Domestic violence groups call for national action plan as cases rise during pandemic

Startling new data suggests a sharp rise in gender-based violence across Canada during the pandemic. Faiza Amin explains why advocates are raising red flags and are once again calling on Ottawa for a national action plan.

By Faiza Amin

In more ways than one, the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the many challenges our country and communities face. One of the biggest issues that has been amplified during the spread of virus, has been domestic or intimate partner violence.

While Canadians in some cities have been urged to stay home during the pandemic, home can be a high-risk environment for victims of gender-based violence.

Andrea Gunraj of the Canadian Women’s Foundation says they’ve seen the red flags and are hearing conflicting reports from service providers across the country. In the beginning of the pandemic service providers across the country were seeing a spike in the calls they were getting, and then there were other organizations that said there was a sudden silence.

“It might have shown that maybe violence is going up in families and in home situations but people aren’t able to actually reach out for help,” Gunraj said. “They’re too afraid, they’re trapped with their abuser, they feel watched all the time, that’s a really common dynamic in gender-based violence and domestic violence. For us, that was an early indication that something is happening behind closed doors.”

Due to the pandemic, victims are sometimes limited in how they can access services, so groups and organizations are having to change their approach to outreach. One of the biggest challenges for service providers has been fundraising.

With the pandemic limiting gatherings, these groups are no longer able to organize events to raise money.

“We are worried that this wave of increased possible abuse risks are going to increase as well,” Gunraj said. “Gender-based violence was a problem before the pandemic, the baseline was bad. Every six days, a woman was killed, on average, in Canada by her intimate partner.”

Advocates like the Canadian Women’s Foundation have been calling on the federal government to develop a National Action Plan on Gender-Based Violence. In the recent throne speech, the government said it will continue to advance the plan and accelerate investments in shelters and transition housing.

The government has yet to confirm when a plan will be released. In a statement to Citynews, a representative for the Office of the Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Rural Economic Development said “The National Action Plan will build on Canada’s federal strategy to prevent and address GBV, It’s Time: Canada’s Strategy to Prevent and Address Gender-Based Violence. To date, through this strategy, the government has invested over $200M and over $40 million per year ongoing to advance efforts to prevent GBV, support survivors and their families, and promote responsive legal and justice systems. The National Action Plan expected to be released in the 2021-22 fiscal year.”

The Canadian Women’s Foundation has started a petition calling on MPs to support the release of this action plan.

“We really think that this plan needs to happen now, it needs to happen properly,” Gunraj said. “Advocates are saying they need to have input from lots of different communities, diverse communities, from women themselves, women advocates, from gender-diverse people. Particularly Indigenous women having a plan that’s separate for Indigenous communities to really recognize what’s unique and needs to happen in those communities.”

Police Data

In September, Statistics Canada reported that during the first four months of the pandemic, 17 police services representing 59 per cent of the Canadian population, reported a 12 per cent increase in domestic disturbances.

Some of the biggest police forces in the GTA are also seeing a rise in domestic violence calls, including in Toronto, where already there have been 16,070 occurrences, nearly 300 more than in 2019.

Peel Region reports seeing a slight fluctuation from month to month. While in Durham, there’s been a six per cent increase in calls so far this year.

So far this year, police forces in these regions have seen a combined over 40,779 occurrences of family and intimate partner violence.

Even more troubling, the Canadian Women’s Foundation say there’s data that shows only eight to ten per cent of these cases get reported to authorities, while 90 per cent go unreported.

“Police numbers really reflect just a small slice of this crime and how it actually happens,” Gunraj said. “Most people don’t report this to authorities, that could be police or it could be hospitals. Many times people actually don’t have opportunities to report or they don’t feel comfortable reporting, they think it might create more issues and risk for them.”

Earlier this year, Peel Regional Police Service launched a pilot project aimed at addressing family and intimate partner violence calls, at a time where the region was some of the highest rates of domestic related homicides. The Police Chief notes that intimate partner family violence made up 40 per cent of last year’s homicides in the region.

Instead of uniformed police officers following up on reports of domestic violence, a dedicated team of investigators would respond to these calls, from beginning to end. Months later, Chief Nishan Duraiappah, is expanding the program and reassigning 50 police officers in the region dedicated to a newly created unit focused on intimate partner and family violence unit.

Chief Duraiappah calls this a wrap-around service, where police officers will connect victims and survivors to supports available in the region.

“This is not going to be us alone, it’s going to be with multi-sector agencies who are going to be off-site outside a police faciality, embedded in the community,” he said. “We are looking at embedding crisis workers, potentially in our 911 communication center.”

Gunraj says all Canadians have a role to play in addressing these types of violence, and she suggests people get familiar with what organizations are available in their communities. She also advises letting your friends, neighbours, and colleagues know you are there for them without judgement.

“It happens, it happens too much, we all know somebody that’s gone through this violence,” Gunraj said.

If you or anyone you know needs help, the following services are available.

Assaulted Women’s Helpline Crisis Line:

  • TOLL-FREE: 1-866-863-0511
  • TOLL FREE TTY: 1-8666-863-7868
  • #SAFE (#7233) on your Bell, Rogers, Fido or Telus Mobile


Senior Safety Line:

    • TOLL-FREE: 1-866-299-1011


Shelter Safe:

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