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Ontario to support opposition bill to declare intimate partner violence an epidemic

TORONTO — Ontario will support an opposition bill to declare intimate partner violence an epidemic in the province, Government House Leader Paul Calandra said Wednesday, reversing an earlier rejection of the idea.

Calandra said the Progressive Conservative government will ask the justice committee to thoroughly examine intimate partner violence and return with recommendations.

The move came after the New Democrats tabled a bill that simply declares intimate partner violence an epidemic. The private member’s bill was set for second reading Wednesday night, but could easily be defeated by the majority Progressive Conservative government. 

But that bill will not be defeated, Calandra said in response to Official Opposition Leader Marit Stiles’ question in the legislature about whether the bill would be supported.

“Indeed, the government and this caucus will be supporting the private member’s bill that comes before the House later today,” Calandra said. 

“In fact, we will be going a step further, Mr. Speaker … the premier has asked that we seek the advice of the standing committee on justice to do an in-depth study on all of the aspects, with respect to intimate partner violence, both the current programs that are available, some of the root causes of it, and how we can do better in the province of Ontario.”

Last June, the province rejected calls from an inquest into the deaths of three women at the hands of their former partner to formally declare intimate partner violence an epidemic.

The jury at a coroner’s inquest into the 2015 deaths of Nathalie Warmerdam, Carol Culleton and Anastasia Kuzyk in Renfrew County made that recommendation one year ago Wednesday, along with 85 others aimed at preventing similar tragedies.

The province said at the time it would not declare intimate partner violence an epidemic because it was not an infectious or communicable disease.

The government’s change in position surprised Stiles.

“There’s not many days when we do something like that,” she said to the legislature. “So I want to thank the government for agreeing today.”

Stiles then pushed the government to go beyond a simple declaration. 

“This is an emergency, it’s a crisis,” Stiles said. “Fifty-eight women were killed in intimate partner violence last year.”

Some victims of domestic violence spoke out at Queen’s Park and urged the government to act quickly.

Fartumo Kusow’s daughter, Sahra Bulle, vanished last May. In early June, police in Windsor, Ont., charged her estranged husband with first-degree murder. The day after the charge was laid, police found her body.

Kusow said her daughter’s husband abused Bulle for years.

Her daughter had a black eye the last time she saw her, but had agreed to meet her husband. Kusow implored her not to go.

 “As it was predictable to all the family members, we could all see the train my daughter was on only headed to one stop called the tragedy,” Kusow said. ‘And three weeks later I ended up collecting her in a body bag.”

Kusow called the government’s move to support the NDP bill “a good first step,” but said she wants to see those words followed by action.

“The greatest tragedy here in Ontario is we are still debating this in 2024,” Kusow said. “How many more women have to die before we say this is enough?”

Cait Alexander felt mixed emotions upon hearing the government’s pledge to declare domestic violence, which disproportionately affects women, an epidemic.

“I was in tears because it is a step forward,” she said. “However, I want to see it in writing and I want more action. All this talk is not action.”

Alexander was nearly killed by her ex-boyfriend three years ago, she said. His attempted murder charge was stayed, however, because it didn’t reach trial fast enough. The case fell apart because the province’s court system remains overburdened, she said.

“The government failed me,” she said. “We don’t need another study, just talk to us for five minutes.”

Nearly 100 municipalities across the province have declared intimate partner violence an epidemic. 

The declaration is not just symbolic, said Erin Lee, the executive director of Lanark County Interval House and Community Support, who testified at the inquest into the three women’s deaths in Renfrew County.

“It’s critical for victims, family members, survivors and those who are living isolated to hear a loud and clear message that they are heard, they are believed, and they’re being responded to by the government of Ontario,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 10, 2024.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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