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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   



Response


April 13, 2021

 

Ms. Heidi Illingworth
Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime

Dear Ms. Illingworth:

Thank you for taking the time to express questions and concerns regarding the Alberta’s Victims of Crime and Public Safety Act (VOCPSA) and service delivery to victims of crime in Alberta. I am pleased to provide this response on behalf of myself and Premier Kenney. We value your work and the collaborative relationship between your office and Alberta Justice and Solicitor General (JSG) Victims Services.

As you are aware, in June 2020, the VOCPSA came into force, allowing for a broader range of programs and services that can be supported by the Victims of Crime and Public Safety Fund (VOCPSF). I appreciate the concerns you have expressed, and can assure you that the foundation of victim service delivery in Alberta continues to be the United Nations’ Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power Declaration, the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights (CVBR), and the principles of VOCPSA. Furthermore, JSG will keep abreast of, and will respond accordingly, to any changes that may result from the recent CVBR Progress Report, and the associated call to amend the VOCPSA.

I would like to address the question you have raised in regards to federal victim surcharges. In 2018, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that section 737 of the Criminal Code (the section that required convicted offenders to pay a victim surcharge) was unconstitutional and was of no force and effect as of December 14, 2018. In July 2019, a federal surcharge once again became implemented, but on a discretionary basis. In 2019/20, there was a total of $515,072 in federal victim surcharge revenue generated for the VOCPSF, and federal victim surcharge revenue is forecasted to reach approximately $400,000 for the 2020/21 fiscal year. I can confirm that these funds are used to support direct services to victims of crime. I can also confirm that the Government of Alberta ensured that victim service delivery was not negatively impacted by either the elimination of federal victim surcharges in 2018, or the reduction in funds that resulted from the discretionary implementation in 2019.
Let me also take this opportunity to address concerns you have raised regarding grants to victim- serving organizations. The grants program has increased the total funding provided to victim-serving organizations year over year. This included a significant increase in 2018/19 that was a direct response to recommendations made by Alberta’s Auditor General. This increase implemented a multifaceted approach that included increases in grants for Alberta’s municipalities, as well as access to a variety of other specialized initiatives, including those focused on intimate partner violence. In 2019/20, the last concluded fiscal year, over $19 million was granted to 42 community-based organizations and 73 police-based, victim-serving organizations to support their daily operations. This was the highest annual allocation from the grants program.

You also raised concerns about the community of Jasper in your letter. While I cannot speak about a contract that may be in place between the Government of Alberta and an individual organization without their presence and/or consent, I can provide general information regarding the grants program. As you have indicated, JSG provides grants to police-based and community-based victim-serving organizations that deliver programs that benefit victims of crime during their involvement in the criminal justice process. Some VOCPSF-funded organizations may choose to provide services beyond this scope, and may seek funds from other sources including fundraising to provide these expanded services. Grant agreements are legally binding contracts that include a specified term for service delivery. Organizations that enter into VOCPSF grant agreements must provide mandated services for the entirety of the grant term. The Government of Alberta is responsible to ensure that victims of crime have access to legislated programs and services, and will ensure that access to these services continues in the event that a funded organization is not able to provide them.

The Government of Alberta continues to work hard to expand and enhance services to victims of crime, with significant recent accomplishments. In 2020, the Restitution Recovery Program (RRP) was implemented to assist victims of crime by enabling victims to request the government’s help in collecting outstanding payments of restitution orders. For more information, please go to https://www.alberta.ca/victim-restitution-and-recovery.aspx. Additionally, an interim Victim Assistance Program was implemented in 2020/21 that includes three new sub-program services:

  1. Victims of Crime Counselling Program: provides access to immediate short-term supports to assist victims of crime in dealing with the psychological impacts they have experienced related to specified Criminal Code offences.
  2. Emergency Crime Victims Assistance Program: supports victims of violent crime with short-term financial support related to safety and security needs. This assistance is related to loss or damages, and/or safety-related travel in order to reduce the impact of crime, enhance safety, and meet practical needs arising from the commission of the offence.
  3. Court Attendance Expense Reimbursement Program: provides reimbursement for expenses for families of homicide and provides a support person for victims of sexual assault to attend court proceedings not covered under the Alberta Crown Prosecution Services witness expense program.

These programs address known gaps in services, and focus on delivering timely supports to victims. For more information, please go to https://www.alberta.ca/help-for-victims-of-crime.aspx. Feedback was recently collected on the interim program to inform the design of the permanent Victim Assistance Program that will be implemented in 2021/22.

As part of the Government of Alberta’s continued efforts to expand and enhance services for victims of crime, a provincial review of victim service delivery began in 2020/21 under the leadership of MLAs Angela Pitt and Nathan Neudorf. The review is not yet complete, and I trust that you do not mind that I have shared your letter with the engagement team that is collecting feedback from stakeholders as part of this provincial review. You can also find out more information on the engagement at https://www.alberta.ca/victim-services-engagement.aspx.

A final report and recommendations will be submitted to me in the near future. I look forward to developing a plan to ensure that the right system of supports are available to victims when and where they need them. Supports for victims of crime, including victims of intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and survivors of homicide loss are front of mind as we move to develop and implement a new provincial victim service delivery model and victim assistance program.

In 2021/22, Alberta will implement the Disclosure to Protect against Domestic Violence (Clare’s Law) Act, which will allow people at risk of domestic violence to find out if their partner has a violent or abusive past. For more information, please go to https://www.alberta.ca/clares-law-phase-2-engagement.aspx

I trust this letter addresses the concerns you have raised. If you continue to have questions regarding victim service delivery in Alberta, I encourage you to connect directly with Alberta’s Director of Victims Services, Ms. Julie Peacock, at julie.peacock@gov.ab.ca. Her office would be pleased to assist you in any way they can.

Yours very truly,

 

 

Kaycee Madu, QC
Minister

cc:    Honourable Jason Kenney, Premier of Alberta
Nathan Neudorf, MLA for Lethbridge East
Angela Pitt, MLA for Airdrie East