Mr. Speaker, I rise this evening to speak to Bill C‑332, which amends the Criminal Code to create an offence of engaging in controlling or coercive conduct that has a significant impact on the person towards whom the conduct is directed, including a fear of violence, a decline in their physical or mental health or a substantial adverse effect on their day-to-day activities.
The issue of controlling and coercive conduct has been an interest of mine for quite some time. This type of conduct includes physical, sexual and emotional abuse, financial control, and implicit or explicit threats to the partner or ex-partner and to their children, belongings or even pets.
First I will spend a little more time talking about the definition, before moving on to other measures we are currently looking at to address violence. I will conclude by explaining some of our concerns with the bill.
First, I have discussed the topic with my colleague from Rivière‑du‑Nord on a number of occasions. That is how I found out that Megan Stephens, one of the witnesses who participated in the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights' study, had mentioned a minor complication, namely, the fact that there is no universally accepted definition. However, the following are some of the definitions that were given over the course of the study: limiting transportation, denying access to household, controlling food consumption, disconnecting phone lines, breaking cell phones and preventing them from going to work or going to school. Combined together, all those forms of behaviour fall under coercive control.
Abusive partners uses isolation, both physical and psychological, as a means to control their partner's contact with friends and family to emotionally bind the partner to them with the shackles of fear, dependency and coercive tactics of control.
In some cases, the violent partner uses state-sanctioned structures to continue to coerce and control their victim by creating problems related to custody of the children and visitation rights. The justice system is used as a weapon against the victim. According to a study published by Statistics Canada in April 2021, intimate partner violence is a serious problem, and controlling and coercive behaviours are an integral part of that. It is difficult to know the exact scope of this type of violence in Canada, because most cases are not reported to the police.
I want to point out that, in 2021, we were in the midst of the pandemic and victims were at home with their abusers 24-7. The fact that most cases of intimate partner violence are not reported to the police is the biggest impediment to determining how many people are affected, documenting the situation and implementing solutions for the victims of these types of behaviour. It is difficult for them to find a way to talk so someone.
During her testimony in committee, Lisa Smylie, the director general of communications and public affairs for the research, results and delivery branch at the Department for Women and Gender Equality, said that only about 36% of domestic violence incidents and 5% of sexual assaults are reported to the police. Those numbers are very low.
According to the data reported by the country's police forces in 2018, women living in rural areas experience intimate partner violence the most. That is also important to note. What is more, even though coercive and controlling violence may be present in other cases, it is present in 95% of cases of domestic violence as we know it.
Today, it is facilitated by technological advances such as geolocation systems, miniature cameras, smart phones and social media platforms. This makes everything more complex. All these things make it easier for the abusers when they want to continue to inflict harm and reinforce the isolation and control, regardless of where their victim may be. There are also the traditional forms of blackmail on social media, such as identity theft, the repeated sending of threatening messages or the disclosure of personal information or content about the victim that is sexual in nature.
In light of the testimony offered during the study at the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, a rather high number of offences under the Criminal Code can apply to domestic violence. The committee noted a few problems with the enforcement of the current legislation in the cases of victims of coercive or controlling violence.
Victims are wary of and have little confidence in existing mechanisms, police services and the justice system to adequately deal with their trauma. A number of stakeholders noted that victims believe that they will not be taken seriously and they worry about myths. They do not want to be judged by institutions on their credibility when they report their abusers.
Abusers often create financial and other forms of dependence, which limits the actions that victims caught in this vicious circle can take, because they could lose everything, end up on the street or lose custody of their children.
The divide between the criminal justice system, family courts and community organizations needs to be addressed.
When elements of coercive control and other forms of control are present, the criminal and judicial systems too often say that simply telling one's story is not enough to file a complaint.
Lastly, one of the most serious obstacles is the under-enforcement of the law. Multiple charges against violent men are often reduced to a single charge, usually assault. This charge is then often withdrawn in exchange for a peace bond. This is the infamous section 810.
The many femicides and cases of harassment demonstrate the limitations and the weakness of section 810 in cases where violent men pose a high risk of reoffending. They must be treated differently and required to wear an electronic monitoring device.
Second, the bill proposed by the member for Victoria is part of a growing trend among legislators to focus on coercive violence. In recent years, the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights released a report on this issue, which was presented in the House on April 27, 2021. The Standing Committee on the Status of Women also touched on the issue during its study on intimate partner violence and made two motions a priority for the winter of 2024, one of which was my study proposal to look at international best practices in this area and try to learn from them.
I also examined this issue to a lesser degree at the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, when I participated a few times in its study on safe practices in sport and the topic of coercive control came up.
The bill amended the Criminal Code to require judges, in cases of domestic violence, to consider whether it is appropriate for the accused to wear an electronic monitoring device before issuing a release order. In addition, the bill amended the Judges Act to include an obligation to hold continuing education seminars on issues of sexual assault, intimate partner violence and coercive control.
To a lesser extent, Bill C-21, which is currently before the Senate, focuses primarily on gun control and revoking possession when an individual is suspected of, or has engaged in, domestic violence, including coercive and controlling behaviour. This is part of a trend.
Third, Bill C-332 amends the Criminal Code, after section 264, by introducing the concept of controlling or coercive conduct as a criminal offence. The Bloc Québécois supports the objective of Bill C-332. However, we see several major shortcomings that will have to be studied in committee. The scope of the bill should be expanded to allow former spouses or other family members who are not part of the household to testify, in order to break the infamous “one person's word against another's” system. That is good.
What is more, consideration of testimony from neighbours, colleagues or others might also make it easier for victims to come forward. The severity of sentences and the consideration given to children in cases of coercive or controlling violent behaviour are other important factors. Reviewing the grounds on which prosecutors drop several charges and opt for the lowest common denominator shows that this can hinder the administration of justice and undermine public confidence and the victims' confidence in the courts that deal with these issues. We have to study all of that.
There are already 35 sections in the Criminal Code that can apply to domestic or family violence. They just need to be rigorously enforced, and we need to think of ways of ensuring that prosecutors rely on these sections more often in cases of coercive or controlling violence. We also need to address the difficulties associated with collecting evidence and ensuring solid and sound prosecution.
Megan Stephens, Executive Director and General Counsel at Women's Legal Education and Action Fund argued that Bill C‑247 and Bill C‑332 can make the legislation unnecessarily complex because new concepts are being introduced when the Criminal Code already contains very similar offences, particularly on criminal harassment and human trafficking. We will need to take a closer look at that.
The wording of the two NDP members' bills does not address the issue of victims having to relive their trauma. They will have to retell their stories over and over again, just as they do now, which has been roundly criticized. Furthermore, Bill C-332, as currently drafted, does not change how these matters are dealt with by the courts and the authorities.
In closing, if we want to ensure that this never happens again, if we want to put an end to this shadow epidemic, we must take action. We must take action because violence is not always physical, but it always hurts.
As a final point, the Quebec National Assembly has also made this call. I had a discussion with an MNA in Quebec City this summer. She told me that the Quebec National Assembly had done its part, that it had produced the report “Rebuilding Trust” and said that the ball was now in Ottawa's court. She said that the National Assembly does not have jurisdiction to study coercive control in the Criminal Code. I took it upon myself to heed the call from the Quebec National Assembly, a call made by female MNAs who did exceptional, non-partisan work.
Let us try to examine it intelligently in committee.