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Canada’s domestic violence crisis didn’t begin with COVID-19. Although the pandemic exacerbated the dangers for many victims, this is a pervasive societal scourge that affects more than four in ten women and a not insignificant number of men. When The Globe and Mail set out to explore the issue, we assumed a vast amount of data and information would be available. Instead, we encountered patchy or non-existent data, obfuscation and lack of transparency by police, and research silos that meant important information was not being shared with people who needed it.

As a result, it’s almost impossible to document the extent of the problem. Canada does not have a dedicated national research organization, unlike Australia, which has established one as part of its domestic violence plan. But the independent Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability (CFOJA) – which tracks the killings of women and girls across the country, with the goal of cultivating a more nuanced understanding of how these deaths can be prevented – shared their case list for a single year with The Globe and Mail. Their tally was devastating: a total of 160 women and girls killed by violence in 2020.

As a snapshot of domestic violence, the list isn’t perfect – male victims are not included, for example. And though many women on the list were killed by someone they knew, that was not the case for everyone. The CFOJA was able to identify the relationship between a victim and her killer in only two-thirds of cases, usually because the police were not clear or would not share the information. Researchers estimate as many as 20 per cent of intimate partner homicides are missed, because the relationships may fall outside the traditional “partner” definition. (For example, investigators may miss a hidden or casual relationship.)

Other challenges emerged when we tried to learn more about these women and the circumstances that led to them being killed. Many of the deaths merited only the briefest mention in local media. Some women were never named at all, rendering them essentially invisible. When we did track down names, multiple police services refused to release crucial information, such as the relationship between the victim and the accused. Particularly in the case of murder-suicides, where there would be no charges or court case, police often refused to confirm the identity of the perpetrator, citing privacy concerns. In some cases, publication bans hid the names of the deceased or the accused. Many cases were still before the courts, which meant details were unavailable.

When we reached out to victims’ families, some were eager to talk, but others were reluctant. Some had felt misrepresented by previous encounters with media. Some had been advised not to talk ahead of a trial. Some only knew a little about their loved one’s situation, because the victim had kept quiet due to shame or fear. Some told us that their loved ones – who had been murdered by partners or ex-partners – were not in abusive relationships.

It became clear that even people in abusive relationships and those around them might not recognize certain forms of abuse (emotional or financial, for example.) If individuals who were in abusive relationships didn’t even know it, what else was being missed or misunderstood about domestic violence?

We interviewed more than 100 survivors, policy makers, researchers, global experts, shelter workers and other front-line workers, and combed through hundreds of court records and historical reports, to find out. We found decades of studies, reports, inquiries and research containing scores of recommendations which were never implemented.

In this series of pieces, The Globe and Mail will be highlighting some of the most frequently cited themes at the root of this violence: coercive control (defined as a pattern of controlling behaviour used to instill fear or intimidation); the underfunding of shelters and housing; the lack of resources for prevention; and the role of police in investigating domestic violence. We will also report on potential solutions.

Each story led to new challenges and striking gaps in data. For example, when we asked Statistics Canada for its latest data on women’s shelters, including the number of children staying in shelters with their mothers – and the types of abuse those people had suffered – we discovered that the most recent data is from 2017 and 2018. Statscan has increased its research in recent years, with reports showing Indigenous women, along with women with disabilities and younger women, experience higher rates of intimate partner violence. But insights into who the perpetrators are, and their past interactions with the justice system, are absent.

Similarly, research on the massive economic cost of domestic violence is more than a decade out of date.

Research that could help save abuse victims’ lives is limited or not routinely shared. For example, the Ontario Domestic Violence Homicide Death Review Committee has a checklist of red flags, which are common indicators of domestic homicides, but they are not widely known or shared with the general public. (And some provinces and territories do not have a death review committee, meaning there is no national picture to analyze.)

Prevention – the one area that experts, survivors and advocates agree needs more funding and resources – is seriously hobbled by a lack of data. Prevention programs are scarce and the effectiveness of various models is only intermittently measured, partly because it’s difficult to quantify how many women are not harmed, or how many men do not use violence, as a result of them. But even finding out what programs are available can be challenging.

Perhaps most alarmingly, Canada’s government offers no central resource for those seeking to escape intimate partner violence: No national hotline, no national action plan, no centralized web site listing available shelter beds. It has no equivalent of the UK’s Domestic Abuse Commissioner, who gathers research and advocates on behalf of victims.

Better data and more transparent information would not only help researchers, it would help those who most need it – the people fleeing domestic violence.

With special thanks to: Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, and to Globe researchers Stephanie Chambers and Rick Cash

Video: How to recognize coercive control

Coercive control is a type of abuse and a pattern of behaviour that runs through many abusive relationships. Here's how to spot the warning signs.

The Globe and Mail

Podcast: Elizabeth Renzetti on The Decibel

Elizabeth Renzetti explains the stigmas surrounding intimate partner violence and the debate around whether to criminalize coercive control. Subscribe for more episodes.

Follow Molly Hayes on Twitter: @MollyHayesOpens in a new window
Follow Elizabeth Renzetti on Twitter: @lizrenzettiOpens in a new window
Follow Tavia Grant on Twitter: @taviagrantOpens in a new window

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