Skip to content

Intimate Partner Violence

Inquiry--Debate Continued

December 7, 2023

Hon. Wanda Thomas Bernard [ + ]

Honourable senators, this item stands adjourned in the name of the Honourable Senator Clement, and after today’s interventions, I ask for leave that it remain adjourned in her name.

The Hon. the Speaker [ + ]

Is leave granted?

Senator Bernard [ + ]

Honourable senators, tonight I rise to speak to Inquiry No. 10 into intimate partner violence in rural areas of Canada, a heavy topic to end the night with. I start by acknowledging that we are currently on the traditional, ancestral, unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people. I thank you Senator Boniface for bringing such an important inquiry to the Senate in response to the coroner’s inquest in Renfrew, Ontario.

Colleagues, it’s timely that I’m speaking on this bill today during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence. Nova Scotia has had several recent tragic deaths due to gender‑based violence. In one week, just two months ago, two women were murdered by men known to them: 30-year-old Hollie Marie Boland in Cole Harbour and an 88-year-old woman in Pictou County whose name has not been publicized. Given these recent preventable tragedies and far too many others like them, I decided to speak to this inquiry to share some research and information about the unique challenges faced in rural Nova Scotia and, more specifically, in rural African Nova Scotian communities, where Black women experience the very real intersection of racism and sexism.

In research that I have done with colleagues, we have identified clear links between violence in dating relationships, which later becomes intimate partner violence. Often, it’s the violence that starts as verbal abuse, threats and intimidation, which later progresses to other forms of violence.

In my career as a social worker, I frequently worked with cases of intimate partner violence and family violence. With the Association of Black Social Workers, we developed a number of community-based projects that were aimed at breaking the silence about intimate partner violence in Black communities. We learned that many Black women are hesitant to talk openly about intimate partner violence. As a result, they and their families live in shame and fear — fear of stigma.

The silence around violence is magnified for African Canadians because of anti-Black racism. Many African Canadians are reluctant to call police when dealing with intimate partner violence due to a rightful mistrust of police. They fear the consequences of police intervention because they believe that that could bring more harm to their family.

Our team facilitated focus groups with mostly African Nova Scotian women, and we hosted many forums, including a conference specifically for seniors to address the culture of silence around family violence and intimate partner violence in Black communities. We explored the role that racism plays in these situations. At the time, many feminist spaces working to protect women had omitted factors of race and racism despite this being at the core of Black women’s experiences.

Violence has a multi-generational impact on Black families. Many of our homes, including mine, are multi-generational. Our families do not follow a nuclear model, which brings with it a strong sense of community support and love, for most. Unfortunately, that also means that any family issues of violence truly impact the entire extended family.

Many of us are aware of the impact intimate partner violence has on children, but seniors are not often included in these analyses. Many seniors who experience abuse from family members or who grew up with violence in their home environments suffer in silence.

Hearing the story of this 88-year-old Nova Scotian woman who was killed in October reminded me of a case that I worked with during my social work practice that has stuck with me many, many years later. I once helped an 80-year-old woman leave rural Nova Scotia to escape violence in her marriage. She ended up moving across the country to live with one of her adult children. Her decision to leave took tremendous courage, and I remain inspired by her ability to speak up, inspired by her ability to get help at her age despite the many barriers she faced, including isolation and shame. The shame, dear colleagues, was not hers to carry.

Senator Boniface drew attention to the nature of tight-knit communities in rural areas. The complex nature of small, rural community life is one of the many barriers faced by African Nova Scotian women trying to seek help. The opportunity for privacy is limited, and the process of reporting violence puts your family’s business out in the open. In addition to services being few and far between, women are motivated to protect their family members, and they fear the consequences of talking about family violence. Bringing these conversations about intimate partner violence, race and racism out into the open allows for healing, learning and change within our communities. Breaking the silence may empower someone to feel less alone and may prevent future violence.

The final report of the Mass Casualty Commission released recommendations to address the prevalence of gender-based violence in Nova Scotia. Recommendation V.13 of the commission report calls for epidemic-level funding for gender‑based violence. It reads:

Federal, provincial, and territorial funding to end gender‑based violence be commensurate with the scale of the problem. It should prioritize prevention and provide women survivors with paths to safety.

This recommendation specifies that:

A further priority should be funding community-based resources and services, particularly in communities where marginalized women are located.

This recommendation is very important to note given that due to anti-Black racism, African Nova Scotian women, especially those in rural communities, need better access to culturally responsive services.

As the report states, despite gender-based violence or intimate partner violence being seen as “behind closed doors” or “private” forms of violence, they are indeed a public concern. The longer we perpetuate the idea that intimate partner violence is a private matter, tragedies like the Nova Scotia massacre and the deaths of the women like Hollie Marie Boland will continue to happen. Intimate partner violence is a public concern, but it’s also a public health concern.

I would like to take a moment to revisit the Nova Scotia tragedy of the Desmond family murder-suicide. In 2017, we lost two African Nova Scotian women and one young girl: Shanna, Brenda and 10-year-old Aaliyah. The family violence was a result of Mr. Desmond falling through the cracks in Nova Scotia’s rural health care system. He sought help for his severe post-traumatic stress disorder as a veteran and was discharged prematurely the night before the murder-suicide. This is a prime example of the interconnected nature of violence and public health.

Honourable senators, how many preventable femicides will we witness before something is done about intimate partner violence and family violence? After over 45 years of practising social work, I had hoped to see some improvement in the state of violence in Black rural communities. I’ve always identified prevention as a key component to gender-based violence, which can be done through educational programs in schools and community groups, on topics such as gender, mental health and healthy intimate and family relationships.

Yet, 45 years later, I still have critical hope. I have critical hope that by teaching each generation to address the violence, we will get closer to realizing healthier and more peaceful communities. It is slow, painful work, and we’re still losing women to violence every day and as each year passes. However, I am committed to breaking the cycle. Our communities are resilient, and we need to protect them by pushing for more awareness about risk factors impacting marginalized women and pushing for improved access to culturally responsive services in rural communities to end gender-based violence. Asante. Thank you.

Honourable senators, before I start my speech on the inquiry, I’d like to express our appreciation and gratitude to you, Your Honour, for providing this evening during the break the opportunity for all Senate staff to have their bodies and their souls nourished. We thank you very much.

Honourable senators, I also rise today to speak to Senator Boniface’s inquiry into the epidemic of intimate partner violence, particularly violence against women. I want to thank Senator Boniface for introducing this inquiry, as well as our colleagues Senators Hartling, Seidman, Boyer, Coyle and, this evening, Senator Bernard for speaking to this inquiry.

I also want to ask us all: How many more instances of violence will it take for the inequality of women that underlies these issues to be taken seriously? The genesis for this inquiry was the murder of three women in one day by a man with a known history of violence against them and other women. Since then, we’ve also witnessed many other individual incidents, as well as the horrific, misogynistic violence that gave rise to the Mass Casualty Commission in Nova Scotia.

Exactly how do we square the reality of the intersections of misogyny and racism that underscore the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and the resulting intergenerational harms? The World Health Organization names intimate partner violence as a serious public health issue with a profound impact on the individuals who experience it, their families and their communities as a whole. This harm continues to flow from the individuals to their families and into their communities, as Senator Bernard so articulately identified as occurring within so many communities with which she has had direct contact.

In the absence of comprehensive government, community, systemic and individual approaches that prioritize equality interests of racialized and Indigenous women and those with disabilities, intimate partner violence will continue unfettered and relentless in its individualized and its broader harm.

The Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability noted that in 2021 alone, 173 women and girls were murdered in Canada. About 5% of them were murdered by a stranger, while about 35% of them were murdered by a current or former intimate partner. In cases where the victim’s identity was known, about 51% were racialized and/or Indigenous women.

Social and cultural messages that privilege patriarchal ideas and attitudes also hyper-responsibilize women — from childhood — to consider themselves responsible for preventing their own victimization. This, combined with behaviours that control, isolate or intimidate by emotional, physical, social and financial abuse of inequities and misogynistic criminal legal policies, too often also results in charges being laid against women who defend themselves and their children or otherwise react to violence first perpetrated against them. The combinations of these contribute to both the gross victimization and massive underreporting of violence against women.

A recurring theme in ex post facto considerations of violence against women, be they inquests, investigations, inquiries, reports or studies, is the resounding inadequacy of initiatives characterized as designed to address intimate partner violence. These include but are not limited to programs, policies, services and legislation.

Sexual Assault Services of Saskatchewan launched a report in January of this year outlining the all-too-familiar themes of lack of funding and culturally responsive supports and services, in particular for women in remote or rural communities. This is not new information. The Native Women’s Association of Canada published a report in 2018 outlining these same themes. Indigenous women are also more likely to face countercharges and arrest if and when police are called in response to violence being perpetrated against them.

Rather than address the systemic inequalities that give rise to misogyny and patriarchal violence, too often the only responses offered are ones of criminalization and incarceration. In a context where violence against women is not taken seriously, this only offers up a response to further entrench the very systemic and discriminatory biases that currently prevail within our criminal legal system.

The result is that the most privileged men are likely to continue to act with horrific impunity, being the least likely to be criminalized and imprisoned, whereas those who are racialized, poor or otherwise marginalized are more likely to be demonized, not to mention criminalized and incarcerated. If we instead chose to address systems that legitimize and normalize intimate partner violence, we might actually manage to begin to unknot the root causes. This is no doubt why most feminist law reform focuses on substantive equality approaches that are more likely to achieve primary prevention.

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the Renfrew inquest and the Mass Casualty Commission final report all emphasize how essential social and culturally responsive resources are for individuals to leave violent relationships. Chronic underfunding and lack of availability of services, especially for those in rural or remote communities, often pushes women back into dangerous and too often lethal situations.

Alain Bartleman of the Indigenous Bar Association, when testifying at the Legal Committee with respect to Bill S-205, discussed the ineffectiveness of using tools such as electronic monitoring to address or respond to intimate partner violence. He said:

Breaking the cycle of trauma through the provision of mental health and other resources, I’d suggest, is probably the most effective way of preventing domestic violence . . . .

He and other witnesses underscored the role of economic resources in facilitating access to physical safety, highlighting the need for income supports, which would reduce the financial burden on women and allow them to make decisions about how best to care for themselves and their families, and look further than short-term safety.

Among the long list of services that remain largely inaccessible to those fleeing violence is access to safe housing. The pandemic aggravated this situation for many trapped in abusive homes as a result of a lack of affordable housing. Here in Ottawa, for example, one woman’s shelter, Interval House, had to turn away 941 women in 2022 alone. Horrifically, rather than providing opportunities for women to leave, too many safety plans consisted of women being coached to modify their own behaviour in efforts to not trigger violent impulses that might result in their abuse or their deaths.

As you may remember, honourable colleagues, this chamber has advocated for urgent and comprehensive government responses to address, redress and prevent violence against women and intimate partner violence. Such approaches centre the economic, social, racial and gender inequalities that abandon women to violence, poverty and racism, in strategies to unweave the fabric of misogyny, racism and class bias that fuels violence against women and is perpetuated in and intensified by the criminal legal systems.

Isn’t it time we all decided to address the inequality and marginalization that both generate and fuel these issues rather than continuing to maintain the status quo? We know the root causes of these issues. It is time to push for systemic changes that will enable access to justice and culturally responsive programs and services that are not at a constant risk of loss of funding. It is time that we recognize the urgent need to finally redress this global epidemic. Academics, policy experts, front-line workers and survivors of violence, grassroots experts and advocates are calling on all of us to do our part by implementing effective strategies that leave nobody behind. Despite the many calls to action from national inquiries, studies, commissions and inquest reports, current responses continue to place our most vulnerable populations in harm’s way, offering reactive crumbs — something dressed up to look like prevention or protection, but never adequate to address the underlying systemic issues.

Gender-based violence is an epidemic. We need no further research or analysis. We need resources and we need action. Declarations in cities and counties are fine, but the time for action is now. Talk is cheap. Let’s get our collective act together, and walk that talk before too many more are victimized, before too many more are dead. Meegwetch, thank you.

Hon. Patti LaBoucane-Benson (Legislative Deputy to the Government Representative in the Senate) [ + ]

Honourable senators, I move the adjournment of the Senate.

Back to top