In mid-March 2020, Canadians were asked to self-isolate due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The rationale for this was to keep the virus from spreading and keep the people of Canada safe. Unfortunately, the isolation, lack of contact with friends and family, and lack of access to social services has, in the words of federal Minister for Women and Gender Equality, Maryam Monsef, created a powder keg for victims of domestic violence.
Domestic violence has been on the rise since the onset of the pandemic crisis. In some places, like the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), Monsef says the calls to shelters have increased by 400 per cent and incidents of abuse have increased as much as 20 to 40 per cent. In some rural centres, though, calls have dropped. This does not necessarily mean that incidents of violence have dropped. On the contrary. Rural supports are often more challenging to access and when a woman is constantly under surveillance by their abuser, they may have more difficulty leaving the home to seek help. Globally, there have been calls from the United Nations for countries to create a plan to end this surge.
Many women and children are home all day with their abusers. With many abusers out of work and families dealing with increased financial instability, stress is at an all-time high. Women and children have very few options for safety. Some shelters are at full capacity and some cannot open due to COVID-19 distancing restrictions. Finally, money is flowing to shelters to deal with this increased need and to support women and children facing violence.
Right now, union leaders, friends and neighbours need to be vigilant. Being a good neighbour means checking in with neighbours that you suspect may be facing violence at home. Provide support and call for help when necessary. Union leaders should be contacting those members whom they know may be at home with an abuser. It is important to be a source of support to women and children during this time of isolation.
April’s attack in Nova Scotia has led to more vigilance on the part of unions with regard to potential domestic violence during the pandemic. Statistics show that many mass shootings start with domestic violence and, indeed, the Nova Scotia shooter began his spree by first assaulting his partner. “We must acknowledge that these murders were rooted in misogyny,” said Marie Clarke Walker, Secretary-Treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress. “They are not ‘senseless,’ ‘random’ or ‘isolated’. They are part of the nationwide crisis of violence against women. It is the same crisis that sees a woman or girl killed every three days in this country.”
The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) is taking action to end domestic violence in Canada, both during the pandemic and post COVID-19. The CLC is pressuring the government for a National Action Plan on Ending Violence Against Women and Girls. They have also created education programs in conjunction with gender-based violence experts at the University of Western Ontario (UWO). These workshops help union leaders understand how to identify forms of domestic violence, with the aim of empowering those leaders to provide their members and their families with support.
OSSTF/FEESO is responding to Bargaining Unit leaders’ growing concerns about members who may be facing situations of domestic violence. The Women’s Advocate program, developed in 2019, will train several advocates in each District to support and provide resources to members facing domestic violence. While training for this program was postponed due to COVID-19, we are working to begin training of our advocates soon. OSSTF/FEESO also donated $25,000 to the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses (OAITH) at the start of the pandemic to assist at a time when we knew there would be an increased need.
The most important thing to remember is that we all have a role to play. Posting safety and awareness information for members, like this video (The National: How a pandemic affects domestic violence), could help save someone’s life, empower your members to leave a dangerous situation that they are in, or at least encourage your members to seek support. Directing members to their Employee Assistance Program (EAP) can also help to provide support.
Standing by is not an option.
If you suspect that one of your members is living in an abusive situation, reach out or encourage them to seek support. Shelter organizations, deemed an essential service, are open and taking calls, and the government has provided extra money to shelter organizations to assist at this time of need. No one deserves to live in an abusive home.
How to help someone you know or those suffering in your community (from the CLC)
What should you do if you are concerned about a co-worker, friend or family member that you believe is experiencing abuse?
- Remind them that you care about their health and well-being.
- Encourage them to reach out to their local shelter to get support and to develop a safety plan.
- Keep the lines of communication open to reduce isolation.
- Union representatives who have been assisting members with workplace safety planning can work with them and a shelter worker to adapt it to the new context.
How can you help in your community?
- Consider donating to local shelters so they can continue to offer services during this crisis. Contact your local organization to find out how you can help.
What to do if you need help
- Reach out to any women’s shelter or helpline, which will provide information, support and referrals to other services. You do not need to seek shelter to get help.
- Even if leaving does not feel like an option, shelter workers can provide assistance with developing a safety plan, offer a listening ear, and help you better understand your situation.
- If you belong to a union, create or adapt a workplace safety plan with your union representative. If you don’t belong to one, work with your employer and a shelter worker.
- If you are in immediate danger, call 911. You do not need to tell the 911 operator why you are calling if you are afraid of your partner’s reaction. Even if you just say “I would like to order a pizza,” police will come to your home.
Sheltersafe provides information and can help identify a shelter in your community. Crisis and distress lines are available in most provinces and territories, and 211 can identify local sources of support in many communities.