Who’s counting dead Canadian women?

OTTAWA– Camile Runke, 49, had contacted police 22 times to report incidents in connection with her estranged husband before she was found shot to death in Winnipeg, Manitoba, according to a CBC report in late October.

Police believe she was gunned down by her spouse, 46-year-old Kevin Runke, who fatally shot himself three days later.

The slain Winnipeg woman’s name became the latest addition to a grim online tally kept by Orla Hegarty, a statistician who lives in St. Mary’s, N.L.

Some kind of formal femicide census would tease out the information we need to understand the true extent of the problem of violence in Canada. — Orla Hegarty

Because there is no official government list, Hegarty has voluntarily taken on the task of recording the names and circumstances of Canadian women murdered by men. She compiles her list by searching publicly available sources such as media reports and publishes updates to her blog, Counting Dead Women Canada.

She started the list of femicides at the beginning of this year in an effort to draw attention to what she says is a serious national problem.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines femicide as the “intentional murder of women because they are women.” Most cases of femicide are committed by male partners or ex-partners. It may happen in relationships, in the home, at work or even in public.

  • According to the WHO, 35 per cent of women around the world have suffered either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence.
  • Globally, as many as 38 per cent of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners.

Canada is no exception. A survey commissioned by the Canadian Women’s Foundation in 2012 reports that on average, a woman in Canada is killed by her male partner every six days.

And research published by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) indicates that between 2000 and 2008, aboriginal women and girls made up 10 per cent of all female homicide victims in Canada, while aboriginal women represent only three per cent of the total Canadian female population.

A mandate for national action

The Liberal government promised to address the issue of violence against women before the election. It now describes prevention as one of its top priorities.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau handed a mandate letter to Thunder Bay-Superior North MP and Minister for the Status of Women, Patty Hajdu, eight days after she was sworn in by the Governor General David Johnston on Nov. 5.

Hajdu summarized her freshly minted mandate in an email to Capital News.

“I intend to continue to improve the lives of Canadian women and girls. This will include developing the federal gender violence strategy and action plan,” says Hajdu.

“While this work is in the early stages, I can assure you that I will be working closely with my federal ministerial colleagues, and with experts and advocates to inform this work.”

Lise Martin, executive director of the Canadian Network of Women’s Shelters and Transition Houses (CNWSTH) is one such advocate. The network provides shelters and housing in all provinces and territories to women escaping violence.

She says that despite repeated calls by her organization and others like it, a national action plan never materialized under the previous government. Martin says that Canada currently has no formal plan or strategy to deal with violence against women.

“But it’s easy to call for something if you really don’t know what you’re asking for,” she says.

“So we developed what we call the ‘blueprint’. The blueprint is meant to be a road map to Canada’s national action plan.”

A Blueprint for Canada’s National Action Plan on Violence Against Women and Girls was put together by Martin’s organization and 22 other NGOs, trade unions and experts. It was first released on Feb. 18.

The document asks governments at all levels to implement a wide range of actions that will help to prevent violence against women. Some of these include:

  • Ensuring that women have access to legal representation, advice and information for all processes.
  • Ensuring that perpetrators are held responsible for their behaviour without exposing women who experience violence to unfounded charges.
  • Establishing national public education campaigns on violence against women and girls.
  • Supporting programs led by women working in partnership with men to educate men and boys on ways to acknowledge, challenge and prevent violence.
  • Supporting First Nations, Métis and Inuit organizations and governments to develop prevention strategies for their communities.

“Part of the reason my blueprint was in the election platforms of the Liberals and the NDP was not by coincidence,” Martin says.

“Prior to the election, it was presented to the women’s caucus of both the NDP and the Liberal party. The government definitely knows about it.”

Coming in from the cold

Leighann Burns, executive director of Harmony House, an Ottawa-based women’s shelter, says consultation is critical to success for the federal action plan.

“It should be with knowledgeable women activists who, after a couple decades of constant attack by the neoliberal agenda, are just beginning to regroup.”

And one activist says she hopes that the winds of change will foster renewed support and funding of women’s rights initiatives.

Anuradha Dugal has been the director of violence prevention programs at the Canadian Women’s Foundation (CWF) for six years.

She says Status of Women has changed the way it allocates funding in recent years.

“They used to give funding out for broad, rights-based activities, but especially in the last six years there has been no money available except for individual projects,” she says.

One such project is led by the Montreal-based charity, Girls Action Foundation, who are working in collaboration with community groups and other stakeholders across Canada to help prevent violence in the lives of immigrant girls.

Another initiative is Project PEACE (Prevention, Education, Action, Change, and Evaluation), which is run by the NWAC. It aims to “better equip Aboriginal women and girls to identify risks to their personal safety and increase their knowledge on how to reduce violence in their lives.”

Dugal notes that under the previous government there was also a shift in funding, where money from Status of Women Canada went to organizations that were not led by women or that were not women’s organizations.

She says she expects that to change.

“Today, I think there could be a return to role of government as maintaining and developing a rich, diverse and robust civil society. A civil society that can potentially bring questions to the attention of the Canadian government that they might not otherwise address, ” says Dugal.

Grim accounting

Whatever form the plan will take, the federal government cannot say at this stage. Nor can they give an estimate for when it is due to be released.

Meanwhile, Hegarty diligently adds to the growing list of femicides.

She was inspired by the efforts of Karen Ingala-Smith, who has maintained a blog called Counting Dead Women in the UK since 2012.

Ingala-Smith was eventually able to win the support of legal firm Freshfields, who together with Women’s Aid, a U.K. charity, launched a national violence register in February. It will incorporate police statistics as well as court reports.

No register of this kind exists in Canada.

Hegarty has so far counted the deaths of 138 Canadian women in 2015 who have died at the hands of men.

“It’s disturbing. And one of the things I’ve noticed is that there are many women who are 40 years and older that have been murdered by their male partners,” she says. She reports that 65 of the women, or 47 per cent (whose ages are known) are over 40.

Yet despite her best efforts at creating an accurate record, Hegarty says she understands that her method is not perfect.

“There have been a number of murders of women that my Google alerts didn’t catch,” she says.

“It’s kind of piecemeal, but that’s how Karen [Ingala-Smith] in the U.K. started it.”

Not all the women in the list are confirmed to have been killed by men. In some of the cases, police investigations are still pending. And context is an important factor for determining what counts as femicide. For example, a female shopkeeper killed in an armed robbery could have just as easily been a man.

In fact, men are more likely to be victims of homicide, according to Statistics Canada.

But Hegarty says she does the best she can to fill the gaps in government statistics. Statscan only records homicides where women have been killed by men, but doesn’t record the necessary context, such as the relationship between the killer and his victim.

One day, Hegarty says she hopes the government will make it mandatory for the police and the courts to provide information on femicide.

“Some kind of formal femicide census would tease out the information we need to understand the true extent of the problem of violence in Canada.”

Until then, Canadians will have to rely on grassroots volunteers such as Hegarty to remind them of the human side to the statistics.

By Martin J Smith | On average, a woman in Canada is killed by her male partner every…


Originally published at capitalnews.ca on December 4, 2015.