Justice minister says Canada remains ‘open’ to criminalizing coercive control

By Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

The federal government remains open to criminalizing a pattern of behaviour known as coercive control, Canada’s justice minister says in a new letter, calling gender-based violence an “epidemic” that must be stopped.

The recent letter from Arif Virani to Ontario’s chief coroner outlined the Liberal government’s response to a series of recommendations that came from an inquest into the 2015 slayings of three women in the rural Renfrew County area, about 180 kilometres west of Ottawa.

Carol Culleton, Nathalie Warmerdam and Anastasia Kuzyk were all murdered that September by Basil Borutski, who had a criminal history of violence against women.

Borutski, who had prior, separate relationships with all three of his victims, had been released from prison the year before the murders.

Last summer, a coroner’s inquest into the deaths heard that at least one of the women had been trying to learn of his whereabouts once he was released, and that Borutski had been deemed a high-risk offender while in custody.

The inquest resulted in more than 80 recommendations directed at different levels of government in the hopes of preventing similar homicides.

One called on Ottawa to create a new offence in the Criminal Code that targets coercive control, which experts on intimate partner violence say is the controlling behaviour that an abuser exerts over someone.

Virani’s letter points to a commitment the government made in response to a 2021 report from a parliamentary committee that explored the possibility of criminalizing controlling behaviour, saying the Liberals are still “open” to creating a new offence.

“Gender-based violence … including intimate-partner violence … is unacceptable and has no place in our country,” he wrote in a letter dated Monday.

“The government of Canada is committed to ending the (gender-based violence) epidemic in all its forms, and is working to address any gaps in the Criminal Code to ensure a robust justice system response.”

Virani pointed to the government’s existing commitment to monitor how making coercive control a criminal offence is working in other jurisdictions, such as Scotland.

Experts in Canada and around the world define coercive control as set of behaviours ranging from harassment and intimidation to isolating someone from family and social supports to keep them under the abuser’s control.

Many believe such tactics can escalate to physical violence, with researchers and police having long accepted there are often early warning signs in cases of intimate partner violence.

And many high-profile cases, including homicides and murder-suicides, have highlighted that many people sensed victims were in danger before they were killed.

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.

An additional recommendation out of last summer’s inquest was for the federal government to work to find alternative ways for domestic violence complainants to testify in court.

Another called on Ottawa to explore adding the term “femicide” to the Criminal Code.

“I note that, while there is no single agreed-upon definition of ‘femicide’ in the national or international context, the term is widely understood to refer to the killing of women, primarily by men, because of their gender,” Virani wrote in his letter.

“I agree with the United Nations and the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability when they note that femicide is the most extreme form of violence and discrimination against women and girls.”

Conservative MP Rob Moore, the party’s justice critic, criticized the Liberal government’s record on crime, saying “easy bail” for repeat violent offenders is putting women at heightened risk of violence.

“Common Sense Conservatives support measures to prevent intimate partner violence and violence against women,” Moore said in a statement.

“That includes ending (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau’s catch and release policies and keeping dangerous repeat violent offenders where they belong – behind bars.”

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