Maryam Monsef on the violence against women and girls crisis

The minister talks to Anne Kingston about the Liberals' second annual report card on the gender-based violence strategy, and what still needs to be done

In June 2017, the federal government announced, to considerable fanfare, “It’s Time,” a federal strategy to prevent and address gender-based violence.  The “whole-of-government” approach, it noted, was the first of its kind in Canada.

On Wednesday, the second annual  “It’s Time: Canada’s Strategy to Address and Prevent Gender-Based Violence”  annual report was released with far less promotion or media coverage. The 42-page document is wide-ranging, almost overwhelmingly so. Topics covered include “Cultural Awareness and Humility” courses within the RCMP, addressing cyber-stalking, involving boys and men, addressing campus violence, a “Federal Victims Strategy,” the rise of “incel” violence,  private-partner initiatives, awareness programs like “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence,” and the creation of a gender-based violence knowledge centre within the department of Women and Gender Equality.

The need for action is acute. In 2018, a woman or girl was killed every 2.5 days in Canada; a woman was killed every six days by a former or current partner, according to the Canadian Femicide Observatory.   Every day, it seems, gendered violence is in the headlines: Just before this post went online, came news that a 44-year old man had been arrested  for the 2018 murder of 44-year-old Melane Vachon in Whitby, Ont.  He was her former boyfriend. Gendered abuse and bias in the RCMP,  military and law enforcement have been well-documented, as have biases in the courts toward sexual abuse victims.

Gender-based violence costs the Canadian economy tens of billions of dollars. A lack of data makes it impossible to calculate a total estimate, a spokesman within the department of Women and Gender Equality told Maclean’s. In a 2013 report, Kate McInturff, then a researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, estimated that adult sexual assault and intimate-partner violence alone cost more than $12-billion, or $334 per person per capita, an amount then higher than costs associated the use of illegal drugs. To date, the federal government has invested more than $200-million in “It’s Time.”

Last week, Maclean’s Anne Kingston was given a copy of the report by government in advance of its release and offered an interview with Maryam Monsef, Canada’s Minister for Women and Gender Equality. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: The report highlights three pillars: “preventing gender-based violence,” “supporting survivors and their families,” and “promoting responsive legal and justice systems.” How does the government weigh these priorities in terms of expenditure and focus?

A: As we are in the second year of this, we are giving equal focus to all three pillars—the investments we have made in housing for example. That is both a preventative measure but a measure that provides support to survivors and their families. If a woman doesn’t have a safe roof over her head, she is more likely to go back to an abusive relationship. So investments in affordable housing can be weighed across two pillars not just one.

Q:  In April, StatsCan published a study that found one in five women leaving a residential facility for abuse victims returns to live with their abuser, which suggests a dire need not being met. I want to make sure I understand what you are saying in terms of what the government is providing in terms of transitional housing and in affordable housing which allows longer-term independence.

READ MORE: The debate over the Al Franken case reveals #MeToo’s touchy divide

A: Transitional housing is an importance part of healing for those fleeing violence as well as their families. And these transitional housing options in some places can be both affordable long-term and transitional. It’s a place to stop and get your bearings before you move into more affordable units.

A national housing strategy was co-developed with women’s advocates.  A couple of years ago, all of the YWCAs from across the country lobbied our government for the first time. They said “Housing first,” and that housing is a determining factor in violence. They were able to convince our government and make us see that putting out a third of the $55-billion housing strategy to support women and their families fleeing violence was important.

Every year that group comes together to see how we are implementing the housing strategy to make sure we are putting money aside for shelters, and those shelters are getting built, that we’re putting money aside for transitional housing and those wrap-around supports that individuals need in those spaces are provided,  and there is affordable housing—that people aren’t spending more than a third or a half of their income every month on housing.

Q: The report refers to “gender-based violence,” as defined as violence directed at someone because of their gender, gender identity or perceived gender. Yet you don’t use the term femicide. Is there a reason for that?

A: No. When the UN rapporteur was here recently we did talk about femicide—how every two a half days a woman is killed in Canada, every six days a woman is killed by an intimate partner—an ex or an existing partner. We don’t shy from calling those number out for what they are. No there isn’t a particular reason…femicide is real. It happens.

Q: Many groups engaged with gendered violence and femicide, including Amnesty International, have long argued Canada needs a comprehensive “national plan,” involving a buy in from the provinces and territories to deal with violence against women, rather than a federal plan, in terms of effectiveness. Why hasn’t the government pursued a national strategy?

A: When we formed government in 2015, my predecessor Patty Hadju and I had seats very close to each other in Parliament so we’d talk about this a lot. She had this file and she couldn’t believe that we, as a federal government, didn’t have our own house in order. We didn’t have a whole of government approach to address and prevent gender-based violence. We realized that we’re not collecting the data and investing in the research that we ought to be. In fact, we haven’t been collecting any gender-based violence data. This gender-based violence strategy that we’ve introduced is meant to fill in existing gaps that exist across the country. Some provinces and some territories were way ahead of us, and our job wasn’t to step on their toes. It was to fill in the gaps and help enable them.

(Maclean’s sent a follow-up question by email to Women and Gender Equality, asking which provinces and territories were “way ahead” in dealing with gender-based violence. A spokesperson answered that, provinces with prior strategies when the strategy was founded in 2017 included Ontario, with  “both a sexual violence and a domestic violence strategy, Québec, which “had a sexual violence strategy,” and  B.C. which “had a human-trafficking strategy.”)

Q:  When I talk to people working on the front-lines of gendered violence, they say one thing the federal government can do is focus on bettering economic equality for women, noting one obvious way would be to introduce a national child care program. To what extent is redressing economic inequity part of the government’s gender-based violence strategy?

A: The reason we’re focused on this plan is because it’s the right thing to do. It’s also costing our economy billions of dollars. We also have labour shortages in Canada and we need everybody. We can’t afford to leave a single drop of talent out of the room. So there are economic reasons, but there’s something to be said for a single mom who has a job who has a safe and affordable roof over her and her kids’ heads, who doesn’t have to make choices about Do I make the rent? Or do I put good food on the table? Or do I go back to my abusive partner?

We’ve elected to spend over $80 million to fund 80 projects across the country; some are focused on better employment outcomes. An example is a partnership with the YWCA.  They came to us and said if we were able to get $250,000 from a private partner would you invest $1.25 for us to provide wraparound services for women who have left an abusive situation to help them come back into the workforce. We said, “Absolutely.” RBC came on  board with$250,000. We put in $1.25-million and Winners came in with an additional $1-million so the project could be replicated across the country. We know that when women have economic security they are more likely—but not completely—to have physical security.

Q: I want to ask about gendered violence in the military and RCMP. In July, the federal government announced it was paying $900-million to settle multiple class-action lawsuits lodged on behalf of survivors of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and sexual assault in the military. It’s one thing to pay out huge sums in reparations, but how do we begin to address prevention?

A: Systems that need to be changed are highlighted in the report. You’ll see how institutional change on our end has led to the development of a department, the application of intersectional gendered-lens to budgets and to other decisions we’re making. Our colleagues across government departments are part of the strategy. You’ll see that the Department of National Defence and the RCMP are signatories on the strategy and that they are providing updates to Canadians on what they’ve been up to and changes they’ve made.

One example of progress we have made is with the RCMP. When Ralph Goodale put out that call following Robyn Doolittle’s investigative reporting [in the Globe and Mail] about reviewing cases that that been labelled “unfounded,” we saw that other jurisdictions also followed. To date over 30,000 cases have been reviewed and most of them have been reviewed with support by feminists and others who are providing capacity building to the RCMP so they are doing this work in a “trauma-informed” and culturally sensitive way.

With the Department of National Defence and Operation Honour,  Harjit Sajjan is the minister most active on the gender-based violence strategy for all the reasons we can appreciate. Investing in support services on the reserves themselves has been one part of the approach. There has been investment in support services close to bases so that people who are more comfortable receiving the support outside are able to receive it. There is without a doubt a lot of work to be done, but we are committed to doing that work with any partner who is willing to work with us. There’s also “zero-tolerance.”

QIn May 2019, Lt.-Gen Paul Wynnyk, vice chief of defence staff, said: “Sexual misconduct continues to be a destructive problem within the Canadian Armed Forces, and we have made rather limited progress in eliminating it over the past two-and-a-half years.” Could you speak to that statement in terms of the government’s gender-based violence strategy?

A: We launched the gender-based violence strategy in 2017. I would say that anyone who has been paying attention to conversations about #MeToo over the past two years can say without a doubt there have been changes—the conversations have been different. There’s legislation: Bill C-55 is bringing legal rigour to the work weren’t doing to prevent harassment and workplace violence. It didn’t exist before we formed government. Organizations that have the solutions or are testing new solutions now have funding that goes beyond an election cycle. That’s a real change. And what we saw for the decade before we formed government was those very organizations were gutted, their funding was pulled, their advocacy was ceased. That’s changed. We’ve also invested in legal aid and making sure that sexual assault centres are open when survivor and victims seek some help. That’s changed.

Q: I wanted to focus on former Lt.-Gen Paul Wynnyk’s comment that there hadn’t been changes in two and a half years regarding harassment and abuse in the military. But I have other questions and I realize your time is short.

A: Well, look, this whole report is a change. The fact that we have a plan and that we’re accountable to Canadians every year about the progress we have made on that plan is a change. The fact we put in changes within our legal system to make sure that they are more responsive, that’s real change. Any expert, any academic, any survivor out there will tell you that the changes we’re talking about are systemic changes. It takes time, it takes political will to stay committed. It takes investments to make sure we see them through. This report is saying the government has heard the call for federal leadership. We will lead by example. We’re going to stay committed.

Q: In terms of “promoting responsive legal and justice systems,” I’m sure you’re aware of the spate of high-profile sexual assault cases in Canadian courts revealing an acute need for judges to be trained in sexualize violence and abuse. What is the government’s position on educating judges?

A: Training and awareness programming is part of the gender-based strategy.

Q:  I’m asking specifically about judges.

A: What Rona Ambrose tabled in that private members bill. [In 2017, then Conservative Party leader Rona Ambrose gained all-party support for a private member’s bill that would have made it mandatory for federally appointed judges to receive specific training on sexual assault law. The bill died last June after senators stalled for more than two years.] It’s unfortunate we weren’t able to receive royal assent in this sitting of Parliament. That said, our government is committed to reintroducing the bill should we have opportunity for government again at the end of this year.

Q: The report outlines a lot of government spending. What in your view offers—or has the potential to offer—the highest return on investment?

A: The sustainability of women’s organizations has been my number one priority, and the seeds we have planted in supporting them will have the most long-lasting impact. These were organization that said, “Stop funding us in 12- or 24-month increments. Stop making us compete with each other for such a small pot of money when we should be working together and supporting our clients, and not writing so many grants.” These are the people who do the work on the ground. They have received $80-million as part of gender-based strategy and $100-million for capacity building. By 2023, women’s organizations will be receiving $100 million per year to do their work. To me that is the biggest impact—and bang for dollars.

Q: The report highlights that  certain populations are more vulnerable to gender-based violence, including Indigenous women. One group we hear less about is  disabled women. The gender-based aspect of violence to this community is not highlighted enough, in my opinion.

MM: It’s not. Thank goodness for people like Bonnie Brayton from DAWN [Disabled Women’s Network Canada] who have spent decades of their lives to elevating the voices so rarely heard. They have helped us come up with accessibility legislation and the gender-based violence strategy, and they are helping us monitor its ongoing progress. DAWN put out a recent study showing that close to one in four Canadians lives with a disability and the disproportionate rates of violence they endure. This is a conversation people are now having.

Q: The report mentions investment in programs to prevent teen dating violence. Could you speak to that?

A: There’s all sorts of evidence that sex-ed programs are important, not only in preventing gender-based violence but in helping survivors. [Parliamentary secretary] Terry Duguid  and I spent time hearing from experts and advocates working on engaging men and boys in this work. I’ve heard from tens of thousands of men across this country who want to be part of the solution; they recognize that when the women in their lives are better, their own lives are better off.  We’ll be coming out shortly with the results of that conversation and investment to build capacity and build up best practices while investing in new ideas in communities open to implementing them.

Q: We referred earlier to the statistics of women being killed in this country. It’s a four-alarm fire. To what extent is gender-based violence an issue people care about, do you think?  Will Canadians see it as an election issue?

A: You ask any parent what they care most about. They want their kids and grandkids to have opportunities and a better life. This time of year, people are working with their kids to send them off to college or university for the first time. They do it with a lot of hope and significant investment that it will make their lives better. Forty per cent of sexual assaults are reported by those who are at post-secondary. That is alarming. The consequences of that are mental health challenges, reduced performance and trauma people can carry for their entire lives.  You talk to people out there concerned about the abuse our elders and seniors experience. There is concern out there. You look at numbers—one in three women will experience some sort of gender-based violence. You look at every two days a woman is killed. This is a Canadian issue that knows no boundaries.

It is preventable but the tragedy is ongoing. Those watching the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry see it as well. We all want this tragedy to end, and it’s up to Canadians to make sure they hold to account political parties so it doesn’t become a partisan issue. Unfortunately, when our Conservative colleagues had an opportunity to stand up in the House of Commons and support this strategy, they voted against it time and again. If we can’t figure it out in Canada, then what can we hope for the rest of the world?

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