November is Family Violence Prevention Month in Alberta, marking a month where various communities across the province will organize events and activities to help raise awareness and seek to prevent family violence. According to the provincial government, Alberta has the third-highest rate of self-reported spousal violence in Canada. Family violence has recently become a much larger focus in family disputes, particularly those involving children. As we wrote about in March of this year, the federal Divorce Act was amended to specifically include family violence as a consideration in any decision involving the best interests of a child. Under those amendments, family violence was defined as behaviour including the following:
However, there is a push to expand the definition of family, or domestic abuse, by including behaviour which, until now, has been considered to be a precursor to violent acts. The notion of controlling or coercive behaviour has long been associated with domestic abusers, however, it has often been viewed as a warning sign which may indicate abuse could follow. In recent months, however, domestic violence groups have been advocating to have this type of behaviour included as part of the definition of family violence. This would empower victims to seek meaningful help, such as an emergency protection order or restraining order, sooner. It could also potentially create more awareness around the idea that controlling behaviour is a violent act in and of itself, which may prompt those who are subjected to it regularly to seek help.
The definition of coercive control, as provided by Impact, a collective with the aim of eradicating domestic and sexual violence, is “a continuing act or a pattern of acts of assaults, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish or frighten”. It has also been defined as “behaviour by a current or former partner or family member that causes the victim to fear they will be physically harmed, causes their mental health to decline or causes the victim such alarm or distress that there is a substantial adverse effect on their day-to-day activities, such as work, school or their ability to take care of children”.
The term is not new or unique to Canada. It has been adopted in other countries, such as the United Kingdom, where it has been included in the criminal code. In Canada, a similar effort is underway. The House of Commons justice committee has tabled a report recommending a national task force look into the potential of adding “coercive control” to Canada’s Criminal Code, making it a crime across the country.
A major reason behind the push to include controlling behaviour in the criminal definition of domestic violence is to allow victims to obtain help from law enforcement before violence becomes physically dangerous. Randall Garrison, the MP who introduced the private member’s bill to expand the criminal definition of family violence, said the link between the behaviours is very common, yet police are not empowered to take action until a situation reaches the criminal level:
“Overt physical violence, and indeed femicide, is almost always preceded by coercive, controlling behaviour. The current structure of the Criminal Code simply makes the police walk away, even when they know that situations are potentially very dangerous. They don’t have the authority to intervene. So it creates that tool for earlier intervention.”
One police officer with the Regional Domestic Violence Unit in Victoria even went so far as to say that the inability of law enforcement to intervene can embolden abusers and encourage them to continue their abusive pattern of behaviour.
If coercive control is added to the Criminal Code, it could help those who are victimized by overtly controlling behaviour, including children, to find assistance to leave their situation sooner before the situation escalates and becomes potentially dangerous.
People who have divorced but must stay in contact, for example, to co-parent their children, can continue to be impacted by coercive and controlling behaviour. One Edmonton woman described a situation in which her former spouse continued his controlling behaviour post-divorce, and she was unable to get the help she needed because she and her ex shared access to their son.
Emily noted that her former spouse would show up at their son’s daycare on her days to pick him up, send her numerous texts and emails, and he even changed the settings on her phone, allowing him to track her location. She was repeatedly told that there was nothing she could do, making her feel vulnerable and helpless:
“I started having panic attacks. I was scared to leave my house at some points because of that showing up at different points like I was always worried … what’s going to happen next?”
Albertans can help raise awareness and learn more about family violence throughout November by attending several events. In addition, people are encouraged to share their stories and discuss why awareness matters to them on social media, using the hashtags #GoPurpleAB and #WhereToTurn.
There are several in-person and online events and learning sessions being held throughout the month, which you can learn more about here.
If you are looking to initiate a separation or divorce due to a fear of violence, the family law lawyers at Mincher Koeman in Calgary can assist you. We will work with you to help ensure you remain safe throughout your family dispute and will help you find the best path forward to resolve your matter quickly and with your best interests in mind. Contact our office for an urgent consultation by calling us at 403-910-3000 or reaching out online.
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