Unified, informed approach needed to support victims of domestic violence

Faculty of Education professor Barb MacQuarrie, director of Western’s Centre for Research & Education on Violence against Women & Children, said a nationwide vision in needed in offering support to the millions of domestic and sexual violence victims suffering at the hands of their abusers.

Cory Habermehl // Special to Western NewsFaculty of Education professor Barb MacQuarrie, director of Western’s Centre for Research & Education on Violence against Women & Children, said a nationwide vision in needed in offering support to the millions of domestic and sexual violence victims suffering at the hands of their abusers.

New legislation in Manitoba allowing victims of domestic violence paid and unpaid leave from work while guaranteeing job security is a “significant step forward,” said one Western researcher.

But it is just a baby step in efforts to protect millions of victims suffering at the hands of their abusers, according to Barb MacQuarrie, director of Western’s Centre for Research & Education on Violence against Women & Children (CREVAWC).

“A much larger vision of providing similar supports for all workers in Canada” is needed to support victims of domestic abuse, MacQuarrie said.

As it stands, there is no unifying legislative standard to address the issue of domestic violence in Canada. Across the provinces, efforts to support victims vary in their approach and availability and MacQuarrie hopes to see a more integrated approach.

While not yet law, Ontario’s Bill 177, which has passed second reading and is currently before the Standing Committee on Justice Policy, looks to amend the Employment Standards Act (ESA) in respect of leave and accommodation for victims of domestic or sexual violence. It would amend the Occupational Health and Safety Act, providing information and instruction concerning domestic and sexual violence.

If passed, the bill would require employers to provide employees with a ‘reasonable duration’ leave of absence if they have experienced domestic or sexual violence. This leave would be available to seek medical attention or counselling related to violence; to obtain support services or legal assistance; or to relocate (temporarily or permanently) to reduce the likelihood of future violence.

Unlike most ESA leaves which are unpaid, Bill 177 would provide employees with up to 10 days of paid leave per calendar year. MacQuarrie wants to see other provinces follow suit.

Manitoba is currently the only province to legislate a provision for a leave of absence; its provincial law now states victims will be given five paid days, five unpaid days and an additional 17-week unpaid period, should they need to leave an abusive situation, secure a new residence or seek any sort of support services.

In Alberta, the United Steelworkers Union has negotiated similar paid leave benefits for its members. And while this isn’t a legislative effort to support victims, it still sends a clear message to workers, employers and unions that domestic violence is not a private matter, MacQuarrie explained.

“(Manitoba and Alberta) provide really concrete, really practical examples of how public policy, collective bargaining and employer policies can provide protection and support to workers who experience domestic violence,” she said.

Spousal violence has been consistently identified as one of the most common forms of violence against women in Canada. A 2014 study by CREVAWC, in partnership with the Canadian Labour Congress, showed one-third of surveyed women had experienced domestic violence. Of those surveyed, 82 per cent said the violence negatively affected their work performance and almost 40 per cent said it kept them from getting to work. More than half said the violence continued at or near the workplace in the form of harassing emails, calls and texts, or stalking and physical violence.

Why, then, are provinces lagging behind when it comes to addressing issues surrounding domestic violence, particularly in the workplace?

“I think the resistance we see to providing support to those who experience domestic violence comes from a lack of understanding, mixed in with some fear,” said MacQuarrie.

“Most of the provinces, and the Federal Government, are hesitating to impose too large of a burden on employers. We’re afraid it’s going to be dangerous; we’re afraid it’s going to be costly and we’re afraid it’s going to be time consuming. In fact, ignoring domestic violence is much more dangerous than addressing it.”

As a society, we still don’t fully understand how we can safely provide support and resources through the workplace, MacQuarrie noted. Employers are not being asked to become experts in domestic violence and solve workers’ problems, she stressed. They just need to learn a few basics, like how to recognize warning signs and signs of risk. Employers need to know how to talk to someone they suspect is experiencing domestic violence and where to direct that person for support.

“We are asking employers to reach out to local experts, like women’s shelters, to create safety plans,” she said. “We are asking employers to make sure that someone experiencing domestic violence keeps their job. That is good, for the bottom line.”

CREVAWC has worked to address domestic violence in the workplace by developing an inexpensive workplace education program which can be easily integrated into existing training programs.

“Today’s workplaces have to provide a wide range of training,” she said. “Done well, training contributes to a better, more supportive workplace culture, increases employee engagement and improves efficiency. Any initial financial costs can be recouped through a more productive workplace. That certainly holds true for domestic violence training.

“When our workplaces encourage open communication about domestic violence, when they guarantee no reprisals for disclosing that you have experienced domestic violence, when they are ready to work with community experts to provide risk assessment and safety plans, women will gratefully come forward,” she continued.

“To do this, we have to change laws so employers understand domestic violence is a problem that impacts them and they have responsibility. We have to make training about domestic violence in the workplace mandatory.”

While domestic violence continues to be a widespread problem, requiring efforts on many fronts to eradicate it, MacQuarrie added the most significant barrier is the idea it is a private matter. The more we see and understand that it’s a problem which affects workplaces, communities, provinces and countries – the closer we are to solving it, she said.

“As long as it remains private, those who suffer most remain isolated. Breaking down that isolation is the key to solving the problem. That’s our struggle right now, to break through the isolation, to let victim-survivors know that help and support is available.”