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Remarks by Heidi Illingworth at the Launch Event for the Canadian Municipal Network on Crime Prevention

Peaceful Homes:  
A Guide to the Prevention of Violence in the Home During and After COVID-19

May 5th 2021

Good day everyone. Bonjour. I am Heidi Illingworth, the Federal Ombudsperson for Victims of Crime. I use the pronouns she/her/elle. I am speaking to you from my home South of Ottawa, on the unceded traditional territory of the Algonquin people. I want to acknowledge Red Dress Day and offer my support of all the work being done to end the genocide against Indigenous women and girls in Canada.

The Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime (the OFOVC) was created in 2007 as an independent office to provide oversight of the federal government in its dealings with victims of crime.

We serve individuals who have suffered physical or emotional harm, or financial loss as the result of a criminal offence in Canada, as well as those who have been victimized abroad, along with their spouses, relatives, or dependents.

The bulk of what we do is to listen to victims and their families who have concerns about the criminal justice system.  Our approach is client-centred and victim-centred.  We also work to identify systemic issues that negatively affect victims, and we provide recommendations and advice to the federal government.

I have worked now for more than twenty years with survivors of violence, and I can tell you prevention is incredibly important to them. Almost every survivor I talk to says that they want to prevent what happened to them or to their loved one, from happening to anyone else.

That’s why the prevention of victimization is so important to me. I have seen the harm violence does and walked alongside survivors who are struggling to recover. I have also witnessed their strength and resilience.  

I am honoured to have been a collaborator on the Peaceful Homes Report, and I commend the hard work of the Canadian Municipal Network for Crime Prevention and the project partners on this well-researched, thorough and useful Guide that has been created.

As a former frontline practitioner, I am pleased that the Guide highlights the severity of domestic and gender-based violence. This form of violence is hidden in the shadows, in private, yet its effects ripple across and throughout our communities, in ways that many are not aware.

The Guide emphasizes the importance of violence prevention and upstream strategies to interrupt the cycle of violence, and before violence occurs – strategies to which I have long been an avid supporter.

It emphasizes an integrated approach, which I believe is not only important but also essential, to respond effectively to the lasting and damaging harms of violence and trauma.   

This is a timely moment, where the COVID-19 pandemic has shined a glaring spotlight on issues that have gone unaddressed for too long.

Every year across Canada, more than 2.2 million crimes are reported to police, a quarter of which are violent crimes. Yet, we know that only a fraction of the violence happening actually comes to the attention of the formal criminal justice system. Crimes likes sexual assault, remain hidden and are highly underreported, with 95% of victims staying silent.1  

The Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability found that, in 2020, 160 women and girls were killed. Of these 160 deaths, 128 of these women, or 80%, were killed by men. Moreover, despite comprising less than 5% of the Canadian population, Indigenous women and girls were overrepresented, comprising 1 in 5 of the women and girls killed.

National seniors advocates are reporting a tenfold increase in elder abuse.2 Child abuse and sexual exploitation is on the rise.3

The pandemic continues to shine a light on the violence that so many have suffered in silence.

And, very importantly, it provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the way in which we respond to crime, violence, and trauma as a society.

As we launch this Guide today, I am hopeful that Canadian municipalities and officials at the local level can begin to implement the strategies shared in the Guide to interrupt the damaging cycle of violence that harms so many. They need support from provincial and federal leadership to do so.

We must prevent violence from occurring in the first place.

And we must provide for the collective health and wellbeing of all members of our society.

I support the call to communities, provincial/territorial representatives, and the federal government to invest now in the provision of adequate and accessible violence prevention programs.

Justice system responses have historically been viewed as our most important response to violence, and the financial and human resources we continue to dedicate to them still reflects this thinking.

But justice system responses are reactive in nature. Policing and incarceration respond to violence after it has occurred, but they do not prevent violence from occurring.

They do not rehabilitate offenders, nor heal victims of the trauma they must live with after violent victimization.

For long-term community safety and wellbeing, for the health of our society, for the protection of women, children, elders, Indigenous peoples, racialized peoples, the LGBTQ2S+ community – we need to dedicate resources to tackling violence at the root, and this Guide makes that clear.

How can we stop violence? We need to recognize that violence is often the result of systemic barriers and inequities.

Lack of housing, poverty, food scarcity – these can be important drivers of violence that need to be addressed through significant investments, or cycles of violence will continue, and those most vulnerable and at risk of victimization will never truly be safe from harm.

Those struggling with mental health issues and addictions – which can also be precursors to crime and family violence – need accessible and timely help and support.

This emphasizes the importance of early intervention and prevention to interrupt violence.

Practitioners need funds that they can use on the frontline now, to implement the tools that they need – from greater detection measures to prevention programming.

Many examples of best practices in violence prevention can be found within the Guide, demonstrating that there are many innovative tools at our disposal and we should be implementing them more widely.

For example, the REACH Immigration and Refugee Initiative, active in Alberta, works with immigrant and refugee families to target risk factors that place these demographics at higher risk of experiencing family violence, in ways that are culturally safe and relevant

The Triple P program, active in the United States, seeks to reduce risk factors for child abuse by offering a comprehensive parent-training program, designed to prevent or alter harmful parenting practices.

We also know that bystander programs, such as Bringing in the Bystander, arm communities with invaluable education and knowledge on family violence, and on identifying the signs that someone may be suffering.

And, these programs are applicable to everyone because they are based on the idea that community members can play a role in preventing violence.

These practical tools can be applied in communities now if sustained funding is made available to support them.

Further still, the MMIWG Calls for Justice offer Indigenous-led solutions to the cycle of violence, which is why I believe their implementation must be accelerated.

This is critical given that Indigenous women and girls and 2SLBTQ+ folks face the most staggering, disproportional rates of family violence across the country.

I also believe that justice system responses can be improved to prevent victimization.

Presently, I am calling for the recognition of coercive and controlling behaviours as offences under the Criminal Code

Coercive control is a tactic used by abusers. It is a harmful pattern of behaviours – psychological abuse, sexual jealousy, stalking, financial control, and other behaviours – that are intended to intimidate, control and instill fear in the victim.

The Canadian criminal justice system currently treats domestic violence as an incidence-based problem, so coercive and controlling behaviours are outside of a justice system response. But the abuse reported by survivors does not always manifest as physical assault.

Amending our Criminal Code to recognize coercive control will give police a tool to intervene before controlling behaviour escalates to physical violence. 

This is important because experts have identified coercive control as an important precursor to femicide worldwide.

Other countries have developed and adopted new offences related to coercive control in recent years, and I believe it is imperative that Canada do the same.

Six years ago, Canada committed to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, along with the other member states.

The SDGs, and SDG number five in particular, includes targets for reductions in violence, including homicides and violence against women and girls.

To achieve these targets, the SDGs require all levels of government to implement effective ways to stop violence before it occurs.

Significant investments in violence prevention would be the right step to take towards achieving these targets.

The evidence is there. Investing in prevention is the most cost-effective way to reduce violence, and enhance community safety.

We have a lot of work to do, but we have the knowledge and the expertise to do it. We can learn from best practices. The right time is now.

I reaffirm my own commitment to working towards ending violence and victimization through prevention, in my role as Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime

I’d like to thank CMNCP once again for inviting us to collaborate on this critical and important Guide.

My hope is that it circulates widely, and that it provides practical information to community service providers and leaders who can  develop actions to prevent violence before it happens. Violence is not inevitable – as my good friend and colleague Dr. Irvin Waller has noted. We can STOP violence, we can save lives & we can prevent and the long-term harm that arises from violence.

To everyone tuning in for the launch of this Guide today: Thank you, Merci, Miigwetch.