After seeing impact on family, Victoria MP wants to criminalize coercive control

New Democrat MP Laurel Collins says she began paying close attention to the issue of coercive control when her sister showed up at her door in tears.

The member of Parliament from Victoria says her sister’s partner had taken away her keys, bank cards and cellphone, and tried preventing her from leaving.

“Luckily, she had another set of keys,” Collins told reporters.

“Now, that was the first time I saw it, but over the next few years, it happened again and again and again.”

Collins shared some of her sister’s story during a Nov. 9 press conference on Parliament Hill as she called on MPs to support her private member’s bill seeking to criminalize a pattern of behaviour known as coercive control.

During a debate about the bill that evening, the governing Liberals and Opposition Conservatives had both offered it their backing — though some raised concerns about how it would be implemented.

Experts have defined coercive control as a set of behaviours an abuser uses to cause fear and isolate a victim from friends and family. Examples include controlling someone’s access to money or monitoring and restricting their movements.

Collins’ bill does not define what controlling or coercive conduct is, but seeks to amend the Criminal Code to make it an offence in cases where it is “expected to have a significant impact on that person.”

That could include making someone fear that violence could be used against them, forcing them to change their communication with others or causing them to be absent from work or school.

Training needed for judges, police

While the term may be new, Conservative MP Michelle Ferreri said in the House that most know what it looks like.

One of her friends had an experience in which she and her kids were “hostages in their own home,” Ferreri told MPs.

“I remember being on the phone with her many times, and she said, ‘Well, he’s not hitting me, so it’s not that bad,”’ she recalled.

“I said, ‘OK, but you don’t have any money in your bank, you’re not allowed to go where you want to go, you don’t have your own phone and you’re afraid to leave your house. That’s abuse.”’

Lisa Hepfner, who serves as the parliamentary sectary for Women and Gender Equality Minister Marci Ien, told the House on behalf of the Liberal government that she is proud to support the bill.

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But she suggested it needed to be looked at carefully, considering issues in other jurisdictions such as England and Scotland where such an offence exists.

“Gathering evidence in these cases is a significant challenge for police and prosecutors,” she said.

Collins acknowledged that training would need to happen for judges, prosecutors and others in the justice system.

The NDP bill provides for the possibility that ex-partners can engage in coercive behaviours, and would allow charges to be brought against abusers in the two years following the end of a relationship.

Collins said earlier in the day that this reflects evidence that shows the end of a relationship is when victims of domestic violence face the greatest risk of danger.

Second attempt at passing new laws

This is the second time in recent years that the federal NDP has brought forward such legislation.

Randall Garrison, a British Columbia MP, brought forward his own bill on the matter two years ago. Collins said her legislation builds on his work.

That initial effort came as shelters and front-line workers reported an uptick in domestic abuse as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, when public-health bodies imposed widespread lockdowns to try and prevent the virus from spreading.

In April 2021, a parliamentary committee conducted a deep dive into the issue.

Its final report said it heard Canada’s existing laws do not adequately capture the controlling behaviour that experts say often precedes more-serious acts of physical violence.

Among its recommendations was for Ottawa to review existing criminal law and consider drafting legislation directed at coercive control. Hepfner said Thursday that justice officials were already working on that with provinces.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police says it has repeatedly advocated for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to create new offences specifically targeted at coercive control.

In a statement on Thursday, the association said current laws used to prosecute cases of domestic violence deal with physical altercations and specific incidents, and do not allow police to intervene in cases where “clearly coercive behaviour” is present.

Collins said advocates who support women dealing with domestic violence have called such legislation a “crucial” step.

44% of women have experienced abuse from partner

Federal statistics from 2018 show that 44 per cent of women who have been in relationships reported experiencing some form of abuse from a partner.

Canada already has a provision under the Divorce Act that says a court should factor in family violence, including “coercive and controlling behaviour,” when it comes to issuing contact orders around children.

Justice Minister Arif Virani expressed an openness to criminalizing coercive control in a letter he penned in August to Ontario’s chief coroner, following an inquest into the 2015 slaying of three women in the Renfrew County area.

That September, Carol Culleton, Nathalie Warmerdam and Anastasia Kuzyk all died at the hands of Basil Borutski, who had a criminal history of violence against women.

The final report from the Mass Casualty Commission, which probed the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting that left 22 people dead, also recommended that more action be taken to deal with coercive control.

It heard from at least one domestic violence expert who said the shooter subjected his spouse to controlling and intimidating tactics for years before he went on a deadly rampage in April 2020.

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