dawson said.

She takes issue with the use of the term “shadow pandemic” to refer to the rise of intimate-partner violence.

“This is not a shadow pandemic. This is a pandemic that’s been there in front of everyone’s faces, if they wish to look, for decades. And so it’s preceded COVID, and it’ll still be here after COVID,” she said. “And that’s why I say this [emergency funding] is great in the short term. But what are we going to be doing about this in the long term? Because we know that violence against women or anti-violence organizations have been consistently underfunded.”

Krys Maki, research and policy manager for Women’s Shelters Canada, said this is a refrain that they have heard time and again from the organizations they surveyed as part of the group’s recent report: “They’re like, ‘We’re thankful for the money we get, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that it totally isn’t consistent. And it isn’t sustainable. So we’re always trying to catch up, we’re always putting out the fires, and we’re always applying for the grants.’ It’s burning out the sector, and it’s compromising their capacity to support the women who need those services.”

Editor’s note: (Oct. 13, 2020): An earlier version of this story stated that the total funding for shelters has now reached $100-million. In addition to shelters, those funds are also to be divided amongst sexual assault centres and other anti-violence organizations.

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