In Quebec, where 17 women and two children were killed by men in intimate-partner violence in 2021, and amid a surge in hotline calls and texts from victims seeking support this year, women are being turned away from shelters that are stretched beyond capacity.
In Nunavut, where there are just four shelters currently, women and children experiencing violence in many remote communities have nowhere safe to go.
And in Saskatchewan – which has the country’s highest provincial rate of intimate-partner violence – homeless women, many of whom are fleeing abusive situations, are left sleeping in the cold. In the first quarter of this year alone, YWCA Regina had to turn away 941 women and 100 children.
Canada’s domestic-violence crisis has only intensified through the pandemic. Although the federal government has boosted funding, and some provincial governments have added pandemic-related funds on a temporary basis, long-term investments for those in urgent need – including thousands of children in Canada – has been sporadic, piecemeal, variable and largely inadequate.
And resources are not reaching the communities that need them most. Particularly in rural areas, Indigenous communities, the Prairies and the North, resources are scant – despite their per capita needs being the greatest in the country.
“Forty years ago, it wasn’t acceptable to leave [an abusive spouse] at all. Today, you can leave – but we’re not going to support you in doing it,” said Jo-Anne Dusel, executive director at the Provincial Association of Transition Houses and Services of Saskatchewan.
Canada needs an overhaul on where and how money is spent, stakeholders say. Access to services should not depend on your postal code, and shelter staff should not be forced to juggle grant applications and fundraising planning with front-line work.
Anuradha Dugal, vice-president of community initiatives at the Canadian Women’s Foundation, says supports fall far short given the scale of need.
“People often point to ‘well, you’ve been in existence for 20 or 30 years, and the numbers on violence haven’t changed,’ ” she says.
“And it’s like, no – because it’s never been funded adequately. I mean, if you compare the kind of money that has been put into the carceral system, the police system. And you know what? There’s still crime.”
When women’s shelters were first created in the 1970s, they were supposed to be temporary – a stopgap emergency measure on the way to eradicating domestic violence. Instead, shelters have evolved into a permanent sector, while remaining chronically underfunded and overwhelmed. This means some can’t pay staff high enough wages to avoid turnover. It means many women have nowhere to go after they leave emergency facilities, as second-stage shelters are scarce, and housing has become ever more unaffordable. It means no money for programs in shelters that can help children or support mothers getting back on their feet. And it means some shelters at capacity must turn away women in need, which puts them at direct risk of returning to their abuser.
With more than four in 10 women experiencing some form of intimate partner violence in their lifetime in Canada, tens of thousands of women and children turn to emergency shelters for help each year.
On a single day in April, 2021, for example, there were 2,975 women and 2,423 accompanying children in facilities for victims of abuse, according to Statistics Canada. Others don’t make it to shelters at all, instead couch surfing, sleeping in cars, in motels – or remaining with the abuser. Nearly a third of women who leave a shelter return to their abuser, Statscan said in an Apr. 12 report.
And yet funding toward domestic violence prevention and support in Canada – which flows from a mix of provincial and federal dollars along with grants and donations – does not adequately address this pervasive, scarring problem.
The federal government has increased spending broadly on gender-based violence-related programs. For 2020-21, for example, Women and Gender Equality Canada (WAGE) funding reached almost $40-million on programs and services at shelters, women’s organizations and sexual assault centres compared with $12.3-million in 2018-19. It plans to maintain GBV funding levels at an average of about $67-million per year in the coming years, though advocates are concerned that it will take time – in some cases, years – to actually reach those in need.
And it’s difficult to pinpoint just how much of that money goes specifically to domestic violence prevention and programs. WAGE said a breakdown of funding specifically for intimate partner violence-related initiatives is not available.
What is clear: Regions with the greatest severity of problems are not seeing proportionate funding.
Saskatchewan, for example – where the rate of intimate-partner violence is double the national average – received just $1.7-million for gender-based violence projects from WAGE in 2020-21. And Nunavut, with the highest rates in Canada, got just $107,000 that year, and almost nothing in the two years prior. These numbers exclude temporary pandemic-related funds.
A big challenge with shelter funding is that these organizations find themselves “in that quagmire of the division of responsibilities between federal and provincial governments,” said Lise Martin, executive director of Women’s Shelters Canada.
For example, the federal government will cover the construction costs of a shelter, but day-to-day operations, such as programming or job training, fall under the responsibility of the provinces.
Provincial funding is uneven. During the pandemic, some provincial and territorial governments provided a boost of temporary funding. But not all did, and long-standing issues remain, among them that funding is insufficient given that many of these facilities are aging and in dire need of repair.
With constrained budgets and little adjustments for the rising cost of living, many shelters turn to fundraising, running silent auctions, bake sales, raffles or hosting potlucks to keep their programs running.
Even if women and children can find space in an emergency shelter, that’s only a temporary solution. A national housing affordability crisis means there is often nowhere to go for women in emergency shelters who are fleeing a violent situation.
As a result, shelter stays have been getting longer, causing capacity constraints.
At the Peace River Regional Women’s Shelter in Alberta, one woman and her five children recently spent five months living in one bedroom with two bunk beds and a shared bathroom, while they waited for a subsidized housing space to open up. There are no buses to transport residents, nor any nearby addiction or mental-health facilities for women trying to leave, says executive director Sandra O’Doherty.
The scramble to add affordable housing has largely overlooked women in shelters. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. is boosting spending though, to date, relatively little investment has gone to transitional housing.
“The lack of affordable and social housing is massive,” said Krys Maki, director of research and policy for Women’s Shelters Canada. “It’s a huge barrier for women and children, and it is actually one of the reasons women will return to their abusers; it’s that or homelessness.”
Melodie Anne DuBois-Crowe, a First Nations survivor of domestic violence, whose abuse took place on a reserve two hours from Winnipeg, says stable housing she found in Manitoba is what helped her climb out of a hole.
Transitional housing is an “absolute necessity” for women leaving a domestic violence situation, she says, because “you can barely even really start to fathom what you’ve been through.”
For women in rural and remote areas, including those who live on reserves and in the North, finding adequate housing, shelters, supports and transportation is extra challenging.
Indigenous women are disproportionately affected by intimate partner violence – and yet funding for on-reserve shelters (which comes mostly from a federal envelope) is even lower, proportionately, than it is for provincially funded shelters, according to preliminary data from a research collaboration between the National Aboriginal Circle Against Family Violence and Women’s Shelters Canada.
Experts draw a direct line from the lack of supports and safe spaces in communities to the high numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
“Transportation and isolation are huge factors for First Nations people living in remote communities,” says Ms. DuBois-Crowe, a member of Pasqua First Nation who lives in Saskatoon.
“That distance might not have seemed like a lot for some people. But for me, with five kids and no vehicle in or out, that’s a huge barrier right there.”
All of these challenges are compounded for women in the North, who experience the highest rates of family violence in the country but have the least access to resources.
These rates are the result of intergenerational trauma, caused by the harmful, long-lasting effects of the residential school system, and colonization, says Rebecca Kudloo, a former president of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada who is based in Baker Lake, Nunavut.
Though the federal and territorial governments have pledged funding for some new shelters, Ms. Kudloo says it will take years to actually establish them, and that even with the four new facilities, Nunavut still won’t have nearly enough. Across Inuit Nunangat, the traditional Inuit homeland, there are just 13 operational shelters, she notes, serving 51 communities.
In order to escape violence, many abuse victims would have to fly out – which comes at a high cost, both financially and culturally. “Leaving your support circle from family, community support is a hard challenge when faced with isolation. So a lot of times women will come back to their abusive partner, because she has no other choice.”
Front-line workers, survivors and researchers have ideas on how to reshape the funding landscape. A national action plan would help ensure services and supports are more evenly distributed across the country. Longer-term, stable core funding would ease pressure on staff, who are often ensnarled with complicated, one-year grants, and help with planning. Affordable housing must be increased, and in the shorter term, shelters at capacity should have a greater ability to refer women to nearby alternatives. And funding should flow to the areas most in need, such as to Indigenous women’s supports.
Ms. Kudloo believes every community should have a shelter and access to second-stage housing – along with support services in their first language, Inuktut, and resources for healing programs for families. “We can’t just heal one part of a family; we need to look at [what] the men have gone through in the past. They need help too,” she said.
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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