A police board in southern Ontario is gathering input from the public as it prepares to ask the federal government to add the term femicide to the Criminal Code, a move some advocates say is a crucial step in addressing a national crisis.
The London Police Services Board is looking to hear from community members, women’s advocates and experts as it prepares to send a letter to Ottawa. The last day to weigh in on the issue is July 31.
“What we’re trying to do is say to individuals, when a woman or girl is murdered every 36 hours in Canada, this is a crisis, and it needs to be addressed,” said board member Megan Walker, who is spearheading the initiative.
“One of the first tools we know we can use to address it is by defining femicide and using it to pursue (criminal) investigations.”
Walker, who is a former executive director of the London Abused Women’s Centre, said the initiative stemmed from a May board meeting where she asked if there was a specific breakdown of how many women were victims of homicides, attempted murders and hate crimes in the city, and was told there was no such data readily available.
“My concern was, how do you fix a problem if you don’t acknowledge one exists? So if we can’t even name how many femicides there are, if we can’t even talk about how many hate motivated crimes and incidents were against women, we’re stuck in this cycle,” she said.
Police departments across Canada have reached out to learn more as the London board gears up to make its case to the federal government, Walker said.
The issue was also highlighted last month at an inquest into the deaths of three women killed in 2015 by a man they had been in past relationships with.
The jury that examined what happened to Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam urged the federal government to explore adding the term femicide and its definition to the Criminal Code “to be used where appropriate in the context of relevant crimes.”
Myrna Dawson, founder and director of the Canadian Femicide Observatory, said she’s “encouraged and happy to see some movement” on the issue of femicide.
“It’s been a long time coming because there’s been a group of us in Canada, and more globally, that have recognized femicide as a key issue impacting women’s lives, but … the term femicide has not been really resonating with members of the general public,” she said.
The Canadian Femicide Observatory found that 173 women and girls were killed in Canada as of Dec. 31, 2021, up from 137 murders in 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The research and information centre notes that numbers may increase over time as investigations are completed, suspicious deaths are deemed homicides, or new deaths are recorded.
Dawson said she believes the term femicide is starting to get the attention it deserves because of pandemic-based lockdowns that brought the issue of domestic violence to the fore and the number of cases in recent years that have underlined the way in which women and girls can be killed simply because of their gender.
Unless there’s official recognition of femicide as a crime, it’s difficult to begin prevention efforts or increase public awareness around it, she said.
“It highlights the discriminatory and symbolic aspects of this form of violence as a social reality for women and girls,” Dawson said
“It really goes back to the attitude that men have entitlement and privilege over women and that there’s social norms around masculinity and their need to assert power and control. When we call it homicide, we don’t capture all that context about the way in which women are killed.”
Lisa Darling, executive director of the Ontario Association of Police Services Board, said the association will support the London board and “advocate as required” on its femicide initiative.
The Toronto Police Services Board plans to review the London board’s efforts and will “consider joining them at the appropriate time,” said Danielle Dowdy, senior adviser of strategic policy and stakeholder relations for the Toronto board.
A spokesman for Justice Canada said the federal government is “committed” to ending all forms of gender-based violence and addressing any gaps in the Criminal Code “to ensure a robust criminal justice system response, and will carefully review the inquest recommendations and other input.”
Ian McLeod said the Criminal Code’s sentencing provisions “ensure that offenders of violence against women and girls receive sentences that are proportionate to the gravity of the offence,” taking into account whether there was evidence that the offence was motivated by prejudice or hate based on sex and gender identity.
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