Canada’s first ever National Action Plan to end gender-based violence was released November 9th with little fanfare. For a decade, survivors, advocates, and frontline workers have called for such a plan, working tirelessly for comprehensive, coordinated and intersectional anti-violence programming, supports and legal reforms that both extend support to victims and address the root causes of violence.
Community supports and services for survivors first emerged in the 1970s in response to the failure of governments to recognize—much less respond to—the scourge of violence against women. Today, over 600 shelters and transitional houses as well as hundreds of rape crisis centres, legal clinics and other related community supports serve the needs of women, children, and gender-diverse people—all chronically underfunded and overwhelmed.
The crisis in gender-based violence has only intensified during the pandemic—revealing the inherent instability and systemic barriers in our systems of support—especially in meeting the needs of marginalized women at greatest risk of violence.
A fully resourced National Action Plan that facilitates and oversees the actions of all governments is crucial for eliminating gender-based violence. The proposed plan, however, falls considerably short of this goal.
Critical questions remain about how the federal government will ensure continuity and consistency of high-quality supports and services across regions and jurisdictions—including Indigenous communities. Key recommendations and national-level actions are missing while there is no mention of independent oversight, specific action items or sustainable long-term investment. Implementation plans and “more targets and indicators” are to follow.
The release of a National Action Plan is a milestone. But what to make of a National Action Plan that isn’t actually a National Action Plan? Meanwhile, violent crime against women continues to rise.
Violent crime against women is on the rise—again
The time for tinkering is well and truly done.
There was a drop in police-reported violent crime against women in 2020, the first in five years. But, looking more closely, this decline was the result of a reduction in assaults by non-intimate partners (-11.2%). At the same time, all forms of violence committed by current or former intimate spouses or partners actually increased between 2019 and 2020, including sexual assault (+5.7%), physical assault (+0.6%) and other violent violations (+3.5%).
Total police-reported violent crime against women quickly rebounded in 2021, up 6.4 per cent over 2020, reaching 1,194.69 incidents per 100,000 population, surpassing 2019 rates and continuing the damaging rise in violence that’s been documented each year since 2014.
The pandemic represented only a momentary pause in non-intimate partner assaults. Both intimate partner violence and non-intimate partner violence against women rose between 2020 and 2021, by 2.3 per cent and 9.1 per cent, respectively.
This includes the number of homicides. Last year, according to the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, 173 women and girls lost their lives across the country, an increase from 160 in 2020 and 137 in 2019, the overwhelming majority of deaths at the hands of men.
Marginalized women face the highest risk of violence—at home and at work
These estimates, of course, represent just the tip of the iceberg. According to the 2019 General Social Survey, only 19 per cent of spousal violence cases are reported to the police by the victim or someone else. The figure is even lower for sexual assault incidents: six per cent.
The risk of violence is especially high among Indigenous women, women with disabilities and sexual minority women (women who are not heterosexual). Among women with disabilities, numbering in the millions, 57.4 per cent reported being physically or sexually assaulted at least once in 2018. The numbers were even higher among Indigenous women (62.7%) and sexual minority women (66.3%).
These same women and gender-diverse people are also much more likely to experience violence and harassment at work, being overrepresented in industries and occupations at greatest risk of violence from co-workers, clients or the public such as health care, food and bar services, retail and education.
The new National Survey on Harassment and Violence at Work provides recent information on the scale of the problem. In 2020-21, for instance, almost three-quarters of LGBTQ2S+ respondents (72%) reported experiencing workplace harassment and violence in the two years prior to the survey, while 62 per cent experienced at least one incident of sexual harassment or violence.
For many, the pandemic just added fuel to the fire, exacerbating the severity, frequency and duration of the harassment and violence, while cutting off sources of support and avenues for reporting.
Large increases in violent crime against women across the country
Gender-based violence is on the rise across the country. With the exception of Prince Edward Island and British Columbia, all provinces reported an increase in violent crime against women between 2019 and 2021—including sexual assaults, physical assaults and criminal harassment.
Over these two years, Newfoundland and Labrador experienced the largest increase (+19.6%), followed by New Brunswick and Quebec, at 13.1 per cent and 10.9 per cent, respectively. The increases in these provinces, and in Alberta, were largely driven by double-digit increases in non-intimate partner violence in 2021 – as seen in Table 1. There were also large increases in intimate partner violence in Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec which experienced a large spike in femicides in the first months of 2021.
Thunder Bay, St. Catharines-Niagara, and London recorded increases in violent crime against women of more than 25 per cent over the pandemic period, followed by Trois-Rivières, Greater Sudbury, Sherbrooke and Kelowna. (See Table 2: Rates of violent crime against women by census metropolitan areas below.)
Patchwork of services fails victims
It's not an exaggeration to say that women and gender-diverse people are at greater risk today than before the pandemic. Women and children are being turned away from shelters that are stretched beyond capacity. A National Action Plan for Canada is long past due.
In recent years, the federal government has made targeted investments in community services, support for survivors and their families and related legal reforms. During the first months of the pandemic, the government allocated $100 million to shelters and sexual assault centres to help with the purchase of supplies and reorient service delivery. Over $600 million was promised in Budget 2021 to support anti-violence programming over five years, including $200 million in support of anti-violence organizations.
This past winter, the government set aside $539.3 million for the provinces and territories to enhance their efforts to prevent gender-based violence and support survivors. And $2.2 billion has been allocated to “accelerate” work on a National Action Plan in response to the 2019 Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ Calls for Justice.
And yet it’s difficult—if not impossible—to pinpoint just how much of that money goes specifically to domestic violence prevention and programs, particularly taking the disparate levels of support offered by provinces, territories and municipalities into account.
Organizations and grassroots groups are responding as best they can but they are constantly dealing with disconnected systems, resource scarcity (particularly dire in rural and remote communities) and the prospect of their poorly compensated staff walking out the door at any time.
Many shelters turn to fundraising, bake sales, and raffles to keep their programs running and the lights on, even as inflation takes an ever-larger bite out of operating budgets. Is this any way to run an essential service to protect and support women’s lives?
Is the proposed National Action Plan up to the task?
A comprehensive, cross-jurisdictional and intersectional plan is needed to permanently reverse rising levels of violence and ensure that women can live free from violence, wherever they live. The new National Action Plan to End Gender-based Violence sets out a high-level framework for joint action, identifying four broad goals and a list of “opportunities for action” under five thematic pillars: support for victims, survivors and their families; prevention; building a responsive justice system; implementing Indigenous-led approaches; and creating social infrastructure.
The Plan acknowledges the need to “enhance and strengthen leadership, coordination, engagement, research, and knowledge mobilization” as well as to “monitor and report on the progress of the National Action Plan to End [Gender-Based Violence]”—but none of the proposed actions speak to what governments actually will do themselves to achieve the Plan’s goals and to spend allocated funds. This includes the federal government itself.
These details will be hashed out through new bilateral agreements with each province and territory—to include specific targets and indicators for measuring progress in the reduction in violence against women, girls and gender-diverse people.
Some provinces have already introduced new Action Plans to combat violence. The Quebec government released its “Stratégie gouvernementale intégrée pour contrer la violence sexuelle, la violence conjugale et Rebâtir la confiance 2022‑2027” in June 2022, responding to the 2020 Expert Panel Report “Rebâtir la confiance” commissioned earlier by a multi-partisan group of legislators.
Others have a mix of strategies, legislation and sector-specific plans in place such as Nova Scotia’s 2019 Standing together to prevent domestic violence or British Columbia’s 2015 Provincial domestic violence plan.
These plans provide a starting point, to be sure. And new federal funding will make a considerable difference for many—providing subnational governments do not substitute out their existing financial support. But absent a meaningful and comprehensive National Action Plan to provide for effective coordination of efforts, we will have simply more of the same.
At this juncture, the process appears to be heading down at least 13 different tracks. There are echoes of child care reform here. The announcement of a national program and framework, a five-year funding commitment, a secretariat, bilateral deals with the provinces and territories, and a separate set of negotiations with Indigenous communities.
The bilateral child care agreements are tied to specific targets such as reducing the average cost of child care by 50 per cent by the end of 2022 and expanding the number of licensed spaces. But the devil is in the details. It was reported this fall that the Ontario government unilaterally changed their funding guidelines for participating child care centres, deleting requirements that excluded “undue” profits and expenses such as property taxes under pressure from for-profit providers.
These changes risk diverting the precious public dollars needed for transforming the market-based system we currently have—known for its spotty quality and sky-high parent fees—into one that is universally accessible and affordable. It also points to the risks attached to a National Action Plan that is not accompanied by meaningful public monitoring of the plan’s implementation and appropriate follow-up.
Building a truly national program demands clear standards, effective administration, independent oversight, sustained community leadership and the political will to see it through. A life free of violence is a basic human right. The time for half measures is well and truly done.