Gender-based violence is an “epidemic” that “has no place in our country”, Canada’s new justice minister has said in a letter delivered in response to a public inquest into a triple femicide in rural Ontario.
The six-page letter dated 14 August – the federal government’s official response to last summer’s inquest – also indicates Canada intends to pursue the criminalisation of coercive control, a form of intimate partner violence intended to isolate, intimidate and control victims.
The letter was the federal government’s first public response after the jury at the inquest for three murdered women issued 86 recommendations calling for sweeping reforms to Canada’s approach to femicide.
The inquest was convened last summer to examine the circumstances that enabled Basil Borutski to kill three women – Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam – on a single morning in 2015.
“I welcome the jury’s recommendations and I agree that more must be done to protect against intimate partner violence,” wrote Canada’s justice minister and attorney general, Arif Virani, in a letter seen by the Guardian to the chief coroner of Ontario.
The letter is a positive first step and goes beyond measures taken by Ontario – the province where the femicide and inquest took place – said Pamela Cross, the director of advocacy at Luke’s Place, a legal support centre for abused women in Canada.
“I think it really matters that they’ve called it an epidemic,” said Cross, who was an expert witness at the inquest.
“For people in Ontario who care about this issue, the refusal of the provincial government to implement that first recommendation – to call intimate partner violence (IPV) an epidemic – has really felt like a slap in the face and an insult to all of those affected by IPV,” she said.
In late June, the Ontario government rejected a number of the jury’s recommendations, including the first one to formally declare intimate partner violence an epidemic. In its rejection, the government said the term “epidemic” only refers to infectious disease – a response undermined by the province’s repeated and continued reference to the “opioid epidemic”.
“We were so crestfallen in June when the province didn’t come to the community gathering and gave a really weak response,” said Julie Lalonde, an expert on criminal harassment (Canada’s legal term for stalking) who testified at the 2022 inquest.
“It was just such a sinking feeling. The community is doing so much, but it can only do so much. We need government to join us,” said Lalonde.
Borutski stalked one of his victims for months, and the other two for years, before killing them. As early as 2013, he had been flagged as being at “high risk” of committing future violence.
Cross noted that even if the Ontario government has declined to declare IPV an “epidemic”, 42 municipalities in the province including Toronto, Ottawa and Windsor have made their own formal declarations.
In July, Toronto’s mayor, Olivia Chow, introduced her city’s motion, prefacing it with a description of how her father beat her mother. The city council passed the motion unanimously.
Though it makes no strong commitments or declarations, the federal government’s response underlines this wave of support and gives advocates a reason to be optimistic.
“I’m also really heartened by the reference to the recommendations from the Mass Casualty Commission,” said Cross, who called that report the “finest thing that’s ever been written about gender-based violence in this country”.
The 3,000-page Mass Casualty Commission final report, delivered 30 March of this year, examined the circumstances surrounding the 2020 mass shooting of 22 people in Nova Scotia – a rampage that began after the gunman attacked his spouse.
It made 130 of its own recommendations on how to prevent future violence.
“To see the federal government connecting itself and supporting that report, I think, is really positive,” said Cross. She said the federal government has already implemented some of the recommendations made in the Nova Scotia report, including establishing an independent body to monitor progress on implementation.
Kirsten Mercer, the lawyer who represented the organisation End Violence Against Women Renfrew County at the Ontario inquest, considered the justice minister’s letter “thoughtful” and said that she and her client looked forward to working “with them to identify risks and challenges that are linked with criminalisation, with a view to mitigating any possible harms”.
However, she said she also wanted to ensure any new tools – including a possible law on coercive control – created in response to the recommendations do not get “weaponised” against people living with IPV.
The fact that the Ontario and Nova Scotia murders even happened show that criminal penalties may not be an effective deterrent, said Mercer.
“The focus on downstream impacts of IPV cannot come at the expense of prevention,” she said, adding that she hopes any changes to Canada’s criminal code are coupled with “meaningful investments in prevention and true safety planning for survivors”.
Source : The Guardian