Controlling behaviour should be part of criminal definition of domestic abuse, advocates argue

A local domestic abuse prevention group is lobbying the federal government to include coercive or controlling behaviour in their definition of violence within intimate relationships.

Proposed bill is intended to allow intervention in abusive relationships before physical violence takes place

A domestic abuse prevention group says it's pushing the federal government to include coercive control as a part of the criminal code in relation to intimate partner relationships. (Shutterstock)

A local domestic violence prevention group is lobbying the federal government to include coercive or controlling behaviour in their definition of violence within intimate relationships.

Andrea Silverstone, executive director of Sagesse Domestic Violence Prevention Society in Calgary, says the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights is now looking at updating the criminal code on the topic.

"Essentially, it recognises that coercive control, which is a pattern of abusive behaviour  … is a liberty crime and a human rights crime," she said.

The idea was first introduced in October by Randall Garrison, NDP justice critic and the MP for Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, under his private member's bill, Bill C-247

Silverstone says she stood before the committee on Feb. 4 in order to advocate for the expanded definition of the criminal offence. 

"Those impacted by domestic violence are going to feel like they can trust that the police will address what's happening for them and by extension, the courts," she said.

"They're going to believe better that Canadian society will protect them."

The executive director says that victims feel their sense of personal agency taken away from them and often make decisions out of fear.

"We might see one or two violent incidents happening above the surface, like someone calling their partner names or texting them a gazillion times in a row," she said.

"If that's happening at the tip and we see it, there's all sorts of other things happening below the iceberg that are far more abusive and far more controlling that you probably aren't seeing."

By having the term a part of the definition of domestic abuse, she says the police, justice system and public will better be able to recognize warning signs.

"If the police had the tool in their toolbox to try and intervene when they see coercive control, I think that we would see less incidence of lethality and we would see hopefully less homicides."

She said based on statistics from the United Kingdom  police calls regarding domestic violence went up 31 per cent after legislation was updated to include coercive control in 2015.

'More than a black eye'

Silverstone says she has listed four recommendations to the committee on what needs to change.

The first being that the nation-wide definition of domestic violence includes coercive control, but the second is that Canadian criminal laws reflect this.

"Domestic violence is so much more than a black eye," she said.

"The goal of a perpetrator in an abusive relationship that's coercively controlling, they're always trying to unbalance the other person."

Andrea Silverstone, executive director of Sagesse Domestic Violence Prevention Society, says by making coersive control part of the criminal code, it gives police another tool to stop violence. (Stephanie Rousseau/CBC)

She also recommends that judges, police and crown prosecutors receive training on the topic, and that a Coercive Control and Abuse Commissioner is appointed.

"I think that we need some sort of commissioner of coercive control to help the public, service providers, as well as the justice system to properly and adequately implement coercive control legislation," she said.

"They do have a domestic abuse commissioner in the United Kingdom who that is their role and it's proven to be very successful." 

Silverstone adds that this change is needed now more than ever, stating domestic violence across Canada has grown by 30 per cent during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"I think that this is a game changer. I think that if we can change coercive control legislation tomorrow, we'll be able to address the issue in a way we never could before."

Sagesse can be reached at 403-234-7337.

People looking for help can call 211, or the Connect Family and Sexual Abuse Network at 1-877-237-5888 for sexual abuse, or 403-234-7233 for domestic abuse.

The Family Violence Information Line offers 24-hour support in more than 170 languages. It can be reached at 310-1818.

With files from Lucie Edwardson.