Controlling or coercive behaviour between partners is being explored as a criminal offence in Canada amid growing conversations and awareness of domestic abuse.
A private member’s bill, C-332, brought forward by New Democrat MP Laurel Collins reached its second reading in the House of Commons Thursday.
Both the Liberals and Conservatives have said they would support this bill that seeks to amend the Criminal Code, criminalizing conduct that has a “significant impact” on a person, including a fear of violence, a decline in their physical or mental health or a substantial adverse effect on their day-to-day activities.
“Coercive control is an insidious and often ignored element of intimate partner violence,” said Collins at a news conference in Ottawa Thursday.
“It is a way in which partners are controlled or are prevented from leaving,” she said, adding that “coercive control disproportionately impacts women.”
The MP for Victoria, B.C., said she was inspired to bring this legislation forward after her own sister’s experience of being in an “abusive” relationship several years ago.
“My sister years ago showed up on my doorstep in tears and her partner had taken her bank card, her car keys, her cellphone,” she told Global News in a phone interview Friday.
“Luckily she had another set of keys and was able to come, but … that pattern of abuse continued and just like so many other stories of coercive control, it eventually escalated to physical violence.”
Collins said she was grateful that her sister is now free of that relationship and is “doing great.”
“Knowing the long-lasting impacts of intimate partner violence on women in particular … I felt very motivated to put this bill forward and really, really grateful that we’ve had cross-partisan support to move it forward,” she said.
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Collin’s bill, which was first tabled in May and builds on previous NDP-led legislation from 2021, does not include the definition of controlling or coercive conduct.
But Canada’s Divorce Act defines it under family violence as a “pattern of abusive behaviour people use to control or dominate another family member”.
Examples of such behaviour include choosing a partner’s clothing, controlling their money, or not letting them work or see friends, according to the Department of Justice.
The bill, which still has to pass through the House of Commons and the Senate before it can become law, is modelled after similar laws in the United Kingdom.
England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland already have legislation on coercive and controlling behaviours as a form of domestic violence and abuse.
In the U.K., after the British Parliament amended its Serious Crime Act in 2015, establishing the criminal offence of “coercive and controlling behaviour,” calls for support around intimate partner violence increased by 31 per cent.
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Andrea Silverstone, CEO of Sagesse Domestic Violence Prevention Society, has been doing research on this issue for the past two decades and is currently doing a PhD in coercive control in applied psychology. She says coercive control is experienced in over 95 per cent of domestic violence cases.
“It’s really important that Canada passed coercive control legislation because it gives the justice system another tool in their toolbox that helps us to get upstream of this issue,” she told Global News in an interview.
“It protects victims of violence, it gives more opportunity for interventions and it changes the discourse in the public.”
But some argue such legislation will be ineffective and harmful to survivors of all forms of family violence, including coercive control abuse.
“Coercive control laws are a seductive idea, because they rely on commonly-held myths that police are the only ones who keep us safe,” said Angela Marie MacDougall, executive director of Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS) in Vancouver.
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“The real solutions to coercive control abuse are messy and require broad investment in the transition house sector, our health care and education systems, community services and housing justice,” she told Global News Friday.
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During a debate about Bill C-332 in the House of Commons Thursday, Liberal MP Lisa Hepfner said she is proud to support the bill on behalf of the Liberal government.
But she suggested it needed to be looked at carefully, considering issues in other jurisdictions, such as England and Scotland, where such an offence exists.
“Gathering evidence in these cases is a significant challenge for police and prosecutors,” said Hepfner, who serves as the parliamentary secretary for Women and Gender Equality Minister Marci Ien.
“I am proud to support Bill C-332,” she said. “However, I encourage committee members to compare the English and Scottish approaches and draw lessons that can be used to optimize Canada’s path forward.”
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Conservative MP Michelle Ferreri told the House this bill would be a “very simple, tangible solution” to put into the Criminal Code to help victims and the Tories would fully support it.
“Most victims often do not even know they are victims, because it happens so slowly and the abusers make them feel like they are nothing,” Ferreri said Thursday.
This is the second time in recent years that the federal NDP has brought forward such legislation.
Randall Garrison, a British Columbia MP, brought forward his own bill on the matter two years ago. It didn’t reach second reading.
Now, Collin’s bill builds on that work.
It is currently being debated in the House with a second hour of debate to come in the new year.
Collins told Global News she is open to hearing proposals for amendments and ways to strengthen the bill.
She is hoping this becomes law before the end of the spring session next year.
“The government has delayed and disappointed the survivors, advocates who have been calling for this for years and years and so my hope is that we can get it through as quickly as possible,” she said.
— with files from The Canadian Press.