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Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth Marci Ien rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Oct. 27.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The federal government has announced the first-ever national action plan to end gender-based violence in Canada, although many anti-violence experts quickly criticized it for lacking specific commitments to measures that would improve and standardize access to supports for victims.

Women and Gender Equality Minister Marci Ien announced the 10-year plan, reached in agreement with all Canada’s provinces and territories aside from Quebec, at a news conference Wednesday in Pictou, N.S. In an interview with The Globe and Mail earlier in the day, she called it a “huge step forward for our country.”

“We have agreement with the provinces and territories to move forward,” she said. “That’s not an easy thing. That’s a big thing.”

The announcement follows years of lobbying from survivors, front-line workers and women’s organizations, who have long said access to victim services such as counseling, transitional housing and emergency funding varies across the country and is especially scarce in rural areas and in the North – regions where domestic violence rates are highest.

The goal of developing a national action plan – which the United Nations has urged its members to do – is to address gender-based violence in a coherent, co-ordinated way, by ensuring access to services and funding are comparable throughout the country.

A document released Wednesday that summarizes the government’s plan is divided into five pillars: support for victims, survivors and their families; prevention; building a responsive justice system; implementing Indigenous led-approaches; and creating social infrastructure.

There are broad goals listed, such as addressing the social and economic conditions that contribute to gender-based violence and ensuring that anyone facing such violence has access to culturally appropriate services. But the plan does not lay out concrete steps to achieving those things.

Instead, the document lists “opportunities for action” under each pillar, or says what “actions could include.” Among those possible actions are increasing core funding, promoting public awareness campaigns and increasing the accessibility of the Canadian justice system and improving confidence in it.

Ms. Ien said the details will be hashed out through individual negotiations with each provincial and territorial government. Territories will receive at least $4-million each and provinces will each receive at least $2-million, she said.

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“We’re putting money on the table. But really, it’s the provinces and territories that are going to roll this out,” she said.

She could not say how long those negotiations would take or whether, in signing on to the national action plan, the provinces and territories had to commit any of their own funding. The federal government included $539-million over five years in its 2022 budget to support provinces and territories in implementing a national action plan. Wednesday’s announcement did not include any new funding.

The announcement left some disappointed.

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The Globe and Mail

“We’re not calling it a national action plan, because in our mind it’s not really a national action plan,” said Lise Martin, executive director of Women’s Shelters Canada, an organization that supports shelters across the country. It has spent nearly a decade calling for a plan.

“We had hoped that the provinces and territories would be signing on to precise actions – that there would be a commitment there, rather than being offered a menu of opportunities for action, which is the way it’s worded in the plan.”

Ms. Martin co-led a team of more than 40 experts last year that published a roadmap for a national action plan. The report included more than 100 recommendations, such as ensuring safe, accessible public transportation; creating lump-sum payments for people fleeing violence so they can get re-established; expanding affordable housing; and bolstering data collection.

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Angela Marie MacDougall, executive director of Battered Women’s Support Services, in British Columbia, said she is concerned that politicians could exploit the flexibility of the plan announced Wednesday.

“It leaves the door open to not doing a whole lot of things – and a lot of inconsistency,” she said.

Amanda Arella, director of public policy, advocacy and strategic communications at YWCA Canada, said the plan will only be successful “if it creates systemic change and addresses the root causes of gender-based violence.”

“We know this will require significant investment, oversight and co-ordination at the federal level,” she said. “We are concerned that the implementation of the national action plan through bilateral negotiations with provinces and territories will further exacerbate the existing patchwork system of services and supports.”

Riyadh Nazerally, Ms. Ien’s director of communications, said provinces and territories will have to develop implementation plans and report regularly to the ministry on how their funding is being spent before the next year’s allocation is released.

“Those implementation plans will be made public and there will also be periodic evaluations,” Mr. Nazerally said.

A Globe and Mail project found that Canada lags other countries in creating public-awareness campaigns on intimate-partner violence, enacting legislation on coercive control, establishing a national hotline for victims and ensuring adequate victim services in rural areas and in the North.

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Across Canada, a woman or girl is killed about once every two days, according to the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, a research and advocacy organization. In this country alone, 173 women were killed last year, mostly by men – a 26-per-cent increase from 2019, before the pandemic. About half of female domestic homicide victims are killed by their current or former partners.

How to call for help

For help with controlling behaviour or intimate partner violence, call the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 1-866-863-0511. In Quebec, call SOS violence conjugale at 1-800-363-9010.