Canada’s efforts to address intimate partner violence and its impacts have failed to make any appreciable dent in the country’s domestic homicide rates, researchers suggested Wednesday as they called for a more nuanced national conversation on the issue.
Every trend that emerged when the Canadian Domestic Homicide Prevention Initiative began examining domestic homicide rates between 2010 and 2015 remained virtually unchanged when research was expanded to include data from the last three years, according to the latest numbers from the multi-year project.
The vast majority of such cases target women or girls, with risks increasing for those who belong to vulnerable demographics such as residents of rural or remote areas and those of Indigenous heritage.
Women made up 76 per cent of all adult domestic homicide victims between 2010 and 2015, according to the team’s research. That number climbed to 80 per cent when factoring in cases from 2016 through 2018. The latest data suggest 59 per cent of child victims are girls.
Of the 662 domestic homicides the study recorded over the nine-year stretch, 52 per cent of them involved victims belonging to at least one of four vulnerable groups identified by researchers — those with an Indigenous background, new immigrants or refugees, northern or rural residents and children. That figure stood at 53 per cent in cases logged between 2010 and 2015.
Initiative Co-Director and University of Guelph Professor Myrna Dawson said the static numbers suggest formal channels meant to tackle domestic violence appear to have a limited impact.
She said the data should spark a conversation focusing less on individual circumstances and more on the way intimate partner violence is viewed in society at large.
“Unless we focus on attitudes and beliefs with the people responding, whether it be the service sector, whether it be the public, unless you address those attitudes that often get in the way of adequate responses, anything we implement formally is probably going to miss its mark,” Dawson said in a telephone interview.
Dawson said several provinces have long established specific domestic violence courts staffed with professionals trained to address the complexities of such situations.
But the latest data suggests jurisdictions with such courts available still see high homicide rates that have not budged over time.
Manitoba, which has operated a domestic violence court for years, had one of the three highest domestic homicide rates in the country according to data collected by the initiative.
Dawson said rates were similarly high in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, a fact she said highlights the additional risks faced by women living in remote communities.
Although the initiative’s research largely focuses on four specific vulnerable groups, Dawson said data so far suggests there are others in need of more academic and public attention. She said women with disabilities as well as senior citizens have also emerged as particularly at risk in all research conducted to date.
Dawson said society needs to fundamentally change the way it views and responds to domestic violence, starting with the assumption that strife between intimate partners is a private matter that’s best ignored.
“These can’t be private because there’s public impacts of primarily women and children living with violence in the home,” she said. “…It is a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue.”
Changing this fundamental approach, she said, could open the door for more widespread understanding of domestic violence and a broader capacity to recognize warning signs and sound alarms if needed.
That broader understanding may have made a difference in the 2014 murder of Shirley Parkinson, according to one of her closest relatives.
Her sister Mariann Rich said friends and coworkers may have been able to pick up on subtle red flags over time as Parkinson’s relationship with her husband deteriorated.
But when the well-known local nurse was found dead on her family farm, the news came as a complete shock to most who knew her, including some close relatives. Parkinson’s husband was also found dead on the rural property near Unity, Sask., and his death has been ruled a suicide.
Rich said her sister’s silence was largely driven by a powerful stigma and culture of privacy that prevails in the sort of small, close-knit community she called home for decades.
Rich said many such areas lack sufficient resources for women in need of help, but said the problem is compounded by a poor understanding of exactly what potentially deadly domestic violence looks like.
“Everyone’s still looking for bruises, they’re looking for physical injuries,” Rich said. “It’s also ridicule. It’s also putdowns. It’s also isolating them from family and friends. It’s the constant blaming. Society in general needs to become more aware of that.”
Dawson said the next phase of the initiative’s research, announced Wednesday in Fredericton, will focus on hearing the experiences of people who have lost a friend or relative to domestic homicide, as well as those who have survived severe intimate partner violence themselves.
Cathy Holtmann, director of the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research at the University of New Brunswick, is a co-investigator for the study.
She said research into domestic homicide is particularly important “for those who experience social inequalities based on their age, ethnic or racial identity, immigrant status, or because they live in rural areas.”
Holtmann said researchers hope by gathering the information they can learn how the tragedies can be prevented, and how survivors, friends and family of victims of domestic violence can best be supported.
— With files from Kevin Bissett in Fredericton
Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press