Evidence of meeting #116 for Status of Women in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was affordable.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Bonnie Brayton  National Executive Director, DisAbled Women's Network Canada, As an Individual
Arlene Hache  Community Advocate, As an Individual
Sonia Sidhu  Brampton South, Lib.
Martina Jileckova  Chief Executive Officer, Horizon Housing Society
Lisa Litz  Director of Stakeholder Relations, Horizon Housing Society
Jeff Morrison  Executive Director, Canadian Housing and Renewal Association
Dominika Krzeminska  Director, Programs and Strategic Initiatives, Canadian Housing and Renewal Association

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Karen Vecchio

Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to the 116th meeting of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women. This meeting, of course, is public.

Today we're going to continue our study on the system of shelters and transition housing serving women and children affected by violence against women and intimate partner violence.

I am pleased to welcome our two panellists to start our first hour. We have Bonnie Brayton, who is the national executive director for DisAbled Women's Network Canada; as well as Arlene Hache, who is a community advocate.

We're going to start with seven-minute comments.

Bonnie, we'll begin with you.

3:30 p.m.

Bonnie Brayton National Executive Director, DisAbled Women's Network Canada, As an Individual

Thank you, Karen, and members of the committee. Good afternoon.

I would like to begin by acknowledging that we are gathered on the territory of the Algonquin people with a reminder to all of us at we are in a time of truth and reconciliation with the first peoples of Canada. I would also like to state that I am a woman of the near-north, having been born in a small village on the border between Quebec and Labrador, and I'm honoured to be sharing this panel today with one of the two northern sisters who were going to be here today. Sadly, our other sister was not able to come.

It's my understanding the panel has also invited Pauktuutit, and I would really encourage you to pursue trying to get them in to testify. I know there was a possibility today. Pauktuutit is the women's organization that can provide the most important guidance and expertise in addressing the complete absence of response and resources currently across Canada for indigenous women and women in remote regions of the north.

I was invited here to speak to the current study on the system of shelters and transition houses in Canada, including federal programs and funding for shelters and transition houses, the gap between the number of beds required and the number of beds provided and possible solutions to that gap. DAWN Canada will be preparing a detailed brief that will provide the committee with research and strong recommendations to support major policy and program reforms, not just for shelters and transition houses but more broadly, because this problem goes beyond beds and bricks and mortar.

Access to shelters and transition houses has been a central preoccupation for organizations serving women with disabilities for as long as they have existed—both the organizations and the shelters. DAWN Canada has conducted several national studies that confirm that the traditional shelter system is still not responding to our needs.

“Access” means different things to different people, and so does “disability”. In regard to disability, for years DAWN Canada has been saying that women are becoming disabled through violence. Finally, in 2018 we have data and research that confirms this terrible reality and the size and the scope of the problem, or at least it begins to.

Brain injury is a complex topic, because it has so many implications. Policy-makers are only now beginning to understand just how prevalent an issue this is. Recent and highly publicized data on the long-term impact of brain injuries, including brain injuries from sports or combat and in first responders, show that frequent blows to the head, sudden trauma, repeated trauma, all contribute to brain injury, to the onset of PTSD, which in and of itself creates physiological changes in the brain. Add to that car accidents, childhood accidents, and today's reality that most women who are showing up at shelters have almost certainly experienced violence more than once, more than twice. That they have been choked or hit or have been threatened or traumatized is a given, so brain injury is a huge issue in the context of violence against women today, including in the transition house and shelter system.

Our shelters and transition houses are already grossly under-resourced. They are often inaccessible. There are not enough of them, and they simply are not able to adequately deal with the population of women they are tasked with supporting. There is more on this in our brief, but I strongly encourage the committee to ensure they hear more from the subject matter experts in this field of research, including Angela Colantonio, who has done extensive research as part of an international working group. Angela has also worked with our colleagues from “WomenatthecentrE”, including Nneka MacGregor, whom I hope this committee will invite to speak as well.

A study they did in Toronto just two years ago revealed that between 35% and 80% of women entering the shelter system today in Canada likely have some type of brain injury. The low end is 35%. Think about that. It's one-third at the low end, and that's early data.

Intellectual disability also places women, including young women and girls, at high risk of repeated violence and abuse. The stigma, and quite simply, the poor screening for milder intellectual disabilities and learning disabilities, especially in girls, is one reason that these same women become hugely overrepresented in the homeless community, in a range of human trafficking contexts and in the prison population.

I would like to ask this committee to read our brief when it comes. Be better informed of the facts, not what you think you know. DAWN Canada uses four pillars: research, education, policy and advocacy. We are not here to do your job for you, just to make sure you are properly informed.

How many of you know that the majority of acts of violent victimization reported for all women in Canada—that's physical assault, sexual assault or robbery—were committed against a woman with a disability? That's census data from 2014, the most recent census data. The highest rate of violent victimization is committed against women with disabilities in this country. How many of you know that the majority of human rights complaints in this country are disability-related? Make it your business.

You are contemplating Bill C-81 in Parliament, an accessibility act for Canada. It's not a law about disability. It is an act for all rights holders in Canada. If you are an indigenous woman with a disability, or an immigrant or refugee woman with a disability, or you are black, live in a remote region or are transgendered, then it is your right to live free from violence and to have access to housing, to employment and to your dignity. We must understand that when we are looking at any of these issues, including access to transition houses and shelters, we must think from an intersectional perspective about where this woman lives—if she lives in the north, if she is indigenous, if she has a disability. All these things must be considered and they must be prioritized.

Shelters and transition houses are a vitally important part of the solution for millions of women and girls with disabilities who need a safe place to be, and for all women and girls in this country. We are falling short of the existing needs, but solutions have to go beyond bricks and mortar and beds, as I said when I began. What about childhood sexual and physical abuse? So many of the women who end up on the streets were once young girls whose trust and spirits were broken long before they found their way to their first shelter. What about trauma-informed counselling, screening for brain injury, and then providing the necessary supports for a full recovery? We don't do that. Why?

This study is important, but let's not oversimplify something that requires a cultural shift. It's time.

Thank you.

3:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Karen Vecchio

Excellent. Thank you very much, Bonnie.

We'll move over to Arlene Hache for seven minutes.

You have the floor.

3:35 p.m.

Arlene Hache Community Advocate, As an Individual

Good afternoon.

You can't imagine how thankful and honoured I am to be here, primarily because, as Bonnie was saying, I experienced childhood and youth violence and abuse. I was a runaway and was homeless. I hitchhiked up to the Northwest Territories, and because the regular sheltering system couldn't respond to my needs and my behaviour, I ended up establishing a shelter for women who are homeless, which I ran for 30 years.

Based on my activism and my work in that field, I received the Order of Canada in 2009, and in 2012, I received Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee Medal. I raise that because it was an incredibly surreal experience knowing that I went from sleeping and hiding in bushes to that event. It felt kind of weird, similar to how I feel here. I hope that what I have to say actually matters and makes a difference because that's what I try to do.

I thought I would begin by talking about the recommendations that I have in case I don't get to those. I have been accused of not having solutions and looking toward the problem.

I have three recommendations. One is that Women's Shelters Canada, which purports to be the voice of women accessing sheltering services and transitional housing services in Canada, remove exclusionary criteria that prohibits their membership from including women-run shelters for women who are homeless. I'll get more into why they have that criteria that doesn't include us because we're homeless women.

The other recommendation that I have is that Women's Shelters Canada and their member agencies across the country change their approach from a sort of continuum of services that requires huge engagement from participants.... Actually, they're renters. People who pay rent have to sign up to participate in programs, whether they're good or not, whether they like them or not. I want Women's Shelters Canada to take a human rights approach to housing, like what you find in the housing first program.

The other things I'm hoping to do are to apply a human rights model to sheltering and transitional housing services for women, support the development of a gender-specific housing-first model, and provide tenants in transitional housing.... In our territory, they pay up to $1,700 a month for rent, and they're not afforded the same protections as any other tenant. That's true across the country. The message out there is that all of these people have problems and we're taking care of those problems, so they don't need protection from us. We need protection from them.

I'm here to tell you that's actually not true. Ontario declared women living in transitional housing as one of the most vulnerable groups of people. Again, I'll try to describe what those are.

Finally, I am recommending that the system develop and implement a culturally sound competency-based staff training curriculum specific to the needs of first nations, Inuit and Métis women, involving women with lived experience of homelessness.

Those are my three recommendations, and I'll move to why I'm asking for those things.

I'm asking for those things because not only am I a woman with lived experience, but I also ran a shelter for 25 years in the north. The Centre for Northern Families was established kind of by accident or by default because the other service provider who had this continuum of service model kicked a woman out because she had a disability. They said that she posed a danger to herself and other people. She was wandering on the street and in trouble, and she came to our resource centre and said, “I've no place to go.” We took her in. Was she a risk to herself? Yeah, she was a risk to herself, but the risk to herself was greater on the street at 40-below, unprotected and vulnerable.

The woman slept on the couch in the centre, and over time many other women came who couldn't access the sheltering and transitional housing services run by, again, this mainstream service that deliberately opted not to follow a human rights model. The women were primarily first nations, Inuit and Métis, and they were struggling with the intergenerational impacts of colonization, racism, the effects of residential schools and the foster care system, and ongoing community and family violence.

We were sort of mentors to each other because we were very similar. Having said that, I position myself as a settler and as not experiencing the same level of racism and discrimination as indigenous women or women of colour. I want to make that clear.

Their needs were complex, and they used substances to cope. We took a really different approach, mostly because I was more of a peer than a worker, and, thank, God, they didn't train the humanity out of me.

We also had a resource centre that was rooted already in principles of inclusion, tolerance and peaceful co-existence, where individuals were valued no matter what, and where people were respected and supported to achieve self-determination. That was the statement of our principles, so that's how we operated. It just made a different environment—an inclusive environment—and we ended up with all the people that the community and service providers considered problem people.

The women stayed on their own during the evening. All the staff were around, but those women took care of themselves. They stayed on their own. They did really well, because they also had great qualities. They're very caring. They have a real spiritual connection. They knew they had responsibilities, so they stayed on their own.

We met with them during the day, and we resolved conflicts through kind of a circle process, which is common in indigenous communities. When the women were not able to act in a respectful way, they were required to leave the premises for very short periods of time. They were never banned, never punished, and they were always able to come back once they could again have some composure.

This low-barrier housing option became in such demand that the Government of Northwest Territories funded the program and gave us a big building. It was funded for 16 beds, but 30 women lived there. Nobody else would serve a lot of the women who lived there, including the hospital, the correctional system, the other shelters, the medical community, counselling and community care. Nobody would go near these women except for us, because we love them actually.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Karen Vecchio

Arlene, we've gone a little over time.

3:45 p.m.

Community Advocate, As an Individual

Arlene Hache

Oh, sorry.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Karen Vecchio

I know you have so much more to share, but we'll be doing our seven minutes of questioning.

We're going to start off with Emmanuella.

You have seven minutes.

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Emmanuella Lambropoulos Liberal Saint-Laurent, QC

I'd like to give you a chance to finish, if you have more you would like to share with us.

3:45 p.m.

Community Advocate, As an Individual

Arlene Hache

Can I? It won't take me long I don't believe.

Let me just say that aside from barriers of racism, discrimination and stigmatization that were largely perpetrated by the sisterhood or by feminist women, it became really challenging to address, because everyone sort of treated those service providers as mom and apple pie.

You hear across Canada, and certainly in the north, that the government is always saying, “These people take care of all the problem people, so let's not be too hard on them and let's not have too high of expectations.” Even across Canada today, there are no standards for shelter services. One of the guys got kicked out of his shelter for not participating in the program when he didn't have addictions. I'll leave that one alone for the moment.

Let me just talk about two things. One is that, in the Northwest Territories recently, a study was done on women living in violence. The study was done, but not by interviewing women or children who were experiencing violence. They interviewed 100% service providers, and nobody who actually had the experience. Of those people, they interviewed 86% non-indigenous people, when 99% of the people in the shelter were indigenous.

With the people they did interview, of the 86%, the majority of those people were new to the north. They didn't even really know where they were and what was going on. They would never have the capacity to understand the northern situation. Now that report is being put out there like it is the solution.

Their solution is to have more money for sheltering services. We're saying that it's permanent housing. We had a fire in Yellowknife that destroyed a transitional house. There were 33 families on the street. All of those families were rehoused by the next day in private market housing. I'm sitting here asking why they weren't in private market housing in the first place.

I find that the lobbying efforts really.... It's not that shelters aren't important, because I ran one. I probably needed the support and couldn't really function in one before that. I'm just saying that we tend to keep women in those housing options forever, and we let the private market housing off the hook.

There are three women I would really like to talk about, but that will take too long, so I'll just leave it.

However, if anyone else wants to talk about those three women and the exemplification of their experience—to hear what I'm saying—that would be great.

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Emmanuella Lambropoulos Liberal Saint-Laurent, QC

Thank you very much.

You said there are restrictions and that certain people are excluded from shelters. Can you give us more details as to which types of women they are and some characteristics. Who are the different types of women who are excluded from these shelters?

3:45 p.m.

Community Advocate, As an Individual

Arlene Hache

There are a lot of reasons why women are excluded. In my experience in the north it's primarily racism and discrimination.

I had a first nations woman who went to the family violence shelter to get an emergency protection order. She wasn't even allowed through the door. They talked to her from the door and said that she couldn't get the emergency protection order because her abuse wasn't serious enough or sustained enough. The very next day her non-indigenous partner went to get an EPO at the same shelter, and he got the EPO. Then she was separated from her five children for the next five years. She's still trying to get that done.

Women with alcohol, even if they smell of alcohol, are not allowed in the shelter. Women who go out three times in a row and don't report back are booted out of the shelter. There are a ton of rules that prevent, especially indigenous women, from accessing or staying in the shelter.

One of the Inuk women lived in transition housing for eight years. She said when she moved out into subsidized housing it was like she got a pass out of jail, after eight years. She felt like she had been incarcerated.

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

Emmanuella Lambropoulos Liberal Saint-Laurent, QC

Thank you very much.

Ms. Brayton, you spoke about the lack of beds. I'd like to know what you would recommend the government to do to help with that lack of beds, so that more of these women are serviced?

3:50 p.m.

National Executive Director, DisAbled Women's Network Canada, As an Individual

Bonnie Brayton

I think one of the things that we do understand is that there is a shortage of beds. Certainly accessible beds and accessible shelters is a huge issue. The complexity for that of course is that a lot of transition houses and shelters are in old buildings.

One of the things that DAWN Canada has thought for a long time would be an interesting approach to take around some of those kinds of issues is to use the enabling accessibility fund directed and coordinated with.... Again, it would be a call for proposals that would line up, for example, with something from Status of Women Canada focused on specific populations.

One of the things that we have seen, for example, is that some funding that gets transferred through provincial funding, which is intended for accessibility, gets used for infrastructure. It's unfortunate, and it's not what I want to see. I think what it speaks to is more than just that the shelters don't care about women with disabilities. It's that there are huge infrastructure and funding issues that they are dealing with on top of the fact that they have a shortage of beds.

In terms of what I think needs to be thought through, it's that for a lot of women a transition house or a shelter isn't the only solution. We need to think a lot more about outreach programs, about programs that support a woman in place, understanding that transportation is an enormous issue, and that for some women the idea of leaving family is simply not an option because of cultural differences and all kinds of practical reasons.

I do think that we need to address the beds issue. I don't think that there's any question that it requires resources and funding for infrastructure, and a coordinated infrastructure that allows for thinking through full accessibility and inclusion, in terms of the approach.

What it really requires is a commitment to providing services and supports to women who are fleeing violence, writ large, as something that has to be a priority in all communities and not leaving it to the idea of just shelters and transition houses, and how many of these can we build. We need to think about prevention and starting to teach children human rights in kindergarten.

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

Emmanuella Lambropoulos Liberal Saint-Laurent, QC

Can you speak a bit more to what you think would benefit women who have disabilities and what specific types of services they would benefit from?

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Karen Vecchio

Please give a very short answer, we're over time.

3:50 p.m.

National Executive Director, DisAbled Women's Network Canada, As an Individual

Bonnie Brayton

Again, DAWN is cross-disability and I put a lot of emphasis in my presentation on brain-injured women. One of the things that I emphasized in my presentation is how important it will be to develop screening at the front end in terms of front-line services, so that if a woman has a brain injury she gets properly screened for it. That's not happening right now.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Karen Vecchio

Excellent, thank you very much.

We're now going to move over to Rachael Harder for her seven minutes.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Rachael Harder Conservative Lethbridge, AB

Thank you to both of you for being here. I really appreciate your time and the expertise that you're able to contribute to the conversation here today.

My first question is going to be directed to Bonnie.

I'm just wondering if you can comment a little further with regard to women who function with a disability and overall access to housing and giving them access to move along the continuum.

I know you're wanting to draw our attention to other programs, and I can appreciate that. This study is quite finite in that it is focused on shelters. We can take note of the other things that you are saying here today anecdotally, but unfortunately they won't make it into the report because of the focus.

I would ask you to comment specifically on the continuum, which is moving from a shelter into perhaps the rental market and then into home ownership, if possible. What does that look like for a woman who functions with a disability? Is that readily available to her? Is that moving along the continuum feasible? What are the challenges or barriers that are in place that would prevent a woman from being able to do that? How can we help?

3:50 p.m.

National Executive Director, DisAbled Women's Network Canada, As an Individual

Bonnie Brayton

I appreciate the question very much and understand that the focus is on shelters and transition houses. I have to say again, that's not a solution for everybody and it's important to understand that it's not going to work across the country to say we're going to focus on beds.

With due respect, I hear you. I just wanted to say that.

In terms of women with disabilities, we're talking about women with the highest rates of poverty and unemployment as well. If it's a physical disability, she's very likely, depending on her situation, dealing with those issues as well. In terms of a woman with a brain injury, like I said, she doesn't necessarily have a diagnosis. She doesn't know she has a brain injury, so she's in a cycle of self-blaming. She may end up with a mental health issue, with alcohol and addictions issues, and some of the same things you've heard about already in terms of the challenges with access to transition houses and shelters.

To put a fine point on it, in terms of the accessibility issue for transition houses and shelters, it's not good. Significant resources need to be put into.... Again, the enabling accessibility fund is one example I cited, simply because it is focused on the built environment and specifically addressing accessibility issues.

It's important to understand that it's about social and economic inclusion. Those are two really key pieces. Putting a woman with a disability into a shelter on the first floor where she's alone, and everybody else is doing activities on the second floor, is another way that social isolation builds up. DAWN Canada has put a great deal of emphasis on the urgent need for peer support and peer support models at the community level, including in transition houses, shelters and women-serving organizations.

I would hesitate to say that there's a home ownership piece at the end of this for most women with disabilities, given that the unemployment rate of women with disabilities in this country is up to 75%.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

Rachael Harder Conservative Lethbridge, AB

Okay. Thank you.

Even that is helpful for us to understand at this committee, and for that data to make its way into the report is very helpful. Thank you, I appreciate that.

Arlene, my next question for you is along the same lines. You come from a unique context, and that is the north. I would be interested in hearing what that unique context is like, specifically to do with housing availability.

I had the opportunity to go to Nunavut in March and look at housing there and its availability, and the repercussions of the fact that very little housing is available. You have multiple generations living together under one roof, sometimes 15 people in one house with three bedrooms. There are health implications for this type of living situation: physical health implications, mental health implications, emotional health implications, etc.

I'd be curious for you to paint a picture with regard to your context.

3:55 p.m.

Community Advocate, As an Individual

Arlene Hache

You've sort of painted the impact of it, but let me just say this. Not only is there no housing, all of the housing—all of it—is controlled by the government. They have a sort of across-the-board policy. If you owe 10 cents to the housing corporation, you will never get housing in the Northwest Territories. You're not eligible for any housing.

I don't know if you are all aware that it was a woman in a small community in Northwest Territories who won the first United Nations judgment against Canada under CEDAW for the theft of her house—the illegal theft of her house by the government, colluding with her partner.

The fact that there is no optional housing creates a huge barrier. We're really looking at small homes, those small home options, and home ownership for women in the communities. Some disabled women have taken on home ownership responsibilities with supported living and that sort of thing.

We believe there are solutions. If we can go to more of a co-op model, we think women will survive it better.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

Rachael Harder Conservative Lethbridge, AB

Sorry, can you expand that briefly? What do you mean by a co-op model?

3:55 p.m.

Community Advocate, As an Individual

Arlene Hache

It's like rent to own, where the women own the housing in the end. I just don't want to say how horrific it is that we have all these families living together, but the violence is through the roof in part because of that. If we don't address it, that will be a huge challenge. As you know, the government is giving only a very minimal amount that will never catch up to the homelessness challenges in the north.

They have those freight things. We're looking at the freight things and unique alternatives for that.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

Rachael Harder Conservative Lethbridge, AB

Yes. That's really fascinating.

My last question here is, very briefly, when you say a “co-op model”, are you familiar with social bonds?

4 p.m.

Community Advocate, As an Individual