Intimate partner violence has been called the shadow pandemic, one that intensified as COVID lockdowns limited women’s ability to leave abusive partners, while a housing affordability crisis left them with nowhere to go once they could.
But the statistics have long been stark. There is nothing subtle about this crisis. Every six days on average a woman is killed by an intimate partner, according to Statistics Canada. And more than four in 10 women have experienced some form of this abuse in their lifetime.
When considering the policy changes needed to protect women at risk of intimate partner violence, decision makers often overlook the group with arguably the most crucial insights: survivors with first-hand experience. “Survivors are the experts,” said Kimlee Wong in Manitoba, who is a survivor of domestic violence. Decision makers “keep talking about how important our voices are. And yet I feel like they’re not listening.”
This year, The Globe and Mail investigated how governments at all levels have failed abuse survivors, and failed to stop these crimes in the first place. We have looked at the ways that prevention and treatment programs for boys and men are under-resourced, how Canada lacks transitional housing – especially for those in the North and in Indigenous communities – and how traditional policing may not be the best response to a societal problem.
As Canada awaits a long-promised national action plan to tackle gender-based violence, we asked some survivors what they would do to change the system. Here’s what they said.
Run educational programs for boys
For more than two decades, Debije Jules, a health care worker in the Toronto area, experienced physical and verbal abuse from her former partner. She lived with shame and guilt and did not feel safe speaking up. The impact of the abuse, she says, is personal but also intergenerational – all four of her children, now aged 30 to 41, have seen lasting impacts on their mental health.
Ms. Jules believes one of the main causes of intimate partner violence is a lack of education for boys about how to cope with difficult feelings and what a healthy relationship looks like. “I think of it from a public-health perspective,” says Ms. Jules. “I believe that the investment should be in primary prevention. It should be in getting at the root causes. Let us prevent the problem in the first place.”
For example, she says, “When society says, well, you’re a boy, what are you doing crying? What’s your problem?… When this message starts being thrown at boys, instead of being loving and empathetic and respecting others, they start to show hostility and aggression, because that’s what’s accepted.”
This means investing in prevention programs for men and boys – initiatives that have long been underfunded and overlooked in Canada.
Though seldom offered, there are some success stories. WiseGuyz, a life-skills program for boys in grade nine, which started in the Calgary area with funding from the federal government and other partners, is one such initiative. The program covers what respectful relationships look like, sexual health, gender stereotypes and how to stand up for peers.
Evaluations of more than 800 participants since 2012 show the program helped them form healthy relationships, make stronger social connections, cope with negative emotions and counter homophobic attitudes. The program has recently received some funding to expand in up to 15 other communities across Canada.
Ms. Jules supports the approach, but says education on healthy relationships should start even earlier – so that by the time children get to kindergarten, they have already been developing “safe expressions of emotions, and learning how to demonstrate empathy.”
Create safe, affordable housing
For Melodie Anne DuBois-Crowe, finding safe, stable housing after fleeing an abusive relationship was literally a lifesaver. She left, taking her five children aged 5 to 13, after nine years spent with a partner who she says put her in the hospital with a concussion, broken ribs, fractured jaw and a badly bruised face.
After that incident, she went from the hospital in Winnipeg to an emergency shelter and then to subsidized housing in Vancouver. The family later moved to ChezRachel in Winnipeg, which provides safe housing for women and children. ChezRachel is an example of second-stage housing, which is a type of transitional housing for domestic-abuse survivors that tends to include extra supports and advocacy for women and children trying to find a permanent place to live.
“I’m so thankful they had room in the shelter for us at [ChezRachel] because we would have had nowhere to go,” says Ms. DuBois-Crowe, an author and advocate who is a member of the Pasqua First Nation and now lives in Saskatoon.
Finding affordable housing was difficult in many Canadian cities before the pandemic; now, skyrocketing rents and living costs have made that even harder. As a result, many women fleeing abuse stay longer in shelters, which in turn limits spaces available for others.
Governments could help to provide more options for these families. One such project is under way in Prince George, B.C. – a housing complex opening this year, which is the first of its kind in the province. Along with secure transitional and second-stage housing, the complex includes 21 affordable townhouses to be rented to women and their children who are fleeing violence. The aim is to support women in a safe community as they live independently. The project, funded by B.C. Housing, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp., and the city of Prince George, is also pet-friendly. This eliminates another barrier, as many women seeking shelter aren’t allowed to bring pets, which can prevent them from leaving abusive relationships in the first place.
“If you don’t have to worry about housing, that alleviates a lot … because then you can focus on things that need to be taken care of,” says Ms. DuBois-Crowe.
Institute trauma-informed training
For Jacqueline Suchite Rivas, navigating bureaucratic red tape wasn’t just an annoyance, it led to her having to repeatedly relive the years of physical and emotional violence she’d suffered. As she was forced to tell her story of abuse over and over again, whether at a bank or a passport office, the recollections gave her anxiety attacks and left her a sobbing wreck. Even worse, it seemed that no one in any government or corporate bureaucracy she encountered had been trained to deal with survivors of domestic violence.
One of the most troubling incidents happened when Ms. Suchite Rivas wanted to take her three children on their first trip outside of Canada, to attend a cousin’s wedding in Los Angeles. At a passport office in Alberta, “they told me I’d need the father’s signature, and I said, “He’s in jail, I can’t get a signature from him.’”
Ms. Suchite Rivas was then sent away without passports for the kids, and told she must find supporting court documents to prove that her husband was indeed incarcerated. She pulled court records relating to their relationship and had her mother pull court documents from her hometown of Grande Prairie, where the abuse had occurred.
Ms. Suchite Rivas estimates she went back to the passport office eight times, and had to tell her story to different officials during each visit. On the sixth trip, she broke down. She couldn’t revisit her trauma again. “I was an emotional wreck,” she says. When her children’s passports finally arrived, she was relieved but also couldn’t stop crying.
Similarly painful experiences occurred at the bank and insurance office, where she had to explain over and over again why she couldn’t provide her partner’s signature on documents.
Ms. Suchite Rivas would like to see specialized training for people who work in government, as well as in private companies that offer essential services. “I’m surprised how many people aren’t exposed to trauma-informed care approaches,” she says. She also recognizes that she’s relatively privileged: other survivors might not have her level of literacy or confidence navigating bureaucracies, and there should be special supports for them.
Institutions could also ensure that only one person is assigned to help a survivor of violence, suggests Ms. Suchite Rivas, so that they don’t have to keep repeating their stories.
She points to the specialized training that airlines provide to their staff to recognize the signs of human trafficking as a good inspiration. Similar training, she believes, should be provided to employees so they can understand the long-term trauma experienced by survivors, as well as the logistical struggles that are particular to their situations.
Provide financial support during transition
The abuse that Kimlee Wong faced from a former partner intensified after she told him she was leaving the relationship – a common experience among survivors, who are typically most at risk as they flee.
When she left with her children, she had no money. “What saved me was subsidized housing … we would have been homeless and at food banks,” she says. “I went $14,000 in debt; I bought food on my credit card because I needed to pay cash for the rent.”
Ms. Wong, who is based in a rural First Nations community in Manitoba, says a financial cushion is essential for survivors to leave and successfully land on their own. In many cases, women suffering from physical and emotional abuse also experience financial abuse, where a partner has left them with little income or savings, a damaged credit history, or no access to funds because their partner controlled the money or accrued debts.
Financial support during the transition “could save some women’s lives,” Ms. Wong said, adding that a lack of funds they need to survive often drives victims back to their abusers. But if they have some time to access supports such as trauma-informed counselling and small business loans, survivors can start to rebuild their lives.
As well as much-needed cash, Ms. Wong believes women in transition should receive leniency on bills and credit card payments.
Though still not common, some jurisdictions have recognized the need for a financial bridge to help people get back on their feet. Australia has an “escaping violence payment” for those who have recently left a violent relationship and are struggling financially; this includes up to $1,500 in cash ($1,320 in Canadian dollars) and further supports to help set up a new home. The state of Oregon has temporary financial help of up to USD$1,200 ($1,653) for relocation costs and items that can address safety concerns, such as security cameras.
In Canada, Alberta offers an “escaping abuse” benefit for those fleeing family violence, a one-time payment of $1,021, which can be used for any number of things from short-term shelter to transport to damage deposits on a new residence. The YWCA, too, now offers a national emergency survivor support fund of up to $2,000 to women and gender-diverse people who are experiencing domestic violence.
Train health-care workers to recognize brain injuries
When Deirdre Reddick visited the emergency room after having her head hit off a wall by her partner, the doctor noted her bruises, and acknowledged she was injured. But her main concern, that she had suffered from a concussion, was shrugged off – a dismissal that felt like an extension of the gaslighting she experienced at home.
Looking back, Ms. Reddick feels that it was a missed opportunity for the intervention she needed – and when she went back home, the violence continued.
Today, Ms. Reddick, who lives in Kingston, Ont., has spoken in public about the dangers of traumatic brain injury (TBI) for victims of intimate partner violence, and the importance of educating health care workers on what signs to look for.
About five years ago, she suffered a concussion after bumping her head, which required her to take several months off work. Even today, the symptoms linger – compounded, she believes, by not receiving adequate treatment for the earlier concussions she suffered during her abusive relationship.
“The severity of what I sustained from that final head trauma helped bring into light some of the other things that I had overlooked during the time that I was sustaining head injuries on a regular basis,” she said.
Much of the TBI and concussion research remains focused on athletes, and experts say there remains a lack of understanding in the health care field around the intersection with domestic violence. It’s a critical area that Ms. Reddick believes requires immediate investment.
She is encouraged by a pilot project that was launched earlier this year by a survivor-led anti-violence organization in Toronto, Women At The Centre, to develop a national blueprint on how to best serve and treat survivors of intimate partner violence who have a resulting brain injury. The goal is to provide tools that can be used both by health care workers on the TBI side, as well as front-line workers in the anti-violence sector.
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.
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