As we have quorum, I'll go ahead and call this meeting to order.
Welcome to meeting number 19 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. To ensure an orderly meeting, I'll go over a couple of rules to follow. For all members and witnesses, please note that there is interpretation at the bottom of your screen on Zoom. Just select the language you would like to listen to, whether English, French or the floor, in order to ensure that you can hear what everybody is saying.
Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. If you're on the video conference, as all of you are, please click on the microphone icon to unmute yourself before you start speaking. When you are done speaking, please make sure you're on mute.
As a reminder to all members, all comments by members and witnesses should be addressed through the chair to ensure an orderly meeting.
With regard to the speakers list, Mr. Clerk and I will do our best to maintain a consolidated order of speaking for all members and witnesses, whether they're participating virtually or in person.
Before we start our meeting, there are two points I'd like to raise. First, I would like to get the committee’s approval for the operational budget that was distributed to all members yesterday. The budget is in the amount of $2,875. It will serve to pay for the expenses for our current study.
Do I have everybody’s approval?
I do see a thumbs-up from everybody. Okay. It is so approved.
Thank you very much, everybody.
The second thing is a reminder about your witness submissions for the upcoming study on the impact of COVID-19 on the justice system. Your witness lists are due today. Please ensure that you get your witness lists in to the clerk and me by the end of the day today. Thanks, everyone.
At this point, I'd like to welcome our witnesses. We have three witnesses today. We have the Alliance des maisons d’hébergement de 2e étape pour femmes et enfants victimes de violence conjugale, represented by Gaëlle Fedida and Maud Pontel; Québec contre les violences sexuelles, represented by Mélanie Lemay and Simon Lapierre; and the Women's Legal Education & Action Fund, represented by Megan Stephens.
We'll start with Gaëlle Fedida and Maud Pontel.
You have five minutes to make your submission. Please go ahead.
Hello. My name is Gaëlle. I'm a lawyer. I've been working at the alliance for five years. My colleague Maud has been working in the field of domestic violence in Quebec for 20 years.
The Alliance des maisons d'hébergement de 2e étape pour femmes et enfants victimes de violence conjugale has 26 members in Quebec.
Eight per cent of women leaving emergency shelters will require second-stage housing because of the dangerousness of their spouse. In Quebec alone, this concerns approximately 500 women per year, as well as their children, of course.
Following a recent self-assessment survey, we were dismayed to learn that 88% of respondents, including over 350 women, experienced several forms of serious post-separation violence, that is criminal offences. In Quebec, a woman is a victim of attempted murder by her ex-partner every 10 days.
Quebec's chief coroner analyzed 10 incidents of domestic violence that resulted in the death of 19 people. His report indicates that eight of those incidents occurred after a separation.
Domestic violence, which is defined in Quebec law as coercive control, unfortunately does not stop after physical separation, quite the contrary. This is why this bill is so important for victims and all those who work with them.
I'll now turn things over to my colleague Ms. Pontel.
Good morning, everyone.
Violence is multidimensional and affects all aspects of the lives of women and children who are victims, whether physically, psychologically or emotionally. Living in constant fear and insecurity will have greater long-term repercussions than physical injury.
Recently in Quebec, there have been many expert reports highlighting the absolute necessity to better understand the issues surrounding domestic violence. At present, acting to better support victims and better supervise aggressors is therefore a government priority.
This is why we believe it is essential to bring coercive control to the forefront of public debate and to see it as a criminal act in its own right, and not merely as a context within which wrongdoing would be committed in the eyes of the law. This would allow women and children living in such a context to be recognized by the justice system as victims with rights under the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights.
When women arrive at the shelter, they are often disoriented by the violence, terrified about fleeing with a few belongings for themselves and their children, panicked about being found by their abuser, and often in shock. As a result, they have often not reported the abuse to the police. Fear of reprisals, lack of knowledge of the system, and fear of not being believed are some of the reasons cited by women.
A report by our sisters in the Fédération des maisons d'hébergement pour femmes indicated that only 19% of the approximately 3,000 women housed in 2018-19 had filed a complaint with the police. Yet all of these women have in common that they have lived under the yoke of an abuser, some for a few months and others for decades.
Realizing that you are experiencing domestic violence can take time. We aren't talking about an episode of violence at the beginning of the relationship, but about an insidious dynamic that can take time to establish. In some situations, the violence will never be physical. It can be a variety of acts of control and manipulation, which will gradually isolate women and children, imprison them psychologically and feed their fear of retaliation if the submission is not total.
Many women are ashamed to speak up, to reveal their experiences, because, in their eyes, what they are experiencing is close to madness. Often, when women tell their stories for the first time, they're afraid that they won't be believed. As a result, the context surrounding these first revelations is crucial. Unfortunately, although we insist on ongoing training throughout the justice system, it's still too often the case that the women we work with encounter a lack of understanding of their experience as a whole, since the preferred approach is one based on offences recognized in the Canadian Criminal Code. Not recognizing coercive control as a criminal act in itself is to minimize the violence of control they have experienced and to erase their suffering as well as that of their children.
Our context of intervention in second-stage housing allows us to see how the aggressor's control techniques diversify in order to maintain a hold despite physical distance. If this control is only partially recognized by the authorities, then our actions to support these women will only be partial.
Working with women and children who have experienced violence is not a trivial task. We do it with the will and purpose to help improve the lives of vulnerable people. We advocate feminist intervention, based on the potential of each woman to regain power over her life.
While we want violence to be recognized, without an integration of coercive control in the Canadian Criminal Code, once again, this recognition will only be partial.
Freedom from violence is no easy task. It's all the more difficult when, in fact, the ex-spouse is only partially guilty of the violence he's caused, or even if he's in no way guilty, and has full freedom to be and to act.
As long as coercive control isn't recognized as an offence, we will certainly talk about a context, but not about actual assaults. The recognition of the aggressor will not be based on the victim's experience or on the multiple traumas resulting from these aggressions and the devastating effects on her life.
It is unacceptable that in Canada, in 2021, a woman fleeing her partner's violence can be told by the authorities that her experiences or history are not sufficient elements to file a complaint, when all the elements of control and domination are present.
As Carmen Gill noted in her research report to the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, we are well aware that this is a change—
Good morning, dear members.
It's with great pleasure that I appear before you.
My name is Mélanie Lemay. I'm the co-founder of Québec contre les violences sexuelles, a movement I launched with Ariane Litalien and Kimberley Marin. We have succeeded in getting framework legislation passed in CEGEPs and universities throughout Quebec.
Since the wave of #MeToo, we have been very involved in changing awareness about sexual violence.
Given our many experiences, it seems obvious to us that it is necessary to improve at all costs the tools available to victim-survivors to flee violence or denounce it. It is essential to expand the models. Although we are testifying today in favour of adding the notion of coercive control to the Criminal Code, the fact remains that, in its very essence, criminal law too often challenges our experience and our reality. Since it is essentially focused on the rights of the accused, we are only witnesses. By dispossessing us of our histories, the criminal law reproduces power relations that already exist in our society.
In the position I find myself in today, I salute your courage and willingness to dwell on this difficult issue. However, I invite you to look further, to think about ways to innovate, beyond a rigid box that locks us up and forces us into compartments that don't fit our real needs.
This summer, we organized a march in Montreal. This event encouraged many people to unite their voices to demand concrete changes. We must stop the continuation of violence from one generation to the next. This truth is widely accepted in a society that claims to be egalitarian. Yet, in reality, we have been the target of several groups of violent men who wanted to silence us with the possibility of an attack. A battering ram car actually arrived on the scene threatening to attack the crowd. Throughout the day, we had to face men who came to shout their anger in our faces, under the amused gaze of the policemen. We had received online threats, but because they weren't in a form recognized in the Criminal Code, the police abandoned us. Luckily, we had taken care of ourselves and our own safety, and there were no tragedies that day, unlike at other events in the past.
However, we have remained marked by society's indifference to the personal sacrifices we make since we must continually advocate for this cause.
Today, I am speaking to you, but thousands of others did so yesterday and, if nothing changes, there will be just as many tomorrow. So I'm speaking to you with the sincere hope that this will be the beginning of a long dialogue on best practices. Here, in these unceded lands, ideas, expertise and proposals abound and are the stuff of international dreams.
I hope to see you unite as the various political parties in Quebec have done, by creating a transparent committee of experts who bring the realities on the ground to the decision-making table. From this committee, a report was born. I have the honour of being accompanied by Simon Lapierre, full professor at the University of Ottawa's School of Social Work, who was a member of this committee of experts.
This ability to unite and see beyond partisanship is a model and an inspiration. What we, as survivors of domestic and sexual violence, most sincerely wish for is a system that focuses on our rights and needs, in order to develop a real sense of justice free of victimization.
There is even a need to create a whole new area of law focusing on gender-based violence. In this regard, we could draw on the knowledge of First Nations and Black communities, who have long reflected on these issues. They have expertise that deserves to be heard within these walls. This would certainly create a more just and equitable world for all. In addition to being adapted to the realities of our gender, a form of law like this would allow for the inclusion of the violence suffered by LGBTQ+ communities.
I'll now turn things over to my colleague, who will return to the main topic on the agenda.
Good morning, everyone.
As a result of numerous studies over the past 20 years with women and children who are victims of domestic violence, it's now clear that the perpetrators of this domestic violence use all sorts of strategies to maintain control over the victims and to deprive them of their freedom. Unfortunately, at present, many of these strategies commonly used by perpetrators are not offences under the Criminal Code. So they go unpunished and deprive the victims of resources, support and protection they need and are entitled to.
The criminalization of coercive control or controlling and coercive behaviour would therefore, as a first step, allow for a better validation of the experience of victims of domestic violence, whether women or children. It would also give additional tools to police, prosecutors and the various actors in the system to better protect victims. In addition, I believe that the criminalization of controlling and coercive conduct could pave the way for better training of the various actors in the criminal justice system, for new initiatives in prevention and intervention, and for changes in family law and child protection.
Lastly, I would like to draw your attention to three elements.
First, in this context, it seems extremely important to criminalize controlling and coercive conduct, and not isolated behaviours. The issue here is the accumulation of behaviours in a context of deprivation of freedom.
In addition, it seems extremely important to ensure that these offences cover incidents of violence that occur after separation and that they also apply even when spouses no longer live together.
Finally, I would like to draw your attention to the importance of carefully considering the situation of children in a context of controlling and coercive conduct. Children are very often at the heart of the strategies used by perpetrators of domestic violence to control their spouse or ex-spouse and deprive her of her freedom. The numerous studies we've conducted with children living in a context of domestic violence have shown that their experience is marked not only by exposure to specific incidents or acts, but even more so by daily exposure to a climate of tension and terror caused by controlling and coercive conduct. In this regard, I invite you to consider an approach similar to that taken in Scotland, for example, where offences involving controlling and coercive conduct are considered even more serious when they target children or when children are exposed to them.
My name is Megan Stephens. I'm the acting executive director and general counsel at the Women's Legal Education & Action Fund, LEAF. I am grateful for the opportunity to appear here today from Tkaronto, The Dish With One Spoon Territory, as part of your study on coercive and controlling behaviour.
For 36 years, LEAF has worked to advance the equality rights of women and girls through litigation, law reform and public education. LEAF has long advocated for the need to improve the justice system’s response to gender-based violence, including intimate partner violence or domestic violence.
I want to start by thanking you for taking the time to study coercive control. This work is really important, because intimate partner violence remains a pervasive and widespread problem in this country.
We know the status quo is not working. One in three women in Canada experience domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence. The risks of such violence are greater for women who live with multiple intersecting inequalities, including indigenous, Black and racialized women, women with disabilities and migrant women.
We also know that over the course of the last year, as much of the world's attention has been focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been another shadow pandemic playing out as lockdowns have isolated women with their abusive partners. Frontline workers in shelters and transition homes across the country have reported increases in physical violence, as well as a dramatic rise in reports of coercive control being used by partners.
Coercive control may be a relatively new concept to many of you, but it has long been recognized by both frontline service providers and academics as lying at the core of intimate partner violence. While there are many different working definitions of coercive control, it's generally understood as a course of intimidating, degrading and regulatory practices used by abusers to instill fear and threat into the everyday lives of their victims. Importantly, it's a highly gendered practice that often seeks to maintain or expand the gender-based privilege of a male partner.
While I commend you for this study, I also want to underscore the importance of proceeding carefully in your work. In my submission, it would be a mistake to rush to criminalize coercive control without thinking through the potential unintended consequences of criminalization. While such a move might be symbolically powerful, we have unfortunately seen too often how the criminal justice system can be weaponized, revictimizing those it seeks to protect.
There are, in my respectful submission, important operational, policing and prosecutorial challenges associated with the proposed criminalization of coercive control, all of which require careful consideration.
In terms of the operational challenges, it will not be easy to transplant the concept of coercive control from clinical and academic contexts into the criminal law. The concept covers a broad range of conduct and is the subject of multiple definitions—as many as 22 by one academic’s recent count. If coercive control is to be criminalized, the elements of the offence should be clear and draw on terminology and language used elsewhere in Canadian criminal law. Adding an overly complicated new offence to the Criminal Code won’t help survivors.
I am concerned that Bill , which draws heavily on the British legislation, is in its current iteration unduly complex and would require some modification.
Assuming you could operationalize an offence of coercive control, there will also be challenges in ensuring that police officers are able to understand and identify reports of coercive control. Extensive training would be essential for police across the country. Even with the training, the U.K. experience suggests that many police are still struggling to see coercive control as worthy of criminal charges.
Another more significant policing challenge is that many survivors, particularly those from marginalized or vulnerable communities, face real barriers to reporting, including a distrust of police. Real work is needed to restore the trust of survivors in police and the justice system more generally.
Finally, as someone who spent more than a decade working as a Crown prosecutor before joining LEAF, I think there would be significant challenges associated with the prosecution of coercive control.
I am especially concerned about the potential impact of prosecutions on complainants. As drafted, the offence requires proof both that the accused’s actions could reasonably be expected to have a significant impact on the victim, meaning that it was objectively reasonable to have that impact, and that they have in fact had such an impact, meaning that complainants will need to give evidence about how they have been affected by the conduct.
This could lead to the revictimization of women as they navigate the criminal justice system, having to testify about their experiences, having their credibility impugned, and opening them up to invasive requests for access to their medical or therapeutic records to call into question whether and how they have been impacted.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Thank you to the witnesses.
Ms. Stephens, you have noted operational challenges in incorporating coercive and controlling behaviour into the Criminal Code.
You spoke of the English experience. In England, we have seen the law now on the books for about six years, relatively few charges, but not that great in the number of convictions, which would perhaps speak to some of the operational challenges you mentioned.
Mr. Garrison has tabled a bill, , which you referenced. You said in your view it would be unduly complicated. You spoke of the fact that there could be amendments to the bill that could perhaps improve it.
Could you elaborate on what could be done to perhaps strengthen this bill or is your broader point that we shouldn't be going down this road?
I think it's really important that you are looking into this, because as I've said, the status quo is not working. I don't think it's the kind of thing that can be pushed through without a lot of careful contemplation and thinking through some of these operational, policing and prosecutorial challenges.
I think one of the difficulties is that currently as drafted there's a lot of good thinking in Bill . It's very much a British law. It is taken from the British context and doesn't necessarily use the same language that we see in the Canadian Criminal Code.
I think what's important about the idea of criminalizing this is that it is looking more broadly at the course of conduct, not isolated incidents. Right now the criminal justice system prosecutes specific isolated incidents and typically violent incidents. That's not really how intimate partner violence or domestic violence happens.
There are other places in the Criminal Code where we already look at courses of conduct over time that happen in relation to people, the ability to exercise control over people. If you look at criminal harassment, there's language there about repeatedly impacting someone. If you look at the human trafficking provision or the procuring offence, they talk about exercising control, direction or influence over someone.
I think it is important for it to be a Canadian law that will be understood and applied in the Canadian context; that we look to some of those other offences and think about how the language there and the language from some other offences look more towards a course of conduct over time instead of necessarily an isolated incident. We think about how that might emerge. I think it also makes a lot of sense to think concretely about this. I talked about the objective elements of proof that would be required for prosecution.
It is going to be difficult to get people to understand and accept that something should be reasonably seen as having a significant impact on someone without proper training and education for people who do not experience that to understand what that means. That is going to be essential for everyone in the justice system. You need it in your police officers so they can understand the reports and unpack what is meant by this course of conduct over time. You need it in your prosecutors to understand that they can have a reasonable prospect of conviction. You're going to need judges to understand this as well. This isn't necessarily generally understood in the public discourse. It's going to be hard to operationalize this without having that knowledge and training to go along with it.
I think those are some of the key considerations that need to go into this, also thinking through how the requirement for subjectively having the complainant say they were significantly impacted by this; how that will play out in potential revictimization of witnesses, of complainants, during the criminal justice process. We've seen that too often in the context of sexual assault prosecution. I think it's a real risk in this context as well.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I'd like to thank all the witnesses.
Madame Stephens, I will ask my question in French, if that is okay with you.
Your comments are really very interesting.
I'd like you to know that I am fully in favour of protecting the rights of victims of violence. However, I question the need to criminalize controlling or coercive conduct, given that section 810 of the Criminal Code, for example, already covers many behaviours.
Do you think this could create a false sense of security, since some people won't go to court, for all the reasons Mrs. Lemay has listed?
Education and training for police officers and other stakeholders could also be provided.
Maybe we can find another solution.
Let me begin by saying that I'm not sure that the section 810 peace bonds are an effective.... They're not a replacement for this. Those who work on the front lines in shelters—and LEAF is not a women's shelter in that respect—I think would tell you that the 810 peace bonds are not all that helpful and that there is a gap.
There are other Criminal Code offences that could be charged that could cover some of this conduct. I think of criminal harassment, of uttering threats. However, it's not happening. I know that criminal harassment charges are challenging to prove at the best of times and would be particularly challenging in the context of an ongoing relationship where people are living together—and uttering threats, as well. There are real challenges, again, with that.
I think it's important to think about...and I'm happy to see it on the agenda. I'm happy to see it as something being discussed, but I'm urging caution and not just rushing through and getting this done overnight. There is something powerfully symbolic about that...and I acknowledge that.
However, I would suggest that there is work being done. As you know, the Department of Women and Gender Equality is working on a national action plan to end violence against women and gender-based violence. This, to me, is something that fits well with that work...thinking about where the criminal justice system can be an effective and useful response, but also hearing from the survivors, and particularly survivors from vulnerable communities. Hear from them on whether this is what they need and whether they think this will be an effective response.
We know there are real concerns in communities across this country about the ability of police to respond to their needs, and so adding another Criminal Code offence may not be the solution. I don't think that section 810 is a valid alternative, but there may be other options that need to be explored.
Actually, I'd like to make it clear that it is indeed the political intention that interests us here. I would beg you to hear the political imperative and the political message that new legislation of this kind could also convey.
Of course, as people have been saying for years, there's a need for better training of police officers, judges and the entire justice system on this and other issues.
We think these new legislative measures truly round out the legal arsenal. There are still some technical details that need to be worked out, and we are in full agreement on that. The key for us is to finally close the gap in the legislation.
As Ms. Stephens has explained very well, there are certain offences in the Criminal Code that could be charged, but they are not well used. Just because we do things wrong doesn't mean that we can't think about how to make them better.
That's the point for us. Together with legal experts, we need to take the time to look at the ins and outs of the issue and see what has been done elsewhere. Indeed, it has been done elsewhere. It exists. We really think it would be an important complement, as a working tool, including for police officers.
I don't want to rush you, but we don't have a lot of time. Thank you.
Ms. Fedida, I saw you react to the question. Could you tell me in a few seconds whether or not you're in favour of creating a specialized domestic violence court?
I would especially like you, as a lawyer, to give me your opinion on another issue. Indeed, in light of your testimony, I understand that you're a lawyer. If specific measures are adopted to punish controlling and coercive behaviour, won't it be difficult to prove such behaviour? We're talking about repetitive behaviour, the intent of the abuser to harm and the effect this would have on the victim. Won't the difficulty of proving it undermine the process a bit?
Those are my two questions. I'd like you to quickly answer the question on the possible specialized court in Quebec City and, then, the question on the difficulty that would be encountered when it comes to proving controlling and coercive behaviour.
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
Thank you to all the witnesses for being with us today on this very important study.
I listened carefully to the witnesses. I think we heard five voices here today: four saying that we should add an offence of coercive and controlling behaviour to the Criminal Code, and one qualified yes.
I'm going to start with Ms. Stephens, and I want to ask all the witnesses the same question. I think we do understand on the justice committee that women facing violence often have difficulties in the prosecution and court system that lead to revictimization and threats from those who had already harmed them.
Would this be any different, for an offence of coercive and controlling behaviour, from all those other offences where women already find difficulties in the court system and with the police?
That's a hard question. Would it be any different?
The system itself is highly problematic, particularly in the context of domestic relationships, and intimate partner violence.
Asking witnesses to come forward and testify with respect to incidents that have happened in the context of their relationships is always challenging, even when it's a one-off context. Asking people to come forward and talk about coercive conduct as being controlling and impacting their lives will also be very challenging.
There will be a whole process of these women having to also understand it in that context, understand the conduct in that way. That can take some time for people to come forward.
There is a risk here, as I pointed out, because there are objective and subjective elements here. Having complainants come forward to talk about how they have been impacted can definitely be challenging for them. It can be challenging when they come from vulnerable communities where there might be racist stereotypes or other discriminatory stereotypes that they have to overcome to have that understood objectively.
There's also a risk that we see in the context of sexual assault prosecutions and others. There are requests for records that can be their own private records, that can be quite intimate—their therapeutic and medical records—in order to either undermine their evidence with respect to how these are impacted or otherwise.
I don't necessarily think it will be different. Those problems will continue.
The unified family court proposed for Quebec in the expert committee's report is very promising. In our view, this would allow the victim to be heard and all the issues to be taken into account. Basically, the goal of this unified court is for the civil justice system and the criminal justice system to talk to each other. Currently, the two systems are completely sealed off from each other, unfortunately. Often, women are even advised not to talk about domestic violence in criminal cases, even in civil cases, in order not to lose their children or appear antagonistic, for example.
As always, therefore, we come back to the need to hear what these women have gone through, to put a name to it, and to establish specific consequences.
Earlier, a question was asked about section 810 of the Criminal Code. However, it's not just about section 810, it also applies to section 811. Practically, therefore, we can clearly see that things are not working correctly.
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
I promise you I'll keep it brief, but I do have to say three things. I'll say them very quickly.
Ms. Stephens, thank you for bringing up human trafficking today. I'm very glad that that discussion came forward. My riding is right beside the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel and bridge. We are, unfortunately, very much a human trafficking corridor.
Mademoiselle Lemay, I had a question for you. I'm not going to ask the question, but I do want to say that you said a word that really sparked my interest. It was “innovation”. That's the kind of thinking that we need going forward.
Monsieur Lapierre, I know you've kind of been cut off twice, so in however much time Madam Chair will give you, I would love to hear a little bit more about how that affects children.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Thank you very much to everyone. It's been a really engaging conversation.
I have one comment and one question, Madam Chair.
The comment is that Ms. Illingworth's letter to the actually called for a task force comprised of experts to look at the design of an offence more closely. I gather from what I'm hearing today that there is some consensus and that it should involve victims' groups and women's groups—not just people in the justice system, for example.
Happy belated birthday to Ms. Stephens, who I know personally. I'm going to direct my questions to her.
Ms. Stephens, it's a double-barrelled question. Could you talk a bit about the coercive and controlling behaviour from the perspective of what we're seeing with text messages, as raised by Ms. Fedida, and things like online control?
Secondly, could you talk about the use of firearms—whether those are legal or illegal firearms—in terms of coercive and controlling behaviour when men are controlling women?
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Mr. Lapierre, could you tell us more about the situation of the children? From your testimony, I gather that they are not only witnesses to the violence, but they are also victims of it. You used the example of a mother, a victim of controlling and coercive conduct, who may not be able to take care of her children as well as she would like. In those situations, neither the father nor the mother, regardless of who is the victim and who is the abuser, is able to provide their children with an upbringing that could be described as normal or adequate.
Here is my question. Should we not be working more in advance, by which I mean educating and training people to prevent such things from happening, rather than adding another criminal offence?
Once again, I hasten to add that I am not against the idea. I just want us to look at the possibilities outside the traditional system, as Ms. Lemay was proposing just now. Aren't we aiming at the wrong target? Should we not be working in advance to help the children, the victims and the abusers?
I'd like to welcome all of the witnesses before us today.
When you are speaking, please make sure your microphone is unmuted. When you're done speaking, mute your microphone. All of your submissions should be addressed through the chair. We'll try to make sure that we maintain an orderly speakers list.
I'd like to introduce the witnesses. They are Kamal Dhillon, author, appearing as an individual on this topic; the London Abused Women's Centre, represented by Megan Walker, who is here to make a submission; and the Sussex Vale Transition House, represented by Julie Matthews, who is also here to make a submission.
Each of you will have five minutes for your submission.
We'll start with you, Ms. Dhillon. Please go ahead.
Madam Chair, thank you for your kind invitation to speak.
Today I will be referring to the victim as “she” and the abuser as “he”.
I wonder how many times we have heard these words spoken to us: “If it was that bad, why didn't you just leave?” Today I feel compelled to share my story in order to break down the walls of secrecy and shame that perpetuate abuse. Due to cultural taboos, domestic violence is rarely described. Unfairly, it is the victims who are blamed for the abuse. With increased sensitivity to the problem, I hope that instead of asking the victim why she didn't leave, people will begin to ask the abuser why he hurt her and will hold him accountable.
I invite you to journey with me as I share my story. At times you will feel pain. At times you will get angry. I want to show you the fear that the abuser instills in the victim. I want to describe to you the harrowing details that unfolded from the day I was married to a supposedly respectable, warm and charming man. I was subjected to emotional, physical and sexual abuse almost daily. He tried to kill me on many occasions. As a result of my husband's beatings and his rage, I now live with an artificial jaw after having gone through 10 major jaw surgeries. I live with ongoing excruciating pain. I have lost all the nerves in my face.
I was a victim of domestic violence. I was brutally tortured for over 12 years. It didn't happen in a third world country. It happened right here in Canada. In fact, it happened in Vancouver. My marriage was arranged. My abuse began within hours of getting married. For the first time in my life, I was asked by someone if I had been raped. Yes, I was raped brutally on my wedding night. From that day on, my abuser instilled fear in me. The failure of my family members and bystanders empowered him. The system that should have protected me seemed to protect him.
The beatings were relentless. I had unceasing pain. He kicked me, beat me and punched me until he was tired. The emotional, mental and sexual abuse was constant. He was so charming outside, fooling even the doctors, the professionals, the police and the community. He hung me by my sari. He doused me with kerosene. He unsuccessfully tried to push me into an ocean. He hoped that all of this would look like a suicide. He even forced me to drink poison.
By sharing my story, especially the unspeakable accounts of rape and abuse, the so-called “(dis)honour”-based violence, depression, murder attempts, and constantly being urged to take my own life, I hope to let other victims know they're not alone in their suffering. I want to give the victims the courage to speak out and stop the cycle of abuse. I sincerely hope that by my describing the many forms of abuse I suffered, and recounting it as a survivor's trauma, I am also able to reveal how I dealt with this pain and the memories and how I found strength to move on.
My four children were so terrified of him they made a secret bed and tried to hide under it. They covered their heads with pillows so that they couldn't see the abuse.
There are so many abusers who live among us, hiding in plain sight, never publicly identified despite abusing multiple victims over decades. This is possibly due to the existence of a broken system that causes the victims to remain silent.
Without knowing it, my husband and his equally abusive family gave me a very public platform. Now I can speak on behalf of victims who cannot speak for themselves, who are imprisoned by fear and abuse. This time I have a louder voice, one that will change the misconception around domestic violence.
Being a survivor requires great courage. I am unmasking my story, but I refuse to be defined by the history of violence I left behind. This abuse isn't my identity. I fought hard to acquire the skills to cope, to survive, to recover, to combat cultural labels, and to thrive.
We continue to see victims failed over and over. The punishment for the abuser does not fit the crime. Domestic violence is still looked at as a private matter. Most of the time we're looking at evidence of abuse. What about the abuse that has no visible signs?
If there was a victim—
Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge the incredible strength and courage that it takes for survivors to come forward and share their experiences. Thank you for doing that today. We should always be listening to the voices of survivors.
I want to thank Mr. Garrison for initiating this study, because it gives us the opportunity to really make it a bigger issue than is currently presented by our legislation.
In 2020, the London Abused Women's Centre provided service to 8,177 women and girls. Of that number, 6,701 of those women and girls were abused by an intimate partner, and 1,300 were being trafficked and also abused by their trafficker and sex purchaser.
In 1998, a coroner's inquest was held into the murder of Arlene May by her ex-partner, Randy Iles, who killed himself following the murder. In its opening remarks, the jury said:
The myths attached to family violence must be dispelled. Domestic violence is a criminal offence and must never be viewed as a 'private matter'.
The jury further wrote:
Domestic violence cases are different than other criminal cases. In most situations the accused and the victim would normally never meet again. With domestic violence, the accused often must have contact with the victim due to property, support and child issues. The criminal justice system will have to be changed to deal effectively with these differences.
That was in 1998, and we are still calling for the criminal justice system to be changed.
We know that many of the activities surrounding domestic violence are criminal offences. However, there is no specific domestic violence offence in the Canadian Criminal Code. Instead, domestic violence-related crimes are spread out among at least 35 different sections in the Criminal Code, making it difficult to connect them to a pattern of behaviour by the male abuser to gain and maintain power and control over his partner.
Criminalizing controlling or coercive conduct absolutely adds another tool in the tool box but once again, it will be lost as a stand-alone section in the Criminal Code. Without understanding coercive control as a pattern of behaviour used by abusers, it will be difficult to enforce.
I have worked to end male violence against women for more than 25 years, and I have seen the confusion created by the multiple stand-alone sections in the Criminal Code. The courts regularly reduce multiple charges against abusive men to one single charge, usually assault. That charge is then often withdrawn in exchange for a peace bond.
When charges are withdrawn, women and their children remain at serious risk of increased torture, abuse and murder. Men use the withdrawal charges to present women as liars, while at the same time, presenting themselves as blameless. The absence of any consequence to male abusers for their crimes against intimate partners sends a clear message to victims: help is not on the way.
Domestic violence cases are different from other criminal cases. The present laws in Canada, under which perpetrators are charged, are simply not adequate for responding to the distinct dynamics present in domestic violence cases. We worked, in 2016-17, with former MP Irene Mathyssen whose office helped write specific domestic violence legislation for a private member's bill. Unfortunately, it stalled when the election was called.
The London Abused Women's Centre recommends the committee expand its area of study to include amending the Criminal Code to create a domestic violence offence. It further recommends that the committee seek the permission to review Ms. Mathyssen's confidential act to amend the Criminal Code for domestic violence.
To be clear, and in ending, there is a need, Mr. Garrison, for your amendment. However, LAWC proposes that it be included as one section of a much larger piece of legislation, a much-needed piece of legislation, specifically, a domestic violence bill.
Good afternoon, and thank you for the opportunity to speak to this valuable committee.
My name is Julie Matthews, and I am the executive director of the Sussex Vale Transition House, which is an emergency shelter for women leaving domestic abuse in rural New Brunswick.
It is encouraging to me, as a worker in the domestic violence field, to see this motion to add controlling or coercive conduct within intimate relationships to the Criminal Code. Domestic abuse is a pervasive, life-threatening crime affecting people in all of our communities, regardless of gender, age, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, social standing or immigration status.
Domestic violence takes many forms: physical, emotional, economic, stalking and harassment, spiritual and sexual.
Controlling and coercive behaviour may include threats of harm to the victim, the victim’s children, pets—including large farm animals—and other family members and threats of suicide if she leaves or does something undesired by the abuser or refuses to comply with the abuser’s demands.
The abuser's owning or keeping of guns in the household not only increases the risk of homicide, but the guns can be used as psychological tools to control or coerce behaviour simply because they are present. This circumstance may be more likely in rural areas given higher volumes of hunters within the population.
Other examples include withholding or controlling finances or bank accounts or stealing the victim’s income, continuously sending unwanted communications and forcing or withholding the practising of religion.
In 2020, almost 25% of our clients here reported suffering either physical or sexual abuse, while more than 75% of our clients reported emotional, financial or psychological abuse, all of which fall under controlling or coercive behaviour. These results are very similar to our 2019 statistics.
While we know the current pandemic has seen a sharp increase in demand for services, our rural transition house has seen a decrease in both support calls and total days of care provided, when comparing statistics from 2019 to 2020. The one service that did see an increase was assisting clients with completing emergency intervention orders.
Victims living in rural areas may also have limited access to transportation. If she is not permitted to have a driver’s licence, for example, or if she has no access to a car, living outside of the town makes it extremely difficult for the victim to leave the home on her own.
Being in isolation at home with one’s abusive partner with a mandated order to stay at home exponentially increases the difficulty and danger of attempting to access any help given the abuser's monitoring of devices, such as phones or computers, and not allowing the victim to leave the home. This problem may be amplified by the lack of Internet access in many parts of our rural community.
Living in a rural area where everyone knows everyone else makes it difficult for a victim to find a safe place to stay where the abuser can’t find her. However, safe housing is only the first step for a person living with domestic violence. In order to get out of that situation, she needs to regain self-confidence to be able to be financially independent, find permanent housing—which is a great challenge for someone in ideal circumstances, never mind a difficult one like this—and start anew, still knowing that the abusive partner may be living and working in the same town where she is. This is just the beginning of her journey.
Adding controlling or coercive behaviour to the Criminal Code could greatly decrease the suffering of hundreds of thousands of domestic abuse victims. A well-known expert in the domestic violence field, Lundy Bancroft, states that the impetus to change from abusers controlling behaviour is always extrinsic and rarely occurs when it is self-motivated. Additionally, he notes that if the legal system does not hold the abuser accountable, he will escalate to more serious violations under the assumption that the system does not mean what it says.
This bill could potentially result in actual impactful consequences for offenders resulting, hopefully, in their improved and changed behaviour patterns. It could give police and RCMP members tools to intervene more effectively and empower victims of abuse to reach out for help with the knowledge that help can actually be given.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
My sincere thanks to all of our witnesses in this panel. There is some really strong, powerful and moving testimony, and we appreciate all your input into this study that we're having today.
I want to ask Julie Matthews, executive director of Sussex Vale Transition House, about some things in her opening remarks. Sussex is in my riding of Fundy Royal. You talked about different challenges faced. Canada's a big, diverse country with urban and rural communities. Representing a rural region, I'd like some more comments from you on some of the things we should be particularly attuned to when it comes to domestic violence situations in rural areas.
One thing you mentioned that really struck me was that everyone knows everyone else, and that hadn't come up yet in our committee study, but that's so true in many small towns and villages. Everyone knows everybody.
Could you make some further commentary on that? Thank you for all the work that you're doing in our community.
We know that a woman's home is the most dangerous place for her and that one in three women is abused in this country and that every six days a woman is murdered by her partner. These are the lives of women we are talking about. Yes, they are currently isolated in their homes, where they are exposed to ongoing and relentless tactics utilized by their partner to continue to control them. That sometimes may mean killing animals in the home. Sometimes it may mean killing her.
We need to understand that this is a crisis in this country. It's a crisis globally. Mr. Garrison has opened the gates now for us to do something truly meaningful to save women's lives. That's why we need to recognize that male violence against women is a pandemic. We need to make sure that we have proper legislation that is named “domestic violence legislation” or another name that indicates what is actually happening in the lives of these women, where all the sections can be added into that area.
I don't think people really understand that we're not talking about men who are out of control. We're talking about abusers who are very much in control. They don't just all of a sudden explode and abuse and assault the grocery store clerk. They wait until they're home. They wait and utilize the tactics from a power-and-control wheel to make sure that women are pieces of property and are there to obey. If they do not obey and he loses control over that woman, he will shift his tactics. Ultimately, she is at risk of being murdered.
All the while—this is happening right now during COVID—we have children home from school who are exposed to this high level of violence in their homes every single day. Their anxiety would be through the roof. This is a very difficult time in the lives of women and children.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Hello to my colleagues.
Thank you so much to the witnesses for coming here today, for your opening statements, for the work you do and the advocacy you show every day. I'm very humbled to be here today.
Most of my questions, if not all, I will direct to a fellow Maritimer, Ms. Matthews. As you know, Ms. Matthews, at the height of the first wave of this pandemic and after a tragic incident in my home province of Nova Scotia, our government implemented a firearms ban. I'm wondering if you could speak to how this ban will benefit those you work with. I'm thinking of the use of guns to coerce and whatnot. Thank you.
We could really use a lot more funding, honestly. Not to make everything about money, but I really feel we're significantly underfunded. To have to pay $13 an hour to our staff is.... I'm in a crisis currently, just to have staff to man our particular facility, so we seek to supplement that. Increased funding would make a big difference in enabling us to properly train and have our facilities and services available.
In the Maritimes, we're generally small towns anyway. We have a few larger cities. However, we see here in my local area that we are limited in the resources we're able to offer, like mental health supports. Family court waiting times are long. If there was something the government could do to speed up the process, even, that women are waiting on to get into the family court.... They can wait three months to access services there.
The emergency intervention orders have been a wonderful addition. However, we've found just in the short time they've been in effect that sometimes the adjudicating officers don't seem to understand the significance of the dangers that the women are in, and they're denied, not granted any sort of.... It's happened that because they've come to stay at the transition house, the officer deems them to be in a safe place and that they don't need to have any other sort of order or protection granted to them. That has been terribly frustrating and difficult, and it's disheartening for the women, who are receiving the message, once again, that there's really no help for them. They feel that much more trapped and in danger, so it's not encouraging to reach out for help again.
That's what I would say on that. I hope it answers your question.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
My question is for Ms. Dhillon. I was moved by her testimony. She has survived through some terrible things. As I listened to her, I tried to imagine that my sister, my mother or my daughter was speaking. I found it very troubling.
The goal of Mr. Garrison's Bill is indeed that abusers can be charged with these different behaviours. However, as I have often said since we started considering this issue, provisions in the Criminal Code already consider harassment, violence, threats and such as offences. That said, I fully understand that domestic violence takes place in a specific context.
One question occurred to me as I was listening to you, Ms. Dhillon. I was trying to figure out not how we might have punished the abuser, but how we might have prevented it from happening.
Given your experience, can you tell us anything about what can be done so that situations like those you have experienced never happen again? Is it a matter of educating and training responders and the police? Should there be weekly or monthly visits by people with responsibility for these kinds of issues?
How can we detect a potential problem? How could I determine, by watching my friends and acquaintances, that one individual is possibly controlling and violent towards his wife? How can we find that out before anything happens? How can we respond so that it does not happen?
Thank you for your questions. There's tons for me to unpack. The first thing is to be believed. Every victim wants to be believed. If there is doubt.... When the police first came to me, they would ask me questions such as, “What did you do? What happened? How did you provoke him?” Instead of asking those questions, they should believe me.
One of the things I said is that sometimes there is no sign. There are no physical signs that will prove I was hit. If that's what they're looking for, they've missed the mark. I had one incident where my husband had a gun to my head. That left no marks, but that instilled a fear that the next time the gun goes to my head, I won't be alive.
There are a lot of things that you asked in the question. I will try to remember to answer them.
The other thing we do is educate. One of the things I'm doing through my story, my books and my own experiences as a social worker is to go around not just sharing my experience, but...how we listen to the abused and how we identify the abuser. The abuser is not one who wears a sign that says “I will abuse”. The abuser, as it was mentioned earlier, is one who is really charming and very nice. He waits for you to go into the room.
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
I want to thank the witnesses for appearing today, particularly you, Ms. Dhillon. It takes incredible courage to come here and tell a story like yours, and we wouldn't be in these hearings if women who were victims of sexual violence did not speak out and had not spoken out over the years.
I also want to thank the two representatives of first-line service providers, because your organizations, with incredibly few resources, have helped to amplify those voices and make sure they're heard.
My goal in this study is to make sure not only that we hear the voices, that we listen to the voices, but that we also act.
I'm going to ask Ms. Walker a kind of a provocative question. I know she won't mind that.
You've talked about a domestic violence provision in the Criminal Code, which is a large measure that I think would take some time to figure out and enact. Is there a danger in setting aside the adding of coercive and controlling behaviour to the Criminal Code while we wait for something larger? In other words, is the perfect the enemy of a good tool in this case?
I think the reverse. I think that if we don't stop and invest in changing the Criminal Code, which actually is not that difficult....You start with a code named “ending male violence against women” or whatever you choose, you sift the 35 plus sections under that funnel, and you would add there exactly what you were asking for: coercive control.
You of all people, Mr. Garrison, will be able to access this through Irene Mathyssen. She wrote a bill that was absolutely extraordinary, which we circulated very extensively and which had complete support.
It's not difficult to do. The difficulty we have right now in adding coercive control is that in the existing legislation we have, the sections of the law are not enforced, and when they are enforced, or somebody is charged, the reliance is upon the victim to testify to get a conviction.
We need to get away from that. We also need to get away from the courts saying, “Listen, we have so many cases here that we're going to reduce yours to one offence, so plead guilty, get a peace bond and out the door you go.”
The danger for me is in stopping what needs to be done, which is broad-based legislation.
Thank you all for being here today. This is a very difficult topic, as we know. I know from having many years in family law and seeing these matters play out that the awareness is really just emerging, I would say.
I've been in front of many judges where the effect on children was completely disregarded as a non-issue, and we know that's not true.
Also, in partial answer to some of my colleagues' questions, I would just say that abusive patterns are incremental. Often they start out in harmony, but the whole idea of abuse is to lure in the other person, so you see a lot of partial reinforcement and an escalation of the abuse over time. It's not usually that it happens just right out of the gate like what happened to Kamal, and that may be partly because of how it was an arranged marriage and her youth.
Kamal, it's good to see you again. You are a courageous woman. I have read both your books. I recommend them to everyone here, Black and Blue Sari and I Am Kamal. They are chilling reading, but they are important for people to understand just what's going on.
Kamal, in your first book, you describe your experiences, and you mentioned some of them today, horrific torturous abuses. I know that you've been through many surgeries and reconstructions to get yourself feeling physically a little more strong. I noticed in that book that you were led to believe that the things that had happened to you had not happened. In other words, there was a mental mind control as well, suggesting that you were hearing voices or that you were the one that was the problem, that you were mentally ill or whatever. Could you speak about the impacts, specifically with regard to that psychological abuse, that both the verbal and physical abuse created within you and your fear around those?
Good to see you, Kerry.
That situation I was describing happened in a doctor's office with the doctor's and my husband's involvement. The doctor believed everything my husband was telling him because he was more vocal than I was. My silence was perceived to be that I was hiding something or didn't want to tell the truth. My silence was guilt to them.
I didn't know the word “brainwashed” at the time, and that was exactly what it was. He said if I loved him, I should tell him. If I loved the children, I should do this. Eventually it got to the point where his words were the only words I heard because nobody else intervened. I began to think I was worthless to him, to everybody around me and to God. He would say I was completely worthless. I think a lot of victims hear that word “worthless”. That's what I'm doing through my talks: unmasking those labels and telling them to put on new ones, because they're worth it.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Thank you to all the witnesses. All of you have shared some very vital information, Ms. Walker and Ms. Matthews, on what you do every day to help women. I've heard Ms. Dhillon's story several times, and it brings chills every time. It's a very heartbreaking story.
Ms. Matthews, do you think that legislation that would prevent women from enduring abuse, which would consider controlling and coercive behaviour a crime, might prevent further abuse so women who get into more violent situations later are able to go to the law under such provisions? Do you think this would be a helpful piece of legislation?
We need more education. We need ongoing education, I'd say at the school level. One of the things we have heard is, whatever I learned, I learned in kindergarten—and even in homes.
I look at our spiritual places, our temples, our churches. These are places that can also facilitate workshops such as this. People who bring in their mindset and their cultural values need to be educated here on what the laws are. When they are bringing up their boys and girls in two different ways, we are able to show them the proper way to bring up the children, and to show them respect. Respect begins at home.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I will go back to Ms. Dhillon, if I may.
Ms. Matthews was saying that Bill would be a kind of additional tool in the fight against domestic violence. However, we already have criminal offences.
For example, you mentioned in your testimony that your husband threatened you with a gun. You understood that, if anything like that happened again, you could die. You were beaten and kidnapped by your husband, who did not let you leave the house. Those acts per se are already criminal. Assault, violence, threats and kidnapping are already offences in the Criminal Code.
How do you believe that creating another offence of domestic violence could change anything?
How could that have changed your situation if a section in the Criminal Code said that domestic violence is prohibited? Could the situation not still have happened in the same way?
We are at the end of our round of questions. Thank you very much to the witnesses. I really appreciate the honesty, candour and passion in how you've delivered your remarks today.
Ms. Dhillon, thank you so very much for sharing your personal story. None of us had a dry eye as we heard all of the impact and all that you faced during this. Thank you very much. I really appreciate that.
Just very quickly, I have something to address with the members before we adjourn for the day.
Members, as we go into the conclusion of this study and the beginning of our next study, I just want to advise you that on February 23, after we've concluded all of our witnesses for the meeting, will be draft instructions for committee members to give to analysts on this specific report.
In the second hour, we'll start our COVID and the justice system report. We will continue to speak about some of the challenges we're having.
I would like to remind all members that your witnesses for the COVID and the justice system delays study are due by the end of today, as I've said in the past number of meetings, so that we give our witnesses enough notice to prepare before they come to committee meetings.
With that, I thank all members for running a very efficient meeting, and to all of our witnesses for everything you have contributed. Thank you all very much.
The meeting is adjourned.