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Advocates urge public, governments to take intimate partner violence seriously

Advocates for those experiencing intimate partner violence say the decision by police in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., to use that term for the shooting deaths of five people gives them hope that abuse of that nature is being taken seriously.
Kamal Dhillon is shown in an undated handout photo. Dhillon was horrified to learn about the deaths of five people in Sault Ste. Marie that police have attributed to intimate partner violence and says the type of abuse that nearly killed her decades ago will only stop when everyone starts paying more attention to an issue that affects so many families. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Kamal Dhillon *MANDATORY CREDIT*

Advocates for those experiencing intimate partner violence say the decision by police in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., to use that term for the shooting deaths of five people gives them hope that abuse of that nature is being taken seriously.

Pamela Cross, a lawyer and advocacy director at Luke's Place, a family law support centre for abused women in Oshawa, Ont., found it encouraging that police immediately said intimate partner violence was involved, after the province announced in June that it would not declare such abuse an epidemic.

"There's a lot we don't know right now. But nonetheless, the police called it an act of intimate partner violence, and I think that's really important and a really big step forward," said Cross.

Other sectors of society must respond with the same recognition and more funding is needed for support programs, including mental health, for victims and their perpetrators, Cross said.

"At the end of the day, if we're not addressing the folks who are engaging in the abusive behaviour, we're just going to keep seeing women trek into shelters for generations to come."

Although police were quick to describe it as a case of intimate partner violence, they initially revealed little else about Monday night's shootings, including the genders or relationships of those involved.

On Wednesday, police said a man broke into a home and killed a 41-year-old woman before heading to a second home and killing three children — aged six, seven and 12 — and shooting another woman, who survived.

Police said the 44-year-old shooter was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot.

Intimate partner violence has gained attention due to several high-profile cases, including the separate 2015 deaths of three women by one man in Ontario's Renfrew County, leading to a coroner's inquest that last year recommended abuse in romantic relationships be declared an epidemic.

Dozens of Ontario municipalities including Toronto and Hamilton have done so, but the province announced in June that it will not take that step.

Recommendations released earlier this year from a public inquiry into the mass shooting deaths of 22 people in Portapique, N.S., in April 2020 called for greater recognition of intimate partner violence, with greater support for victims and perpetrators. The inquiry heard the gunman had a history of violence, including against his common-law wife.

Perpetrators typically exert control in relationships to the point that victims are isolated and blamed, even by others, instead of getting help when they're assaulted, Cross said.

"Women who leave are blamed for leaving. 'You're breaking up the family. How are the children going to manage?' 'Just be a better wife, give him another chance, he's under a lot of pressure at work,' and so on. And when women don't leave, they're also blamed. 'You're not taking care of your children because you're exposing them to ongoing intimate partner violence.'"

Kamal Dhillon of Surrey, B.C., said she was grateful that police immediately announced that the killings involved intimate partner violence.

But she was angry that such a tragedy could still happen.

"Really? This is happening again and again and again?" she said of the deaths in Sault Ste. Marie.

Dhillon said her husband began assaulting her on their wedding day in 1986 and dropped her off at the emergency room of a hospital in Vancouver that night. Over the next 12 years, she suffered multiple injuries and has so far had 10 surgeries for a broken jaw that still causes her daily pain.

"He would smash my face with his boots. He would stomp on it," she said. "My face, from my ears down to my chin, is all artificial, it's metal."

Her husband was charged with assault in the late 1980s but the charge was dropped because he took the family out of the country to prevent her from appearing in court, Dhillon said.

After they separated in the mid-1990s, he was arrested with a gun and break-in tools outside her home. He died in 1997.

Dhillon said she is "triggered" every time she hears of others enduring similar abuse or being killed because assaults against women by their partners are often minimized as just a part of domestic life.

"This will stay with me for a long time," she said of the deaths in Sault Ste. Marie.

The number of such cases has increased over the last three years, partly due to stresses of the pandemic and lack of support for both perpetrators and victims, said Suzanne Duncan, spokeswoman for the Canadian Women's Foundation.

However, cases are not adequately tracked and research overall is lacking, she said.

"We underfund effective community programs, ones that focus on survivors rebuilding their lives and ones that focus on the people who are perpetrating the violence," said Duncan, adding that people with a history of violence are at a high risk to commit intimate partner violence and should get mental health support when they need it.

Everyone should consider that they may know a victim or a perpetrator, she said.

Three years ago, the foundation invented a hand gesture that can be used by someone on a video call to indicate they are experiencing IPV. It involves putting their palm to the camera, tucking in their thumb and trapping it with the fingers on top.

"To know so many folks have experienced intimate partner violence and haven't gotten the kinds of support that they need, my heart goes out to them. I'm so angry when I hear these stories," Duncan said.

The federal government announced a 10-year plan last November to fund programs to support victims and families experiencing gender-based violence.

"It needs to happen in every province," Duncan said. "We need to take this seriously and ensure that women and families and anyone experiencing intimate partner violence has those community supports that they can turn to."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 25, 2023.

Canadian Press health coverage receives support through a partnership with the Canadian Medical Association. CP is solely responsible for this content.

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press