Concerned over rise in domestic violence, Quebec advocates look to province for help

The Quebec government has promised more funding for women's shelters, as well as an action plan, but community groups say that isn't enough.

More funding has been promised for women's shelters, but community groups say it isn't enough

Isabelle Charest, Quebec's minister responsible for the status of women, says the government's latest action plan will help women get out of dangerous situations. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Several community groups are calling for more resources for women dealing with domestic violence, as some shelters face an unprecedented demand because of the pandemic. 

The calls come after at least five Quebec women were killed in recent weeks — deaths that could have been prevented, according to advocates, if the province had better support systems in place.

Two women were killed in a town in the Laurentians Monday. Myriam Dallaire, 28, and her mother Sylvie Bisson, 60, were found with serious injuries in a home in Sainte-Sophie, Que. They both died from their injuries that night.

Dallaire's ex-partner was arrested after being involved in a traffic collision in nearby Saint-Jérôme Monday night and is considered a person of interest in the homicides. 

Quebec Premier François Legault addressed the double-homicide in Sainte-Sophie at a news conference Wednesday, calling the killings the act of a "barbarian."

"There is nothing masculine, there is nothing virile, about being violent with women. On the contrary, it is the opposite. I find it to be very cowardly," he said.

"Let's hope that the measures we are setting up for housing centres shelters for women will improve the situation."

Since January, SOS violence conjugale has received close to 35,000 online and phone requests — the highest number the organization has ever seen. 

Melpa Kamateros, executive director of Shield of Athena Family Services, says the pandemic has created a perfect storm for victims of domestic violence.

"With the lockdown and quarantine, women found themselves in close proximity with their abusive partners, which led not only to increased situations of violence but also to less time to make an escape plan," she said.

"In general, COVID has added yet one more layer of difficulty for women trying to access information and services."

Shield of Athena's executive director, Melpa Kamateros, says changes need to be made to Quebec's legal infrastructure to better protect victims of domestic violence. (CBC)

In a survey of Quebec women's shelter clients — conducted by the Regroupement des maisons pour femmes victimes de violence conjugale from July to November 2020 — 42 per cent of women said they faced more intense incidents of domestic violence during the first lockdown and 43 per cent said they did not seek help because their partner was always around.

Then there's issue of finding a place to stay, once their time in an emergency shelter is up. Many women in the province rely on the help of second-stage homes — shelters where women stay after they head to an emergency shelter but before they find permanent housing.

But those facilities are far beyond their capacity and many regions, including the Laurentians, Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Mauricie and Lanaudière, don't even have them. 

Gaëlle Fedida of l'Alliance MH2 speaks during a news conference in Montreal, highlighting the lack of second-stage housing and its effect on women and children who are victims of domestic violence. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Gaëlle Fedida of the Alliance des maisons d'hébergement de 2e étape pour femmes et enfants victimes de violence conjugale has been calling for more second-stage housing units to be developed in the province. 

She says the homes are a critical step in preventing the murders of women who are trying to leave their abusive partners. 

"Just include it in the next budget," Fedida called on Legault. "All those ladies who were murdered lately, it was in a situation of post-separation domestic violence." 

More help coming, province says

Last year, the province doubled the funding for combating domestic violence to $180 million, including $2.5 million in emergency funding for shelters during the pandemic.

Isabelle Charest, Quebec's minister responsible for the status of women, says the government's action plan using this funding will help women get out of dangerous situations. But part of that, she said, is ensuring women know the warning signs before the situation can turn fatal.

"We know it's the crime that's the least reported," Charest said on Radio-Canada's Tout un matin Thursday. "Our role is to put in place a mechanism to prevent and help in these situations."

While most of the funding is going toward "rapid intervention measures" and supporting women's shelters, she echoed Legault's sentiment that men must also be included in their plan.

"We must implicate men," she said. "It's something to help women who are victims, but we must also help men who behave like this."

But Kamateros says lack of shelter and housing for survivors of domestic violence in the province is only the tip of the iceberg. 

She is calling on the province to put more of a focus on preventing incidents of domestic violence by adopting a law similar to "Clare's law" — a piece of legislation that allows police to warn someone they could be in danger from their partner under certain conditions.

Saskatchewan became the first Canadian province to adopt it last summer.

"I would also see that the legal system be better prepared to receive testimonies from women victims, that perhaps separate courts could be established," said Kamateros.

With files from Sarah Leavitt, Shuyee Lee and Radio-Canada


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