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Letter addressed to the Honourable Kaycee Madu, Minister of Justice and Solicitor General (Alberta) on the Victims of Crime and Public Safety Act

   

January 22, 2021


The Honourable Kaycee Madu, Minister of Justice and Solicitor General
Office of the Minister Justice and Solicitor General
424 Legislature Building
10800 - 97 Avenue
Edmonton, AB
T5K 2B6

 

Re: The Victims of Crime and Public Safety Act

 

Dear Minister Madu,

 

As Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, I am writing to you to follow up on a letter I sent to Premier Kenney in June of 2020, enclosed herein for your information. I remain concerned about the impact of Bill 16, which made significant changes to the Victims of Crime Act, RSA 2000 c. V-3 (AVCA), now the Victims of Crime and Public Safety Act.

My Office (OFOVC) has heard from victims of crime, as well as victim service providers, and they have voiced their concerns about the amendments made, which have diverted funds that were originally meant for victim services towards public safety measures. I believe these amendments are having a significant negative impact on communities across Alberta. My understanding is that the $74M surplus in the Victims of Crime Fund (VOCF) has been reallocated away from victims and victim-serving agencies to be used for hiring new police and Crown attorneys and it is no longer a protected fund for victims. This is concerning as victims of crime deserve appropriate, timely, and accessible services in accordance with the legislation.

Police-based Victim Services Units (VSUs) and community-based victims’ organizations are provided grants by the Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General to deliver programs that benefit victims of crime during their involvement in the criminal justice system. These grants are shrinking year over year according to OFOVC stakeholders. Communities like Jasper, as one example, are suffering enormous hits to their budget with the grant they are eligible for dropping from $142,500 in 2019 to $110,606 in 2021. This small program has an approximate total annual budget of $170,000, leaving a shortfall of $60,000, which is a large sum to have to make up through BBQ fundraisers or golf tournaments. In addition, since the pandemic, fundraising dollars have decreased significantly. In practical terms, this cut in grant funding may lead to the Program’s only employee not being on payroll in November and December of 2021. This will mean the entire community of Jasper will be without any victim services personnel at all, during this two-month period. This will surely create further negative outcomes for Albertans.   

Persons harmed by crime also deserve adequate compensation and support in the aftermath of their victimization to help them recover. The current Victim Services Review, co-chaired by MLAs Nathan Neudorf and Angela Pitt, provides an opportunity to ensure that appropriate financial assistance is provided to victims utilizing a respectful process that is easily accessible to victims.

A percentage of the AVCA Fund stems from Criminal Code victim surcharges and section 737(5) of the Criminal Code requires that victim surcharges be used for providing assistance and services to victims of crime, as determined by the government of the province in which the surcharge is applied (approximately $2M a year came in through federal statute offence surcharges). It is concerning that victim surcharge money has been depleted to fund policing and prosecution services, which were already publicly funded. If the goal for governments is to have safe communities, the evidence is clear that to achieve safe and healthy communities, we must invest in those communities.

The Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power Declaration, adopted by the United Nations in 1985, applies to all Member States, including Canada. This Declaration outlines certain services that should be available to victims of crime, including compensation programs, social and medical assistance, restitution, and access to justice. Section 737(5) of the Criminal Code was based upon this Declaration, and in order to observe the standards outlined, they must be met across the country. This is why it is imperative that, through a collective effort with our partners at the provincial and territorial levels, we ensure that victim surcharges stemming from Criminal Code provisions respect this commitment.

Moreover, to use victim surcharges from federal statutes for any purpose other than providing victim services would contradict the spirit of this Declaration, and by extension, of Canada’s responsibilities towards victims of crime. I also note that federal-provincial cost-sharing programs relating to victim services were eliminated when victim surcharges were introduced in the Criminal Code. This means that it is even more vital that funds generated from victim surcharges be directed to victim services.

The value of well-funded programs and services for victims of crime cannot be overstated. At my Office, we regularly hear from victims and survivors of crime who feel that interactions with the criminal justice system lead to re-traumatization and secondary victimization. Victims are afraid that they will not be believed, that they will face stereotypes and victim-blaming, and are intimidated by the often cold and unresponsive bureaucracy that they face when choosing to engage with the criminal justice system.  Many victims do not report crime as a result, and this is particularly true for victims of sexual assault; we know that 95% of victims will not report the crime. At all stages within the criminal justice system, victims feel that their rights, their needs, and their dignity come second to that of the offender who harmed them.

The availability of, and access to, specialists trained in victim services can make an incredible difference in a victim’s experience as they work through the trauma of victimization. Victims do not ask to be victimized, and the onus should not be on victims to determine the next steps. Victim services play an essential role by helping victims decide if they want to report the crime, to informing victims of processes and procedures, supporting them through police and court proceedings, and connecting or providing victims with counselling and other health or emotional supports in the aftermath of victimization. Not only do they provide victims with such essential services, but they also signal to victims that their experiences matter within the criminal justice system. Victims and survivors of crime need and deserve well-resourced, accessible, and available supports.

Under section 2(1) of the Alberta Victims of Crime and Public Safety Act, your government has outlined several obligations with respect to the treatment of victims of crime. Namely, that:

  1. victims should be treated with courtesy, compassion and respect

  1. all reasonable measures should be taken to minimize inconvenience to victims
  2. victims should receive benefits promptly in accordance with this Act and the regulations

  1. information should be provided to victims about victim assistance services, including the Victim Impact Statement Program, requesting restitution, means of obtaining financial reparation and other assistance and programs
  1. the needs, concerns and diversity of victims should be considered in the development and delivery of programs and services and in related education and training
  2. information should be provided to victims about available options to raise concerns when they believe that these principles have not been followed.

It is particularly important that these obligations are met with the global pandemic exacerbating family violence and intimate partner violence across Canada. There is also an urgent need to address and respond to movements, such as #MeToo and #BLM, which call for improved criminal justice responses to victims and survivors. More than ever before, there is a need to heighten and improve accessibility to service for victims of crime in Alberta by increasing investments to support to persons harmed by violence, not cutting costs. Evidence shows that there are positive physical and mental health outcomes when survivors are provided empathic supports to help them cope with trauma and navigate the complexity of the justice system.

I believe victims of crime across Alberta deserve services and programs that are resourced adequately so that they can to deliver the desired result of appropriate, timely and accessible services to victims of crime in accordance with the legislation, as Alberta’s Auditor General noted in 2016.  In my experience as a practitioner, Alberta has always been a leader in Canada in the provision of support, assistance and information to victims of crime and trauma, and with on-going training for service providers through conferences and other educational opportunities. I hope this will not change and I welcome the opportunity to discuss this with you further. 

 

Respectfully,

 

Heidi Illingworth
Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime

 

Cc      Angela Pitt, MLA, Co-chair, Victims Services Review
Nathan Neudorf, MLA, Co-chair, Victim Services Review         
Chief of Staff to Kaycee Madu: jonah.mozeson@gov.ab.ca