Letter to Minister Monsef on community-based anti-violence worker wellness
June 30, 2020
The Honourable Maryam Monsef
Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Rural Economic Development
Women and Gender Equality Canada
P.O. Box 8097, Station T CSCOttawa,
ON K1G 3H6
C.c.: The Honourable David Lametti, P.C., Q.C., M.P.; The Honourable Patty Hajdu, P.C., M.P.; The Honourable Bill Blair, P.C., M.P.; The Honourable Carla Qualtrough P.C., M.P.
Dear Minister Monsef,
I am writing to you in my role as Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime1 to encourage your leadership in providing more support for the wellbeing of community-based anti-violence workers, who perform a critical role in supporting victims and survivors of gender-based violence. In supporting their clients, these workers are routinely exposed to occupational stress injuries and traumas, which deeply affect their health and wellbeing. This reality is compounded by the fact that funding for this work is dwindling at the provincial and territorial levels, putting additional stress on the shoulders of those currently employed in this under-resourced sector.
Working with victims and survivors of gender-based violence is emotionally and psychologically demanding, and the nature of crisis intervention, counselling, and other critical services provided by community-based anti-violence workers results in a taxing 24/7 commitment. Consistent exposure to clients’ traumas can lead to a number of negative impacts, namely vicarious trauma (negative cognitive changes that affect self-esteem, sense of safety, and worldview, causing isolation, nightmares, etc.), secondary traumatic stress (acute psychological overwhelm in response to trauma exposure), compassion fatigue (sense of helplessness), and ultimately, burnout. These impacts on workers are especially heightened within Indigenous communities: there is a high rate of Indigenous female victimization in Canada, but very few anti-violence workers in communities to meet these needs. The few workers available are overwhelmed by the demands on their services, and pay a high mental health toll in supporting victims through trauma. Distrust of the formal criminal justice system among Indigenous victims places an even higher importance on community-based services. Because of these pressures, staff turnover is incredibly high.
I believe it is important to consider this issue through a gender-equality lens, given that the majority of community-based anti-violence workers are female – as are victims and survivors. In addition, anti-violence work is perceived through the lens of traditional feminine stereotypes: as work that is maternal and caring, defined by sympathy and compassion. This perception is dismissive and undervalues the essential role that anti-violence workers perform. They support and advocate for victims of the most violent and destructive crimes by providing emergency response, accompanying and supporting vulnerable and traumatized victims through police interviews, hospital exams, and throughout criminal justice appearances, and provide specialized trauma-informed psychological support. Their value in supporting the healing and resilience of victims and survivors of gender-based violence cannot be overstated, but it is not recognized. They lack adequate wages and benefits, workplace support, trauma-related injury supports, and training opportunities that could help them build resilience to the impacts of their work. We provide these supports to system-based first responders, such as police, firefighters, and paramedics, because these male-dominated professions are perceived as brave, heroic, and valuable. Such gendered perceptions of frontline work facilitate the undermining of the realities that community-based anti-violence workers face in providing their services, harming their wellbeing and hampering their ability to support victims of violence.
We would not deny the importance of supporting the healing and resilience of victims of gender-based violence. The wellbeing of anti-violence workers must be given the same importance, in order for them to continue providing critical services to victims and survivors. At present, they are not equipped to meet the needs of all victims of gender-based violence. Their organizations are understaffed, and many rely on volunteer work due to funding constraints. Compared with full-time professionals – many of whom are survivors of violence themselves – volunteers are even more unprepared to manage the trauma impacts of this work. They should not have to process trauma-exposure alone; they deserve the same occupational health, mental health, and safety supports for preventing and responding to work-related stresses and injuries that system-based first responders are provided. With the proper tools to support the strength and resilience of community-based anti-violence workers, we empower them to support victims and survivors.
There is an opportunity for your department to lead this initiative through a whole-of-government approach that incorporates funding for further research on work-related injuries in the anti-violence sector, to increase the knowledge of the impacts and health implications of this first-response work based on evidence. There is a clear need to increase funding to community-based anti-violence organizations and services for hiring, training, and the establishment of workplace benefits and supports, in order to supplant shrinking provincial and territorial budgets – an effort to which I believe your colleagues at Public Safety, Health, and Employment and Social Development can contribute. As a gender-equality issue, I am fully prepared to lend my support to developing such strategies with your team.
Attached, you will find a paper commissioned by my office written by Kate Rossiter, Misha Dhillon, and Tracy Porteous on this issue, titled “Community-Based Anti-Violence Worker Wellness: A Review of the Literature and Recommendations for the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime,” for further reading on the topic. I would be pleased to discuss this with you further, and look forward to your response on this critical situation.
Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime/l'Ombudsman fédérale des victimes d'actes criminels
 The mandate of my office is to help ensure that the rights of victims and survivors of crime are respected and upheld and that the federal government meets its obligations to victims. This includes ensuring that victims and their families have access to federal programs and services specifically designed for their support. In addition to our ongoing efforts to help individual victims, we also have a responsibility to identify and bring forward emerging and systemic issues that impact negatively on victims of crime at the federal level. In doing so, we work closely with victim service providers and a host of other government and non-government stakeholders on our common goal of building a justice system that better serves everyone in Canada.
September 3, 2020
Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime
Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime
Dear Ombudsman Illingworth:
I hope this letter findsyou and your loved ones well and safe during this unprecedented time.
I would like to thank you for your correspondence, as well as for sharing the Community-Based Anti-Violence Worker Wellness: A Review of the Literature and Recommendations for the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime report. Together, they illustrate a powerfulportrait of the realities faced by our frontline heroes working in community-based anti-violenceorganizations.
Gender-based violence is one of the most pervasive, deadly and deeply-rooted human rights violations of our time and our Government continues to be committed to preventing and addressing gender-based violence in all its forms. I am grateful to have your advocacy and support to address these issues.
The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified and exacerbated existing gaps in the gender-based violence support system, highlighting issues that anti-violence workers have been pointing to fordecades, such as underfunding. COVID-19 and the gender-based violence “shadow pandemic” have underscored the critical importance of these service-providing organizations. This is why our Government acted quickly and distributed up to $50 million in emergency funding to women’s shelters and sexual assault centres to ensure the continuity and viability of their services during the pandemic.
While these concrete efforts have provided immediate relief where it was needed most, I recognize that more needs to be done. Wellness amongst anti-violence workers is a gender equality issue, given the over representation of women working in the sector, as well as the fact that women make up the majority of those seeking supports from the sector.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, my team and I had begun to build on the foundation laid by the first-ever federal gender-based violence strategy to develop a National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence. Through ongoing engagements over the last 5years, Canadians have provided the Government of Canada with a clear set of priorities for this Plan. Furthermore, during the engagements that have taken place since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts and advocates from across the country have reconfirmed this set of priorities and have impressed upon us the urgency that COVID-19 has brought to these long-standing needs.
I look forward to continuing this discussion with you as we develop the National Action Plan.Your insight will be important in developing a whole-of-government and national response to the ongoing systemic barriers and difficulties faced by anti-violence workers.
Thank you for writing to me about this important issue and for your active advocacy and support for anti-violence workers and survivors alike. Despite these challenging times, we remain committed to our priorities and will continue to deliver for Canadians who are counting on us. I want to assure you that we will continue to respond to the current situation presented by COVID-19, while continuing our long-term goals of advancing gender equality and eliminating gender-based violence.
The Honourable Maryam Monsef, P.C., M.P.
Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Rural Economic Development