Ontario won’t declare intimate partner violence an epidemic following inquest

Ontario is rejecting calls from a coroner's inquest into the deaths of three women at the hands of their former partner to formally declare intimate partner violence an epidemic. People take part in a vigil at the Women's Monument in Petawawa, Ont., on June 28, 2022, following the jury's release of recommendations in the inquest into the 2015 deaths of Nathalie Warmerdam, Carol Culleton and Anastasia Kuzyk. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick. skp

Ontario has rejected calls from an inquest into the deaths of three women at the hands of their former partner to formally declare intimate partner violence an epidemic.

The jury at a coroner’s inquest into the 2015 deaths of Nathalie Warmerdam, Carol Culleton and Anastasia Kuzyk in Renfrew County made that recommendation one year ago Wednesday, along with 85 others aimed at preventing similar tragedies.

Most of the recommendations were directed at the provincial government, and it has now responded to all of them, including rejections of the jury’s top suggestions such as the declaration of an epidemic.

“Intimate partner violence (IPV) would not be considered an epidemic as it is not an infectious or communicable disease,” the government wrote in its responses.

“Ministries appreciate the intent of the recommendation and acknowledge that IPV is a serious issue. We continue to work to address IPV using a concerted, whole-of-government approach.”

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It’s a response that doesn’t cut it with Kirsten Mercer, a lawyer who represented End Violence Against Women Renfrew County at the inquest.

“With the greatest of respect, I mean, I can look up epidemic in the dictionary too,” she said.

“I think part of the reason it is important is because using that public health frame to understand what is happening is another way of telling survivors that what’s happening to them is not their fault. It’s not a character flaw on their part. It is a sociological phenomenon. It is a society-wide problem.”

More than 30 municipalities across the province have made their own declarations of intimate partner violence as an epidemic, she noted. The list includes Peel Region, Halton Region, Ottawa and Renfrew County.

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“In some senses, yeah, maybe it is a symbol, but it’s an important one, and sometimes that’s government’s role — a symbol and a signal and a commitment of the scope of the problem and the kind of approach that we need in order to tackle and dismantle it,” Mercer said.

Ontario is also declining to establish an intimate partner violence commission and create the role of a survivor advocate, as recommended by the inquest jury, because it would duplicate existing systems.

However, the government is working on or has accepted many of the rest of the recommendations, including one to explore ways to allow people to find out if their partner has a history of intimate partner violence, similar to Clare’s Law in the United Kingdom.

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Several ministries have been working for the past several months to study the best approach, including whether a new law is required or if the province could amend existing policy tools, the province said in its response to the recommendations.

Other work in progress includes better information sharing between police services, courts and the rest of the justice system; reviewing training for Crown attorneys, victim/witness program staff, police and correctional staff; and increasing funding and effectiveness of the Partner Assault Response program, which aims to give perpetrators tools to resolve conflict without violence.

The government issued “part one” of its response in February that discussed progress made on a little more than half of the recommendations, including looking at amending the Family Law Act to give courts the authority to order counselling in restraining orders involving intimate partner violence and hosting a conference on trauma-informed approaches for sexual violence investigations.

Some of the work the government said it is already doing includes considering future updates to the high school curriculum to add information on recognizing healthy and abusive relationships and violence prevention, looking at improvements to training on intimate partner violence within the justice system, and examining police officer training on domestic assault risk assessments.

The inquest jury also made several recommendations to the federal government, but a response from Ottawa was not among those received so far by the coroner’s office. Those recommendations included exploring the addition of the term femicide to the Criminal Code.

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Basil Borutski was convicted of killing the three women during an hour-long rampage in the Ottawa Valley in 2015.

According to Statistics Canada, 90 homicide victims were killed in 2021 by an intimate partner — three-quarters of them women and girls — up from 84 victims in 2020 and 77 victims in 2019.

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