Second reading of Bill S-249, National Strategy for the Prevention of Intimate Partner Violence Bill

By: The Hon. Pierre Dalphond

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Hon. Pierre J. Dalphond: Honourable senators, I rise in support of Bill S-249, the national strategy for the prevention of intimate partner violence act, sponsored by Senator Manning. This is an issue close to my heart, and I believe this bill should be expeditiously sent to committee.

This legislation would require the Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth to develop a national strategy for the prevention of intimate partner violence.

I will address three aspects of the bill, in Senator Cotter’s fashion: its origin, its purpose and its relevance today.

First, regarding its origin, Senator Manning essentially introduced the same bill in 2018. It even had the same number. Senators McPhedran, Hartling and Pate added their insights on debate, and senators unanimously referred that Bill S-249 to the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. Unfortunately, the bill died there due to the upcoming election.

However, between the bill’s first incarnation and now, it has developed and improved. At the second-reading debate in 2018, Senator Hartling said that the need for a bill like this was obvious, but it should be thoroughly studied at committee, with the involvement of the relevant minister and stakeholders. She suggested involving women’s groups across the country in the consultations the bill called for.

This past June, when Senator Manning reintroduced the bill, he acknowledged Senator Hartling’s concerns by updating subclause 3(2) of the 2022 version of the bill to include consultations with “. . . representatives of groups who provide services to or advocate on behalf of victims of intimate partner violence . . . .”

As for the purpose of the bill, the heartbreaking story of Ms. Georgina McGrath that Senator Manning presented during the bill’s second reading certainly made an impact on me. Having a former victim of intimate partner violence behind this bill reinforces its importance.

Senator McPhedran worried in 2018 about the proposed national strategy’s inclusion of a provision around requirements for health professionals to make a report to the police if they suspected that a patient was a victim of intimate partner violence. Senator McPhedran argued that this might not be in the best interests of all victims and could compromise their Charter right to security of the person. Offenders who received probation or short prison sentences could quickly be back on the streets and terrorizing their victims, and that’s if they were convicted at all. She quoted a Juristat statistic that just 40% of domestic violence cases result in a guilty verdict.

That is a valid concern. However, the bill itself does not demand mandatory reporting. Paragraph 3(2)(d) only asks for consultations around requirements for reporting suspected intimate partner violence. It is opening the debate on it and not providing for it. Those consultations should include victim advocacy groups and take into consideration the recommendations of a report that Senator McPhedran mentioned, A Report to Guide the Implementation of a National Action Plan on Violence Against Women and Gender-Based Violence, written by a pan-Canadian group of anti-violence experts including survivors, grassroots organizations, academics and lawyers.

As Senator Manning said in his speech in November last year:

. . . I have learned that patient privacy and a victim’s fear of what may happen if a police report is made are important factors that need to be thoroughly discussed as we proceed. . . . But in order to find possible solutions to this increasing problem of intimate partner violence in our country, we need to begin exploring avenues to find a way to assist those who so desperately need our help.

I agree with Senator Manning that:

The cloak of secrecy around intimate partner violence has created a travesty of justice that has prevailed because of fear, stigma and the absence of a law to protect the most vulnerable in our society.

As it stands now, the bill ensures that Senator McPhedran’s concerns around victim privacy and consultation would be well considered both in committee and during consultations once the bill comes into force.

I note two important elements of Bill S-249: the requirement for the minister to set out a national strategy in each house of Parliament within two years and the requirement for a progress review, including recommendations and conclusions, two years after the minister tables their initial report. Those ensure accountability. The strict time frame and review requirement mean the minister can adapt the national strategy more easily so we can learn from what works well and what can be improved moving forward. The bill’s purpose is to create a national strategy for preventing intimate partner violence, but we certainly want an effective one. Those measures will help achieve that goal.

As for my final point, which is the bill’s relevance today, it is sadly more relevant than ever. According to a 2018 report published on the Statistics Canada website, more than 12% of women had experienced intimate partner violence in the year preceding the survey. That number more than doubled to 29% for young women aged 15 to 24.

Moreover, in Canada, more than 127,000 acts of police-reported domestic violence took place in 2021, with women and girls representing 69% of all victims, according to Statistics Canada. And we know that those who go to the police are just a small portion of the victims.

Things are no better in my province. SOS violence conjugale, an organization that helps victims of domestic violence, reports that, since it was established in 1987, it has received no fewer than 800,000 requests for help. That represents an average of 23,000 calls a year, a number that is actually growing. Averages can be deceiving because even if the number is growing, it is not necessarily reflected in an average.

Moreover, this violence resulted in 17 femicides in 2021, a sad record for Quebec. In 2022, there were another 13 femicides as well as the murders of six children. What did the Government of Quebec do when faced with this totally unacceptable situation? It adopted the strategy entitled the Integrated Government Strategy to Counteract Sexual Violence, Domestic Violence and to Rebuild Trust 2022-2027.

The Government of Quebec’s document describing this strategy highlights that it is the result of the collaboration of several ministries and government organizations based on many consultations held with stakeholders. The main elements of this strategy are the following.

First, significant investments over five years to support organizations on the ground, including rape crisis centres and also centres providing support for violent partners.

Second, campaigns that raise awareness about domestic violence, sexual assault and sexual exploitation. For those who have seen the ads on Radio-Canada or on other French-language or even English-language stations, this advertising is quite shocking and captures the attention of viewers. For example, the ads show how one partner controls the other, with the dominant partner constantly calling the other and asking, “Where are you? What are you doing?” and constantly sending text messages. Then he is told, “Stop, you need help.” The awareness campaign is both dramatic enough and well targeted, and I hope it will be effective.

Third, the creation of a court specialized in sexual violence and domestic violence located in centres where there are not only courtrooms, Crown prosecutors and police officers, but also support and assistance services provided by sexual assault and domestic violence specialists.

Fourth, compensation for victims of sexual and domestic violence.

Fifth, a legal aid clinic for victims that can be accessed by telephone and online.

Finally, the implementation of a system of electronic geolocation bracelets for defendants and offenders released into the community when ordered by the judge or parole board.

What we need now is an integrated government strategy at the federal level. I am pleased that Senator Manning’s bill proposes such an approach.

This bill also responds to Senator Audette’s work through the Calls for Justice of the final report of the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Call for Justice 5.3 reads:

We call upon the federal government to review and reform the law about sexualized violence and intimate partner violence, utilizing the perspectives of feminist and Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people.

Bill S-249 will also honour the call of so many organizations, reports and stakeholders for consultation and reforms related to preventing intimate partner violence. It will bring together government ministers and representatives with victim advocacy groups. It will be the first step in creating solutions that will give so many of our fellow Canadians a choice where none exists today. What happened to Ms. McGrath and too many others shall never happen again.

Colleagues, I ask you to join me in supporting Bill S-249 at second reading in order to send it to committee for careful review and amendment, if necessary.

Thank you. Meegwetch.

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