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Ford government says it will support NDP bill to declare intimate partner violence an epidemic

Politicians and advocates welcomed the move, but called on the Progressive Conservatives to ensure the bill passes 'without delay'
Advocates joined the NDP at Queen's Park on April 10 to call on the government to declare intimate partner violence an epidemic.

The Progressive Conservatives said they would support an NDP bill to declare intimate partner violence an epidemic in Ontario — marking a change from the Ford government's opposition to doing so last year. 

While the move was welcomed by politicians and advocates at Queen's Park on Wednesday, they lamented that the issue is still being debated and called on the Progressive Conservatives to ensure the bill passes "without delay."

Bill 173, the Intimate Partner Violence Epidemic Act, passed second reading on Wednesday evening in a voice vote with support from all parties. It has been referring to the Standing Committee on Justice Policy.

"Indeed, the government and this caucus will be supporting the private member’s bill that comes before the house later today," Government House Leader Paul Calandra said in the chamber during question period in the morning, adding that the government would go further. 

"The premier has asked that we seek the advice of the standing committee on justice to do an in-depth study on all of the aspects with respect to intimate partner violence, both the current programs that are available, some of the root causes of it and how we can do better in the province of Ontario," Calandra told the house. 

"Everything is on the table. We want to look at every aspect of this so that we can come with a team Ontario approach to how we deal with the challenges that are being faced," the minister said, adding that if the committee approves of such a study, the government will provide the resources they need to travel across the province. 

NDP Leader Marit Stiles, whose question prompted the response from Calandra, took a moment to acknowledge the government's shift. 

"Well, there's not many days when we do something like that, so I want to thank the government for agreeing today," Stiles said. Following question period, she told reporters she was "surprised" to hear the government say it would support the bill. 

"We have had the Renfrew inquest recommendations now for years, and each time that we've raised this with the government, they've refused to declare intimate partner violence an epidemic," she said, calling it "incredibly moving" to see survivors and advocates working together to create change. 

Last year, the province rejected a recommendation that came out of a coroner's inquest into the murders of three women in Renfrew County in 2015 calling on the province to declare intimate partner violence an epidemic. The province said the issue was not "an infectious or communicable disease," and therefore not an epidemic, according to a report from The Globe and Mail. Many of the 86 recommendations were provincially focused. 

"What we need now is for the government to actually make sure this passes without delay by declaring this an epidemic," Stiles said. "Let's get it right through today. Let's (get it to) royal assent. We don't need another study. We don't need this to go to a committee. We've seen the government, frankly, send legislation to committees before just to die there. We don't need to retraumatize survivors in that process."

Bill 173 — co-sponsored by NDP MPPs Peggy Sattler, Lisa Gretzky, Jill Andrew and Kristyn Wong-Tam — was first introduced on March 7. 

The Liberals and Greens said on Wednesday morning that they too would be supporting the bill, with Green Leader Mike Schreiner saying he wants the government "to fast-track approval on this — we don’t want it to go to committee and die." 

Fartumo Kusow, whose daughter Sahra Bulle was murdered last year, called the government's pledge to support the NDP bill a "good first step." 

"The biggest, greatest tragedy here in Ontario is we are still debating this in 2024. How many more women have to die before we say this is enough? If the Ontario government wants to show me that it cares about me, it cares about my daughter, and all the other daughters around them struggling with this, they would pass this bill to a law today," Kusow told reporters, adding that she doesn't think "another committee" is necessary.

Kusow was one of several advocates from across the province who came to Queen's Park on Wednesday to share their stories, put pressure on the government and sit in the gallery to watch debate on the bill. Dan Jennings from Sault Ste. Marie also planned a trip to the legislature, as was previously reported by SooToday. He lost his daughter Caitlin Jennings, 22, last year after she was found dead in London, Ont. home.

On Wednesday morning during a press conference, Kusow said that to this day, the family leaves Bulle's seat free at the table. 

"Her plate sitting there where she should have been. Her bedroom is how she had left it," Kusow said, adding that her daughter, whose husband was arrested and charged following her death, left behind 52 family members. 

"With every blow she'd suffered, every black eye she'd came home with, every attempt of her trying to rescue herself or allowing us to rescue her, impacted us and invaded pervasively in every cell of our being," she said. 

Kusow spoke of how intimate partner violence is "pervasive, preventable and predictable," and that declaring it an epidemic is not just a symbolic act. 

"It's a critical step towards mobilizing a comprehensive and co-ordinated effort to address its root cause, support survivors and hold perpetrators accountable," she said. "In order for us to treat this disease, this public health emergency, we need to name it first ... so we can look at it and we can treat the ailment."

Gretzky, one of the NDP MPPs who tabled the bill, also said it's important for the province to label the issue an epidemic — something several cities have already done — to "validate" the inquest findings and the stories of those who have experienced intimate partner violence or their families. She said it would also help mobilize people to highlight to the province what is needed, such as places for women to stay when they have to leave home. 

She pointed to a shelter in Windsor, saying it has had to turn people away because there wasn't enough space. 

Erin Lee, executive director of Lanark County Interval House and Community Support, said her organization, which supports women fleeing violence, doesn't have core funding for publication education.

"We fundraise public education so that we can be in the community talking about and educating others so that we can empower people to be able to not be silent and to take the chance and the risk to have a conversation with us," said Lee. "There are so many people living isolated that don't feel validated and don't feel like they have the channels to reach out and to be heard."

The government didn't respond directly to questions about its change in position on the issue or whether it would ensure the NDP's bill gets royal assent. 

Charmaine Williams, associate minister of women’s social and economic opportunities, said in a statement that the government is "focused on actions that deliver concrete and tangible results to prevent violence before it happens."

"We are also ensuring that perpetrators responsible for these horrible crimes are held accountable through the justice system. We’ve invested more than $1.4 billion in services to address and prevent gender-based violence, and we will continue to make investments to support victims and fight violence against women and children," she said. 

Editor's Note: This story was updated in the evening on April 10 following second reading passage of Bill 173. 

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