Coercive Control Legislation Gets New Hearing

The House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women undertaking a study of coercive behaviour

While the bill to criminalize coercive control awaits a third reading in the House of Commons (more on that in the sidebar), legislators have found a new path to find out more about legislative possibilities. 

The Status of Women Committee has initiated a process to study coercive behaviour, focusing on and studying those countries or jurisdictions around the world that have already legislated on this issue.

Until June 30, the public is invited to submit written briefs on the issue. The Committee’s final report, which will include recommendations to the Government of Canada, will be informed by these written submissions and by witness testimony. You can follow the Committee’s work or submit a brief here

Sagesse was proud to testify before the Committee on May 7. You can watch the replay here, or read our speaking points below. 

Sagesse’s Testimony to the Standing Committee on the Status of Women (FEWO)

Domestic abuse is far more than a black eye or broken bones. But all too often, we focus on instances of physical abuse since that’s what our laws commonly recognize, leaving the  60 to 80 percent of survivors who experience non-physical forms of abuse to go unvalidated and unsupported.   

I am hopeful, with this study, that you agree: we must stop this epidemic of violence by seriously considering legislation to prevent and intervene in cases of coercive control. 

Many jurisdictions around the world have taken steps to address coercive control, which we define as a pattern of behaviour that removes personal agency. 

As already mentioned England, Wales and Scotland have enacted coercive control legislation, in addition legislation to address coercive control within domestic violence has been enacted in Ireland, Australia, three US states, with three more pending, and in South Africa. There, they established domestic violence courts, require police to refer victims to appropriate supports, and have enacted provisions for the financial support of survivors.  

France is the only country that has coercive control legislation that governs both domestic violence and cults and groups using mental manipulation. 

While there are many things to learn from these jurisdictions, the greatest thing we want to emphasize today is that a coercive control framework allows victims to see their experiences recognized and validated. They are then empowered to share their stories and seek help.  

Three years before the United Kingdom criminalized coercive control, they changed their definition of domestic violence to include coercive control. Their Home Office began talking about coercive control. The social sector talked about it. And in those three years, domestic abuse calls to police increased 31 percent (Stark & Hester, 2019).   In addition, research from the college of policing in the UK found that, once enacted, the law enhanced the police response to domestic abuse, allowing for earlier and more effective intervention and there have not been any identified issues with charges being laid against victims. 

This radical change spotlights the power of changing the public discourse about coercive control and abuse.   

I cannot emphasize enough that the way we talk about abuse today has a very personal impact on how survivors view themselves, how they understand and contextualize their experiences, and the steps they take to get support.  

For many, coercive control is like an invisible cage; they feel its effect but have trouble defining it in their own lives. Too often at Sagesse, we get calls from survivors downplaying their own abuse, even though they’ve had their ability to make decisions in their own best interests stolen from them.  They are not sure they deserve or need our help.  

I had a client who shared the story of an ex randomly showing up, including when they were out running. They never exchanged a word, but the client was terrified, even as they were told, or told themselves, it was a coincidence, and they weren’t in danger. 

This doubt and questioning often happens when survivors bravely face social stigma and shame to share their stories with their friends, family and colleagues. 

That’s why any move to address coercive control must include these informal supporters, who are pivotal to eradicating violence.  

Eighty percent of people who experience abuse tell a friend or family member first. If they have a positive conversation, where their experiences of coercive control are taken seriously, they are more likely to seek out formal support and have positive outcomes. One example of this comes to mind, from an unlikely informal supporter.  

He worked as a banking associate, which provided a unique window into the personal lives of his customers, including those impacted by coercive control. Over a few months, he’d developed a friendly relationship with a customer who was a newcomer to Canada. One day, when the client came in to set up a bank account, they seemed to be particularly distracted, checking their phone every few minutes. 

He asked if everything was OK, and the customer shared that things had been stressful at home, and their partner was tracking their location throughout the day. Having had other clients disclose similar situations, particularly newcomers who didn’t know where else to go for help, he was happy to direct them to Sagesse. 

This is one of many examples of regular Canadians, empowered to intervene because they understand coercive control and the terrible impact it has on individuals, families and communities.  

To turn the tide on abuse, we must do more. This includes employing a coercive control lens in drafting legislation, helping every Canadian to recognize and talk about abuse, and increasing support to survivors and their supporters, who will be empowered to seek out help in far greater numbers.


Bill C-332 Amended

On March 22, the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights finished its study of Bill C-332, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (controlling or coercive conduct) and presented an amended version of the bill in the House of Commons. Here’s our thoughts:

  • The amended bill narrows the scope of the new offence from the use of coercive control between “connected persons” to coercive control in intimate relationships. This denies protection to other victims of coercive control, like in the case of elder abuse or the coercive control of adult children. While we continue to support this bill, we believe all victims of coercive control should enjoy the protection of our justice system. 
  • The bill outlines “patterns of conduct” that represent an offence, including controlling a person’s thoughts or opinions, or how they care for their minor children or pets. These are strong examples that can provide clarity in understanding the offense and applying the law, as long as it is not used to disqualify unforeseen mechanisms of control.
  • A new subsection on cross-examination will help ensure the law is not used to re-victimize survivors. 
  • We are very happy to see that the two year post-relationship time limit has been removed. This amendment recognizes that abuse can occur far after a relationship has ended. 
  • We strongly support the amended bill’s assertion that “a person’s safety includes their psychological safety.”  

With the amended bill tabled, the next steps in passing the law is a third reading in the House of Commons. Should it pass there, the Bill will move on to the Senate for consideration.