New Democratic MP Laurel Collins says she started paying close attention to the issue of coercive control when her sister showed up at her door crying.
The Victorian MP claims her sister’s partner had taken her keys, bank cards and mobile phone and tried to prevent her from leaving.
“Fortunately, she had another set of keys,” Collins told reporters.
“That was the first time I saw it, but over the next few years, it happened again and again and again.”
Collins shared part of her sister’s story during a Nov. 9 press conference in Parliament, when she asked MPs to support her private member’s bill that seeks to criminalize a pattern of behavior known as coercive control.
During a debate on the bill that night, the ruling Liberals and opposition Conservatives offered their support, although some expressed concerns about how it would be implemented.
Experts have defined coercive control as a set of behaviors that an abuser uses to cause fear and isolate the victim from their 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 criminalize it in cases where it is “expected to have a significant impact on that person.”
That could include making someone fear that violence may be used against them, forcing them to change their communication with others, or causing them to miss work or school.
Training is needed for judges and police
While the term may be new, Conservative MP Michelle Ferreri said in the House that most know what it is like.
One of her friends had an experience in which she and her children were “hostages in their own home,” Ferreri told parliamentarians.
“I remember talking to her on the phone many times and she said, ‘Well, he’s not hitting me, so it’s not that bad,'” he recalled.
“I told him, ‘Okay, but you don’t have money in your bank, you can’t go anywhere you want, you don’t have your own phone, and you’re afraid to leave the house.’ That’s abuse.”
Lisa Hepfner, Parliamentary Women’s Sectarian and Gender Equality Minister Marci Ien, told the House on behalf of the Liberal government that she is proud to support the bill.
Tomorrow in Ottawa11:15The push for a coercive control offense in Canada.
But he suggested it needed to be looked at carefully, considering issues in other jurisdictions such as England and Scotland, where such an offense exists.
“Gathering evidence in these cases is a major challenge for police and prosecutors,” he said.
Collins acknowledged that training would be needed for judges, prosecutors and other members of the judicial system.
The NDP bill provides for the possibility that ex-partners could engage in coercive behavior and would allow charges to be filed against abusers within two years of the end of the relationship.
Collins said earlier in the day that this reflects evidence showing that the end of a relationship is when victims of domestic violence face the greatest risk of danger.
Second attempt to pass new laws
This is the second time in recent years that the federal NDP has introduced such legislation.
British Columbia MP Randall Garrison introduced his own bill on the issue two years ago. Collins said his legislation is based on his work.
That initial effort came as shelters and frontline workers reported an increase in domestic violence as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, as public health agencies imposed widespread lockdowns to try to prevent the spread of the virus.
In April 2021, a parliamentary committee delved into the issue.
Its final report said it heard that existing laws in Canada do not adequately capture the controlling behavior that experts say often precedes more serious acts of physical violence.
Among its recommendations was that Ottawa review existing criminal law and consider drafting legislation aimed at coercive control. Hepfner said Thursday that justice officials were already working on that with the provinces.
The Canadian Association of Police Chiefs says it has repeatedly advocated for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to create new offenses specifically aimed at coercive control.
In a statement Thursday, the association said current laws used to prosecute domestic violence cases deal with physical altercations and specific incidents, and do not allow police to intervene in cases where “clearly coercive behavior” is present.
Collins said advocates supporting women facing domestic violence have called such legislation a “crucial” step.
44% of women have suffered abuse from their partner.
Federal statistics from 2018 show that 44 percent of women who have been in a relationship reported experiencing some type of abuse from their partner.
Canada already has a provision in the Divorce Act that says a court must take into account family violence, including “coercive and controlling behaviour”, when it comes to issuing contact orders with children.
Justice Minister Arif Virani expressed his willingness to criminalize coercive control in a letter he wrote to Ontario’s chief coroner in August following an investigation into the 2015 murders of three women in the Renfrew County area.
That September, Carol Culleton, Nathalie Warmerdam and Anastasia Kuzyk were killed by Basil Borutski, who had a criminal record of violence against women.
The final report from the Mass Casualties Commission, which investigated the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia that left 22 dead, also recommended that more steps be taken to address coercive control.
He heard at least one domestic violence expert say the shooter subjected his spouse to control and intimidation tactics for years before provoking a fatal attack in April 2020.