A year ago, Farrah Khan and I announced our decision to resign as co-chairs of Ontario’s Violence Against Women Roundtable due to the government’s lack of response to our repeated inquiries about its commitment to address the issue of violence against women. As we said at that time:
“Gender-based violence is a serious issue, entrenched in every community – from rural to northern to urban – in this province. Ending this violence requires focused government attention in collaboration with community partners, not silence.”
Our concern that this government would make decisions harmful to women has been confirmed again and again over the past year.
Canadians go to the polls in just a few days, and the silence of politicians — local candidates and leaders alike — across all parties on women’s equality and gender-based violence issues has been deafening.
Sounding the alarm
Ontario’s 2018 election should sound an alarm across the country about what can happen when so-called “women’s issues” are not part of the election discourse: governments that don’t care about them get elected.
We should all be deeply concerned about the impact on women and girls in this province of the Ontario government’s policy decisions.
Decisions ranging from ending the basic guaranteed income pilot project, not implementing anticipated and much needed increases to social assistance, cutting the Legal Aid budget by 30%, shutting down the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board and reducing provincial funding for new child care spaces from 100% to 80% have all created unsafe situations for women living in this province.
With neither a strong political advocate for women in the provincial government nor a formal consultation process such as that provided in the past by the VAW Roundtable, these kinds of poor decisions will continue to be made.
What about those consultations?
Since Lisa MacLeod, then the Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, dissolved the roundtable following our resignations, promising that she would continue to consult with those in the violence against women sector, that so-called consultation appears to have consisted of one 60-minute meeting with representatives of community coordinating committees from across the province.
Most participants joined the meeting by telephone because their organizations did not have the funds to send them to Toronto for a one-hour meeting. Participants were frequently addressed as “hon” by McLeod, which hardly set a professional or respectful tone for the discussions. This meeting did not provide any accountability, no commitments for action were made and, despite assurances that there would be further such discussions, none has happened at that level.
Rather than introducing or maintaining policies and programs that would respond effectively to and prevent gender-based violence, this government has undertaken a gender-neutral review of victim services, no doubt with an eye to saving money. This kind of short-sighted frugality should not be the bottom line for policy decisions related to the well-being and safety of people, especially those who are additionally vulnerable or marginalized because of their social location.
The violence continues
Meanwhile, gender-based violence continues apace in this province, with most shelters and sexual assault centres supporting more survivors than ever before, despite a lack of concomitant increases in funding. The Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres notes that, according to a July 2019 Statistics Canada report, there has been a 19% year over year increase in the number of sexual assaults in Ontario, while the Canadian Femicide Observatory writes that:
“we have not seen the transformation necessary to meaningfully reduce femicide in this country. More importantly, marginalized women, such as Indigenous women and girls, have not experienced these gains and continue to face unacceptably high risks of femicide.”
The Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women leaves no doubt that Indigenous women and girls continue to be disproportionately represented among all forms of gender-based violence.
Surrounded by ample evidence of the reality of gender-based violence, Ontario’s government continues to slash funding or deny funding increases for community programming, thus weakening the social safety net for women facing violence.
The provincial Family Court Support Worker Program, for example, funded by the Ministry of the Attorney General and providing much-needed services to survivors of family violence who are involved in family court, has not received an increase in funding since it was established in 2011, even though demand for it has grown enormously.
This flies in the face of promises made and monies set aside in the final budget of the previous government; the government that established and relied on the VAW Roundtable to inform its decisions.
Adequate and stable funding for violence against women services, not gender-neutral victim services, is imperative if we are to respond appropriately to survivors of gender-based violence and work to eradicate such violence from our communities.
Women in Ontario are seeing firsthand what happens when politicians don’t include gender-based violence and women’s equality on their list of platform priorities. We hope others across the country consider our experience when heading off to vote on October 21st.