Open letter to Dr. Theresa Tam on the need for a violence prevention strategy as part of Canada’s pandemic recovery plan
May 15, 2020
Dr. Theresa Tam
Chief Public Health Officer of Canada
Public Health Agency of Canada
130 Colonnade Road
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0K9
Dear Dr. Tam:
I am writing to you in my role as the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime1 to encourage the inclusion of upstream approaches to reduce intimate partner and sexual violence, as well as violence against children, in both pandemic preparedness and response. I am particularly concerned about increasing preventive strategies before violence occurs or gets out of hand.
Experts agree that intimate partner violence and violence against children is increasing significantly in Canada because of pandemic emergency measures. The psychosocial impact of this pandemic is expected to be far reaching. There are many intersecting issues currently exacerbating tensions and stress in the home and within families that can lead to an increased risk of violence. The most obvious are confinement to homes; financial stress and uncertainty; negative coping strategies such as increased alcohol and/or drug use; increased family care-giving responsibilities; and lack of access by victims of domestic violence and perpetrators to important coping mechanisms such as informal supports.
Over the past eight weeks, my office has seen an increase of inquiries from victims/survivors and their families, as well as stakeholders, who have shared very troubling stories of what is happening in homes and communities across Canada because of increased isolation. These inquiries are from adults who are able to make those calls, but many of the same factors are leading to increases in violence against children. Due to pandemic measures, we know that many victims have lost access to telephones or computers and are unable to seek help. Likewise, hotels are closed and shelters are full, and we are struggling to find the infrastructure to support people affected. We continue to learn of lethal violence during the pandemic with the murder of eight women and one girl in just 36 days in Canada. These femicides can and must be prevented.
Pandemic preparedness plans and responses must prioritize an upstream approach (i.e. addressing the causes of violence before violence occurs or gets out of hand) by focusing on risk intervention (mitigating situations of elevated risk) and prevention (proactively reducing identified risks). Violence in its many forms affects the health of victims, perpetrators, and the communities in which both live. Canadians need tools they can use right now to cope with the stressors of the current crisis in healthy and positive ways. Children especially deserve protection from abuse and violence before it occurs during COVID-19, which creates the perfect conditions for a rise in violence.
I commend all levels of government in Canada for taking leadership to try to ensure that no one is left behind. The Government of Canada has provided $50 million in financial support to women’s shelters and sexual assault centres as well as support to individuals, and the voluntary sector. However necessary these measures, they react after the problem has gotten out of hand. While services to respond to intimate partner violence must be well funded so that they can meet increasing demand, the federal government can also take an active role now in efforts to support upstream (before the fact) prevention of violence. We also need to target those at lower levels of risk, to prevent current tensions at home from escalating to violence. If we share principles, approaches and programs to inform Canadians now, we can stop violence before it occurs in families at lower risk for domestic violence.
Reaching potential perpetrators – particularly men – is not an easy task. There are proven approaches to support behavioural changes that we can share to prevent violence in homes and take the pressure off the response system (e.g., women’s shelters, police, and health care services). The government should immediately deliver information and services virtually through online platforms and/or apps. Some examples that could be promoted widely by PHAC, providing short and longer-term solutions, during the pandemic include:
- Mediation and healthy relationship skills;
- Non-abusive conflict resolution strategies, including active listening;
- Positive parenting skills;
- Ways to reduce male violence, inspired by SNAP, ‘Becoming a Man’ and healthy concepts of masculinity;
- Changing beliefs and attitudes towards women and domestic abuse;
- Paid advertising campaigns to educate the public about their role in violence intervention and prevention;
- Capacity building and education about the role of informal supports/bystanders.
As a recovery response plan is also developing, adding additional resources to give the public tools to prevent behaviours that lead to intimate partner violence, sexual violence and child abuse is critical. This could be done through infographics and promoted through social media. Paid advertising from the Public Health Agency’s Family Violence Initiative and the National Clearinghouse of Family Violence is also needed. Input and resources from existing materials could also be sought from Women and Gender Equality Canada, Indigenous Services Canada, Public Safety Canada and Justice Canada.
The World Health Organization identifies violence as a public health issue. As such, it would be vital for the Government of Canada, as part of its overarching recovery plan, to incorporate a national violence prevention strategy consistent with evidence shared by the WHO, the CDC and other prestigious organizations. We must give Canadians the tools they need now to deal with the impacts of the pandemic in healthy ways. I am available to discuss further at your convenience.
Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime
C: The Honourable Patty Hajdu, P.C., M.P.; the Honourable Maryam Monsef, P.C., M.P.; the Honourable Marc Miller, P.C., M.P.; the Honourable Bill Blair, P.C., M.P.; and the Honourable David Lametti, P.C., Q.C., M.P.
1. 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.
May 29, 2020
Dear Ms. Illingworth:
Thank you for your correspondence of May 15, 2020, regarding the need for a violence-prevention strategy as part of Canada’s pandemic recovery plan. I agree with you that family and gender-based violence is a serious public health issue, and I share your concern that the COVID-19 pandemic has put many children and families at increased risk. The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) is supporting projects in communities across the country that are exploring new ways of reaching vulnerable individuals, families, and communities in the context of COVID-19 and beyond.
PHAC will continue to build on the investments, projects, and programs that have been and continue to be undertaken to address these public health issues. Under Canada’s Strategy to Prevent and Address Gender-Based Violence, PHAC supports projects that:
- promote healthy relationships and prevent dating violence among teens and youth;
- prevent child maltreatment through parenting support programs; and
- equip service providers such as teachers, coaches, and child advocacy workers to recognize, prevent, and address gender-based violence.
Many of these investments are made in upstream initiatives that promote healthy and safe relationships and reduce risk factors for violence, in addition to those that promote the wellbeing of survivors. For example, PHAC’s Preventing Gender-Based Violence: the Health Perspective initiative invests over $8.5 million per year in projects that promote healthy relationships and prevent dating violence among teens and youth. One of these is the WiseGuyz program, which works with adolescent boys to deconstruct health-harming gender norms and explore healthier, more inclusive forms of masculinity.
To prevent maltreatment of children, PHAC is supporting the delivery and evaluation of parenting support programs that teach healthy parenting and caregiver skills. These programs include the Positive Discipline in Everyday Parenting program, the Triple P (Positive Parenting Program), and the Nobody’s Perfect Parenting Program. PHAC also invests over $115 million per year in maternal-child health programs for vulnerable children and families in communities across Canada to promote positive caregiver-child relationships.
In addition to supporting the prevention of violence with upstream initiatives, PHAC recognizes that those who have experienced family or gender-based violence need support to rebuild and maintain their health. The Supporting the Health of Survivors of Family Violence initiative invests over $6 million per year in projects that deliver and test health-promotion interventions for survivors of intimate partner violence and child maltreatment and in projects that develop training and guidance to equip healthcare and social service professionals to respond safely and effectively to family violence.
As you mentioned, on behalf of the Family Violence Initiative, which includes Women and Gender Equality Canada, Indigenous Services Canada, Justice Canada, and Public Safety, PHAC hosts the Stop Family Violence webpages. These pages reflect a variety of perspectives on family violence and include links to resources for professionals and to services for those who need help dealing with family violence.
During this pandemic, PHAC is working closely with key partners to provide Canadians, including those experiencing family violence, with mental health support. On March 29, 2020, the Prime Minister announced funding of $7.5 million for the Kids Help Phone, which will continue to provide mental health supports for children and youth during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, on April 15, 2020, the Minister of Health launched a new portal dedicated to mental wellness—Wellness Together Canada—that connects Canadians to peer support workers, social workers, psychologists, and other professionals for confidential chat sessions or phone calls. It also offers reliable information and self-assessment tools to help address mental health and substance use issues.
As the COVID-19 pandemic places stress on families and the services they need, we are continuing to support partners to learn about effective approaches, share knowledge, and deliver programs to vulnerable children and families across Canada. I certainly appreciate your suggestions, which we will take under consideration moving forward.
Thank you again for writing and for the important work of the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime.
Dr. Theresa Tam
Chief Public Health Officer