The Liberal government is developing a strategy to tackle sexual and domestic violence, but some front-line workers are calling the government's progress to date a "massive disappointment."

Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef, picking up on the work done by her predecessor Patty Hajdu, is expected to present a plan to address "gender-based violence" this spring or summer. But experts are already raising concerns.

Louisa Russell, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter, said long-standing groups were not meaningfully consulted in the process. She also questions why the Liberal platform earmarked funding for emergency shelters, but no new money for prevention, outreach, public education or followup services.

"It's been a massive disappointment for women's groups in Canada," she said. "We think the Liberals got elected partly on our backs, saying they would do things to advance women's equality and in fact they have not delivered."

The key 2015 Liberal platform promises to reduce sex assault and domestic violence were:

  • Develop and implement a comprehensive federal gender violence strategy and action plan, aligned with existing provincial strategies.
  • Increase investments in growing and maintaining Canada's network of shelters and transition houses, as part of the broader infrastructure program.
  • Amend the Criminal Code to reverse onus on bail for those with previous convictions of intimate partner violence, specify that intimate partner violence be considered an aggravating factor at sentencing, and increase the maximum sentence for repeat offenders.

Russell has seen little concrete action to date.

"We're really disappointed. We've never held a lot of hope in any of the governments. None of them have seriously advanced the conditions for women escaping violence," she said. "But in this particular platform, they launched themselves on our backs. They used us to get elected. To deliver nothing is really deplorable."

'Absolutely unacceptable'

Last week, Trudeau was asked by a female university student in Fredericton what the government was doing to protect women from sexual assault, citing a recent case where a perpetrator was handed an 18-month sentence for an attack on campus. Trudeau said there must be changes to the criminal justice system, but there must also be an fundamental shift in mindset and approach.

Trudeau discusses light sentences for those convicted of sexual assault5:41

"We need to make sure we are showing every step of the way that bullying, that harassment, that intimidation, that abuse of power is absolutely unacceptable, full stop," he said.

He said while there has been some progress in the last 25 years, it has not been enough to reduce systemic violence against women and girls.

Diane Matte, coordinator of the Montreal-based Concertation des luttes contre l'exploitation sexuelle, objects to the government's use of the phrase "gender-based violence" in strategy discussions instead of "violence against women," a contentious change she believes removes men's accountability with more neutral wording.

'Gender' obscures reality

"Talking about gender obscures the reality that we are addressing a type of violence that is specific to a specific type of oppression, which is the oppression of women by men," she said.

Monsef's spokesman Matt Pascuzzo said the consultation process included academics, experts and survivors, and established an advisory council. That process concluded the federal strategy must be "anti-oppressive, survivor-oriented, address various regional differences, prioritize prevention, engage men and boys and create a cultural change."

The 13 roundtables across the country included representatives from over 175 organizations, including 80 that were front-line service providers, who discussed themes such as youth, reforming the justice system, preventing violence against Indigenous women and supporting survivors.  An online survey received 7,500 responses.

Domestic Violence

The Liberal government is expected to present a strategy and action plan for addressing sexual and domestic violence this spring or summer. (CBC)

"Gender-based violence remains an insidious barrier to achieving gender equality and our government is committed to ensuring that women and girls can live free from all forms of violence," Pascuzzo said in an email.

The criminal justice promises are to be addressed as part of a comprehensive reform of the system, he said.

$90M for shelter spaces

Last year's federal budget earmarked $90 million over two years to expand shelters and transition houses, which will help build or renovate 3,000 spaces. The government is also spending $1 million to develop a national profile of shelters with up-to-date data on shelter capacity, scope of services, funding, infrastructure and human resources.

Danielle Aubry, executive director of the Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse, is frustrated that the issue of sexual abuse is often overlooked in funding and policy development in favour of domestic assault programs. She called on the federal government to show specific leadership on sexual violence.

"Why transition houses and not sexual assault services? We're not the same service. Far from it," she said. "We can't get buried in other kinds of violence."

Anuradha Dugal, director of violence prevention programs at the Canadian Women's Foundation who is a member of the federal advisory council, applauded the funding, consultation and progress made to date.

She believes the government is taking steps in the right direction, though noted there's room for more attention to prevention and education, especially for youth.

"The importance of talking to youth about boundary setting, gender stereotypes, how to prevent dating violence, and how to communicate assertively as a means to ending gender-based violence cannot be overstated," she said. 

Fredericton court

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says there must be a zero-tolerance policy for bullying, harassment and abuse. (CBC)