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Potential Creation of a Coercive Control Offence: Vancouver Rape Relief’s Submission to Justice Canada

By Laurel McBride and Dani Plumari
October 25, 2023

Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter (VRRWS) operates Canada’s oldest Rape Crisis Centre and a transition house for women and their children, opening in 1973. We are active in responding to women who have experienced any form of sexist attack on the continuum of male violence, some of which are: rape, battery, incest, prostitution, and sexual harassment. The collective is diverse in terms of race, age and class backgrounds. The majority of VRRWS members are women who have experienced some form of male violence in their lives. VRRWS’s knowledge and authority on male violence against women is derived from responding to 1,200 women annually who call for assistance.

Our position

VRRWS is generally supportive of adding a coercive control offence to the Criminal Code because of its potential to communicate to the public that this type of behaviour is abhorrent and is criminal in nature, that victims are not expected to put up with it and that they are not alone, as many women have also been subjected to this type of abuse.

While VRRWS supports the addition of a coercive control offence, we urge Justice Canada to proceed with a commitment to additional, complementary reforms required to achieve a criminal justice system that is responsive to the pervasiveness and severity of male violence against women. The present system leaves women and children under protected with perpetrators not held to account and as a result, victims often refrain from reporting to police.

Experiences of Coercive Control

Coercive control is often used by men against women in an intimate partner context and affects women’s ability to leave abusive men. These forms of controlling behaviours have a significant and long-lasting impact on the women who are victims to it and must be treated with the utmost seriousness. Further, coercive and controlling behaviours are often the precursor to other forms of abuse including physical and sexual violence. 

The form that coercive control may take varies greatly and is often specific to the individuals in that relationship. However, there are many common tactics that men use to control women in a relationship. 

We hear from women that their partners will become angry if dinner was not prepared at the time that he expected it to be ready. For women who work outside of the home and earn the sole income in the family, their male partner will want to know exactly what time she is finished at work and expect her to arrive home at a certain time and become angry if she is delayed and be subject to an interrogation and accusations once she arrives home. 

Other abusive men prohibit women from holding a job at all. He will control the household money, including her income assistance cheque and only allow her to buy particular things. If she needs to buy other things such as food or diapers for the baby, she will need to ask permission from him.

We routinely hear of situations where men terrorise women by threatening to take full custody of their kids and report her as an unfit mother if she leaves him.

Abusive men will call their partners degrading and sexist names such as “slut” and “whore.” They tell women that they are worthless and that they “should kill themselves.” As well, abusive men will tell women that if she leaves him, he will kill himself and this keeps her in the relationship for fear of him ending his life.

Abusive men will coerce women to have sex with them in many different ways. They may say they will cheat on her if she does not have sex with him. We hear from women who say he has kept her from going to sleep by not allowing the lights to be turned off or arguing with her for hours. He may threaten to expose her as being “frigid” to their friends or even threaten to wake their children up to watch an attack. Women comply with his demands out of fear, exhaustion, and protectiveness of their kids. It is very important to highlight: complying is not consent.

It is common for abusive men to isolate women from their family and friends. He may do so by behaving in rude and offensive ways when they are visiting or giving her a hard time whenever she visits or speaks with them. He may tell her to stop talking to them. Often, women will withdraw from their communities out of shame and fear. They wish to protect their loved ones from his behaviours. 

When it comes to women’s reproductive autonomy, we hear of abusive men that force women to get an abortion. Conversely, some men will force their partners to keep a pregnancy that she didn’t want or plan for. We see that men’s abusive behaviour frequently worsens once women become pregnant and her vulnerability increases, making it more difficult for her to leave him. 

Another point of vulnerability that abusive men will exploit is a woman’s immigration status. Canadian men who marry immigrant women will postpone the sponsorship application, leaving her with no status in Canada. We frequently hear that men threaten to call immigration and cancel the application and have her deported if she leaves him. 

Being subjected to coercive and controlling behaviour results in severe impacts to women’s self-esteem, mental health, and their ability to take the necessary steps to leave their abuser. 

The Criminal Justice System’s Response to Male Violence Against Women

It is evident from our work with women victims of male violence that the Criminal Justice System already struggles to cope with the volume of reports for the current Criminal Code offences that it is tasked with responding to. We maintain that any expansion must address these preexisting issues and anticipate future challenges. As it stands, women who report male violence to the police are frequently told that there is not sufficient evidence to lay charges. This is the case for assault and sexual assault complaints. We worry that those who’ve been subjected to coercive control will face similar systemic hurdles. 

In cases of sexual assault, less than 5% of cases recorded by police in Canada result in a trial and only 3.5% of sexual assault cases recorded by police in Canada result in a conviction of the perpetrator[1]. For the men who are charged with assault and uttering threats, they are often released back in the community with no meaningful oversight to ensure they do not make good on those threats. Last year in B.C., five women were murdered by a current or ex-male partner that were released on conditions to stay away from these women. These orders did not protect them. We desperately need mechanisms to ensure that women and their children are protected from men who pose risks to them.  

Whether proceeding with the creation of a coercive control offence or not, in order to take on the challenge of addressing and ultimately ending, violence against women, we need transformation. Adequate resourcing and the political will from those in leadership must form the foundation. 

Other Supports for Victims of Coercive Control

We believe it is essential to understand the wider societal environment that a coercive control offence is being considered in and additional actions that are needed to achieve the overall goal, which we frame as, an end to male violence against women. 

For women who want to leave coercive and controlling relationships, there are many practical barriers that prevent them from being able to do so, poverty is one of the most hampering. 

Women and their children that are financially dependent on an abusive partner risk homelessness by leaving him. Canada’s lack of a robust social safety net fails women and children every day. Women who live in our short-term shelter cannot find safe, adequate, and affordable housing in their community. They are forced to uproot their children away from their schools and social supports to chase the lowest market rents, which are still unaffordable. We frequently hear from former residents who have to settle for rental housing that is in poor physical condition, has pests, and these women may now face harassment from the landlord. 

Women who’ve moved out of our house still regularly call on us to provide them with gift cards to be able to buy groceries for their family. Instead of building a self-determined life free from violence, women who leave controlling and violent partners are kept in a state of precarity and because of this, risk returning to him or entering a new abusive relationship just to see to their basic needs.

VRRWS urges Justice Canada to work in collaboration with federal, provincial and territorial colleagues to overhaul Canada’s income assistance programs in favour of one that is guaranteed, livable and administered under dignified conditions, consistent with recommendation 7 in the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on the Status of Women’s report Towards a Violence-Free Canada and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girl’s Calls for Justice number 4.5 

Further, Canada must ensure the availability of safe, affordable and long-term housing, consistent with recommendation 4 in Towards a Violence-Free Canada and number 4.1 and 4.6 in National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girl’s Calls for Justice.

Immediately addressing the above recommendations will have profound impacts on the lives of women who are currently in an abusive relationship or are struggling to be free from one, however, they are far from the only concrete steps the government can take to support victims/survivors. A more comprehensive set of recommendations was generated as part of VRRWS’ submission for the formation of Canada’s National Action Plan on Gender Based Violence and can be referenced here

[1] Based on the most recent 3 years data available in Statistics Canada: Incident-based crime statistics, by detailed violations, police services in Canada and Adult criminal courts, number of cases and charges by type of decision.

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