Manitoba·CBC Investigates

Provincial committee to combat violence against women promised in 2017 didn't meet until 1 year later

When it was promised in the November 2017 throne speech, the Ending Gender-Based Violence Cabinet Committee was the new provincial government’s new approach to combat violence against women, promising to help Manitobans in "critical situations."

'Hugely disappointed' by lack of meetings, progress from committee promised in 2017 throne speech: advocate

A woman stands in a hallway, looking to the left of the photographer.
Former status of women minister Rochelle Squires chaired all four meetings of the ending gender-based violence cabinet committee. Minister Cathy Cox took over her portfolio in October and plans to convene the next meeting later this month. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

It was the new government's new approach to combat violence against women. 

The ending gender-based violence cabinet committee was promised in the November 2017 throne speech as a way to help Manitobans in "critical situations."

But it took more than a year for the Progressive Conservative government to move on that promise, according to documents obtained by CBC News. 

On Dec. 6, 2018 the minister in charge put out a press release announcing the province was taking action against gender-based violence. 

"This is the first time a cabinet committee will focus solely on this topic in Manitoba," said Rochelle Squires, then the minister for the status of women.

Her statement was released on last year's National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, which commemorates the Montreal Massacre, in which 14 women were shot and killed at École Polytechnique.

In addition to putting out the press release, Squires chaired the first meeting of the seven-member cabinet committee. It lasted half an hour and two members were no-shows. 

Families Minister Heather Stefanson — whose ministry used to handle the domestic violence file — and Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen did not attend, according to documents obtained through a freedom of information request.

"I'm hugely disappointed," said Deena Brock, the provincial co-ordinator for the Manitoba Association of Women's Shelters — an association of the 10 provincial family violence shelters in Manitoba.

"My understanding was that it was being developed to work towards bettering or reducing the amount of gender-based violence."

Squires did not respond to questions about why it took more than a year for the committee to meet in an interview with CBC News on Tuesday, but did note funding announced earlier this year for the West Central Women's Resource Centre, which provides counselling and drop in services.

She also touted her government's decision to provide universal pharmacare coverage of the abortion pill Mifegymiso.

"There has been a lot of work that has been going on in working with community and working with other levels of government at the federal-provincial-territorial ministers' table, and other initiatives to tackle gender-based violence," said Squires. 

Press secretaries for Stefanson and Goertzen said they sit on several committees at once and are not able to attend every meeting.

The gender-based violence committee has met three more times since its inaugural meeting last December. 

Minutes of the meetings were deemed to be cabinet confidences, and access was refused under freedom of information legislation. The only information disclosed were the dates of the meetings and who attended. 

Domestic violence on the rise 

Domestic violence in the province made international headlines last month after three-year-old Hunter Smith-Straight was killed.

The man charged with second-degree murder in the case was in an on-again, off-again relationship with the boy's mother. Police say on the night the boy was killed, an argument between the accused, Dan Jensen, and Smith-Straight's mother escalated into a violent assault, after which Jensen went to the home where Hunter was killed.

Nationally, the rate of intimate partner violence against females has increased four per cent between 2014 and 2017, according to Statistics Canada data. In 2018, those rates were highest in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the territories. 

Just over three-quarters of women living in facilities for reasons of abuse with parental responsibilities were admitted with their children, according to a Statistics Canada survey conducted last year

Frozen funding

Manitoba's 10 women's shelters provided emergency housing to more than 2,700 people last year, according to the Manitoba Association of Women's Shelters. Brock adds shelters do more than keep women safe — they also help prevent abuse. 

"It can be life-saving," she said. "A lot of women don't recognize how much danger they really are in and often won't call the shelter until it's too late."

Despite the increases in violence and the demand for safe places for women and children, Manitoba's shelters have not seen an increase in core funding for more than a decade, according to Brock. 

"To do anything properly in the province, more money needs to be invested," she said.

"I think [the provincial government's] heart is in the right place. But I don't feel that this is exactly a huge priority. I feel like there's more lip service being paid when it comes to gender-based violence." 

A woman looks to the right of the camera.
Status of Women Minister Cathy Cox says the government is committed to providing additional supports for survivors of domestic and sexual violence. (CBC)

Squires says the government has designated 50 Manitoba Housing units geared to helping abused women move out of shelters. 

"We want to work on those moms and their children, and get them living on their own."

There are currently no details on those units, but in a statement, a departmental spokesperson said Manitoba Housing is planning an announcement soon on a "partnership with a community-led agency."

"We are in the final stages of this work, and expect to provide more details in the coming weeks," the spokesperson said.

Cathy Cox, who took over the status of women portfolio in October's cabinet shuffle, says she looks forward to chairing her first meeting of the gender-based violence committee later this month.

"Our government will continue the important work of ensuring better supports for domestic and sexual violence survivors." 

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