Speech to Motion M 504 Concerning Violence Against Women

Mr. Speaker, I am so pleased to rise today to speak to Motion No. 504, concerning violence against women.

The motion asks:

That the Standing Committee on the Status of Women be instructed to undertake a study on the subject of best practices in education and social programs in Canada that prevent violence against women, and report its findings to the House within one year of the study's initiation.

I appreciate the work of my colleague from Sault Ste. Marie in bringing this important matter before the House. I would also like to take a moment to commend my brilliant colleague from Churchill, who has also been the official opposition critic on the status of women, for her passionate speech today and for her tireless and excellent work on promoting women's equality and rights and putting an end to violence against women.

Although the rates of violent crime in general have been dropping for 40 years, the rates of sexual assault and domestic violence have not changed. Canada can and must do more to address the serious crime of violence against women and the need for the security that women deserve in our communities.

We continue to see high prevalence rates of violence against women, along with low police reporting rates. We believe that to obtain real results for victims, we should instead be addressing the underlying reasons that prevent victims from reporting assault and abuse in the first place.

Motion No. 504 is well-intentioned, but, in our view, it does not go far enough. Violence against women, as I will discuss in a moment, is a huge problem in Canada. That was acknowledged very powerfully by the member for Sault Ste. Marie from the perspective of his constituents, and I would like to do the same for mine.

We need a comprehensive and co-operative solution, so while this motion is well-intentioned, we believe it is too narrow. Gender inequality is the root cause of violence against women, so I was concerned to learn that Conservatives have taken the word out of the very mandate of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women.

Here are some sobering statistics. Half of all women in Canada have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16. Women are 11 times more likely than men to be the target of sexual offences, and three times more likely to be experiencing criminal harassment.

A full two-thirds of all Canadians, 67%, say that they personally know at least one woman who has been sexually or physically assaulted. That is the statistic that I found to be the most shocking.

Indigenous women are seven times more likely to be murdered than non-indigenous women. As of 2010, there are 1,200 known cases of missing or murdered indigenous women in Canada. That is absolutely staggering.

Both Amnesty International and the United Nations itself have called upon the Canadian government to take action on this issue, without success. According to the Native Women's Association of Canada:

...if this figure were applied proportionately to the rest of the female population there would be over 18,000 missing Canadian women and girls.

On any given day in our country, more than 3,300 women, along with about 3,000 of their children, are forced to sleep in an emergency shelter to escape domestic violence. Every night, about 200 of those women are turned away because the shelters are full. Each year, over 40,000 arrests result from domestic violence. That is about 12% of all violent crime in Canada, but since only about 22% of all incidents are reported to the police, that figure is obviously much higher.

Canada has clear domestic and international obligations to address violence against women, including the UN call for a national action plan to end violence against women to be in place in all countries by 2015. I was shocked to learn from the speech given by my colleague from Churchill that Canada does not have such a plan, in contrast to many of our partners around the world that do. That is really disturbing.

We must look at best practices from around the world, not just within Canada. Not doing so prevents us from learning the best practices employed elsewhere. Other countries have had success addressing violence against women. Why should we not take advantage of that expertise? In the absence of a national action plan responsive to violence against women, our education and programs are fragmented and inconsistent. We must do better.

It has to be noted that multi-sectoral cuts by the Conservative government have been devastating to the Status of Women agency. Not only that, the whole violence against women sector has been left crippled by financial insecurity and lack of capacity to effectively respond to women's needs.

The Conservative minister who changed the women's program mandate said, rather unbelievably:

We don't need to separate the men from the women in this country. This government as a whole is responsible to develop policies and programs that address the needs of both men and women.

It is unbelievable.

The cuts that the Conservatives have made affect organizations advocating for women's issues, such as antidote, the non-profit organization in my community of Victoria that works for the social and psychological well-being of racialized girls and women. The organization's executive director called the changes shocking and asked, “How do you create change when you can't advocate for change?”

Other women's groups, such as the Victoria Status of Women Action Group, SWAG, were forced to close completely, thanks to the government's cuts.

Obviously a national action plan to address violence against women is being called for by the vast majority of service providers and advocacy groups across the country.

Recently, I had the opportunity to hold consultations with great organizations doing excellent work in my community of Victoria. They also called upon us to get a national action plan in place.

In April, I had the great honour of hosting a public forum in Victoria on equality and ending violence against women. I was joined by the official opposition critic for the Status of Women, the member for Churchill. We also had representatives from the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre, the Bridges for Women Society, the BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, and many others. An engaged crowd of more than 150 people also enjoyed incredibly powerful performances by two local poets, Jeremy Loveday and Morgan Purvis. The evening was emotional, inspiring, but more than anything else, it was a siren call for action.

We should seize the opportunity to study the possibility of creating a comprehensive national action plan that would make a tangible difference in women's lives.

We do not need to reinvent the wheel. The Canadian Network of Women's Shelters and Transition Houses recently reported that a high-level review of policies, legislation, research, reports, action plans, and statistical data from across Canada, relevant to the development of national violence against women legislation, is available.

The network is currently working with 30 partners to create a template for a comprehensive national action plan. We should listen to civil society on this issue and build upon the work they have done. They are two steps ahead of us. Let us get on with it. Canada is doing poorly compared with other OECD countries in preventing and treating sexual assault and intimate partner violence.

In conclusion, New Democrats will support the motion, but if the member is serious about addressing violence against women, we would hope that he would accept going further.

We are calling for stronger and immediate action to deal with the serious issue of violence against women, and particularly violence against aboriginal women in our country.

We are calling upon the government to immediately pick up the motion tabled by the member for Churchill, that is, Motion No. 444, and consult with civil society in order to create a multi-sectoral, comprehensive national action plan to address violence against women, which would include prevention and education strategies. I am pleased to see today that policies would be included.

We want the government to immediately commit to funding legal aid, shelters, transition houses, social housing, health services, and advocacy and research, in order to prevent and treat violence against all women in Canada, including, in particular, indigenous women, recent immigrants, and refugees.

The important work of violence against women service providers and advocacy organizations in Canada must be fully supported, so the incredible organizations like the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre, antidote, Bridges for Women Society, and the aboriginal friendship centres can continue their important work.

In order to obtain real results, we must address the underlying systemic reasons women face violence in the first place. We must address women's equality from a holistic perspective to end this violence and take action now.