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People take part in a vigil at the Women's Monument in Petawawa, Ont., following the jury's release of recommendations in a coroner's inquest in Pembroke, Ont., on June 28, 2022.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The federal government described gender-based violence as “an epidemic” in its formal response to a coroner’s inquest, months after the Ontario government refused to do so.

In a letter to the Ontario coroner’s office – responding to jury recommendations from an inquest last summer – Justice Minister Arif Virani said in the Aug. 14 letter 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.”

A total of 86 action items were drafted by the jury, after a three-week inquest last summer into the murders of Carol Culleton, Nathalie Warmerdam and Anastasia Kuzyk – who were killed at their homes by a mutual ex-partner on a shooting rampage across the Ottawa Valley on Sept. 22, 2015.

The inquest jury heard the killer had a long history of violence against these three women and others. He had been deemed high risk in multiple assessments, was well known to local police and was on probation at the time of the murders. Yet, he flouted court orders without consequence, continuing to own weapons and skipping the group counselling program he was mandated to attend.

The vast majority of the recommendations were directed at the provincial government – the first on the list being to declare intimate-partner violence an epidemic in the province. The province refused to do so, arguing that the term is reserved for the spread of disease.

The refusal was condemned by anti-violence advocates, and dozens of Ontario municipalities have since made symbolic declarations at the local level.

The federal government, for its part, received roughly a half-dozen recommendations from the jury, including calls to criminalize coercive control and to review the current offence of criminal harassment. Coercive control is a pattern of behaviours intended to isolate, humiliate, exploit or dominate a person. This can include emotional, verbal and financial abuse.

Mr. Virani said both recommendations are “aligned with the Government’s ongoing efforts to prevent and eradicate” gender-based violence.

He said federal officials are working with their provincial and territorial counterparts to create a new offence related to coercive control. Though coercive control is one of the least understood forms of violence, the psychological consequences of this kind of controlling behaviour can be long-lasting – and research has shown it heightens the risk for lethality.

On average, a woman is killed by an intimate partner every six days in Canada. With attempted murders included, the stat becomes one almost every other day.

The inquest jury also called on the federal government to add femicide (which refers to the gender-related killings of women and girls) to the Criminal Code as a specific offence.

In his letter, Mr. Virani responded that first-degree murder is already punishable by a mandatory life sentence, and that abuse, bias or hate could be considered aggravating factors for sentencing or parole in manslaughter or second-degree murder cases.

“Justice Canada officials are currently examining how the criminal justice system’s responses to femicide cases can be strengthened,” he said.

He also said they are working with Statistics Canada to find better ways of collecting data on femicide in Canada.

Kirsten Mercer, a lawyer who represented the group EVA (End Violence Against Women) Renfrew County at the inquest, said she is pleased by the tone of the federal government’s response and the openness it signalled “to ongoing engagement with EVA and others in the sector.”

She acknowledged that this is a response to a very narrow set of recommendations, and expects the government’s work to address this violence more broadly “will unfold in a context that includes the government’s response to the Mass Casualty Commission.”

The final report of the Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission – which conducted an inquiry into the April, 2020, shooting rampage that left 22 people dead – found that intimate partner violence was at the very core of the worst mass shooting in Canadian history.

Though she said she was pleased to see the federal government taking a “thoughtful and cautious” approach to any Criminal Code changes, she warns against looking to the justice system as the solution.

“I think it’s always important to be cautious that we don’t overly focus our efforts on the Criminal Code,” she said, noting that many survivors opt not to contact police – and may even avoid seeking other supports, out of a fear of justice system involvement.

Pamela Cross, a lawyer who provided testimony at the inquest, said she could not help comparing the federal government’s response to the provincial government’s.

“I have to say, after several years of the government that we’ve had in Ontario, it’s pretty clear that it’s not interested in meaningful collaboration or consultation. So to get a response like this one feels good. It feels positive,” she said.

“It doesn’t mean that we’re all going to come to the same conclusion – whether we’re talking about criminalizing coercive control or revisions to criminal harassment law or dangerous offender provisions – but it means we have the opportunity to converse and share expertise, and that is a very welcome feeling.”

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

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