The Current

Rise in deadly violence against women 'the horrible tip of the iceberg' in Canada: expert

Women’s advocates are calling for better support to help tackle femicide, after a recent report showed an uptick in the number of women violently killed in Canada last year.

New report shows 160 women and girls were killed in 2020, compared to 146 in 2019

Two women look at the camera
Nichole Clifford and her mother Delilah McKeith in an undated photo. Clifford was killed by her estranged husband in her Edmonton-area home in 2017. Her mother says the abuse her daughter suffered before her death wasn't taken seriously enough. (Delilah McKeith/Facebook)

Story Transcript

Women's advocates are calling for better support to help reduce femicides, after a recent report showed an uptick in the number of women violently killed in Canada last year.

"Femicide doesn't just happen. It's the final step ... in a long pattern of violence for these men," Dawn Lavell-Harvard, president of the Ontario Native Women's Association, told The Current's guest host Rosemary Barton.

"We need to get tougher and smarter about how we're dealing with the violence in those earlier stages."

Femicide is the killing of women or girls because they are female. According to a report published this month by the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, 160 women and girls were victims of femicide in this country in 2020, compared to 146 in 2019.

In 90 per cent of cases where the accused was identified, the accused was male. Meanwhile, Indigenous women and girls made up more than one in five victims killed by a male accused. In cases where the relationship between the victim and accused was known, 41 per cent involved a current or former intimate partner, the report found.

Delilah McKeith is familiar with the impacts of intimate partner violence. In 2017, her daughter Nichole Clifford was murdered by her estranged husband, Robert Clifford, in her Edmonton-area home.

The month before her death, Nichole told her husband she wanted a separation. Her mother said Nichole was tired of the abuse she'd been experiencing.

Nichole and Robert Clifford on their wedding day. McKeith says Robert used to threaten Nichole, and broke into her home on a number of occasions before her murder. (Remembering Nichole McKeith/Facebook)

McKeith said her daughter's husband used to threaten Nichole, and that he'd broken into Nichole's home on more than one occasion after they separated. Nichole had received a restraining order, but still, he came back. 

In February 2017, Robert was charged with break and enter and taken into custody. He was released after a few weeks when his mother posted $1,000 for bail. One week after his release, he killed Nichole. He was found guilty of second-degree murder this February.

McKeith said "it was like an out-of-body experience" when she got the news of her daughter's murder. "You mentally lose it when you lose a child."

She said she doesn't believe authorities took her daughter's case seriously enough, and that Nichole and her children should have been taken into hiding until their safety could be ensured.

Femicide the 'tip of the iceberg'

Amanda Dale is an advisory member with the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability. She said the organization's report on femicide tries to highlight that women like Nichole were "human beings with lives that were cut short, children that lost mothers, families that lost daughters."

But femicide is just the "horrible tip of the iceberg" when it comes to violence against women, she added.

Underneath it is "the daily diet of oppression, coercive control, [and] violence that happens in homes across Canada," said Dale. "And it's that background that we fail to recognize."

The pandemic has given "a free pass" to these behaviours too, as women have been locked in with their abusers, she said.

And for Indigenous women, the issue is further exacerbated in communities where support services or shelters for women don't exist, said Lavell-Harvard.

Amanda Dale is a member of the advisory panel for the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability. (Submitted by Amanda Dale)

Lavell-Harvard, who is also a member of the Canadian Femicide Observatory, called Nichole's death a "tragedy." 

"It's a story that I have heard again and again and again — that a restraining order is not worth the paper it's written on."

She added that there need to be better ways to protect women. 

One possible way to do that could be to require those accused of perpetrating violence to wear an ankle bracelet tracking their whereabouts while out on bail, she and McKeith both suggested. 

McKeith and Lavell-Harvard suggested that people accused of domestic violence could be required to wear an ankle bracelet tracking their whereabouts while out on bail.

Dawn Lavell-Harvard is president of the Ontario Native Women's Association. (CBC News)

They also agreed that women and children in situations like Nichole's should be moved into hiding because of the risk they face.

Significant investment in prevention is also needed, including in rural and remote areas, said Dale. She called for a national action plan that goes beyond "window dressing kind of investments."

McKeith also reminds women to turn to others for help.

In the four years since her daughter's death, she and her grandchildren have received "tremendous" support from child services, the government, and from schools.

"I want all victims out there to know that there are avenues [of support] out there," she said. "Call your local victim services area, and they've got … tons of help for people who need help in a situation like this."

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Zoe Yunker, Rachel Levy-McLaughlin and Ines Colabrese.

Hear full episodes of The Current on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now