This is one of the strongest, best pieces I have been privileged to produce for a mainstream publication, and I am so grateful to Avenue for the support and time I needed to write “Unsafe at Home, Lost in the System,” a deep dive into domestic violence as it plays out in our city.
Avenue, September 12, 2017
She looks just like you. She shops at your grocery store, works in your office — maybe lives next door. What’s happening in her home … it might even be happening in yours.
That’s the terrifying reality of domestic violence in Alberta, historically, and even more so now during the province’s economic downturn. In 2015, the Calgary Police Service (CPS) received 19,000 “domestic conflict” calls. That’s an increase of about 10 per cent over 2014 and a 24-per cent increase over the average number of calls in the previous five years. In 2016, the situation was even worse: the CPS responded to more than 20,000 domestic disturbance calls by October. The percentage within those 20,000 calls that involved suspected violence, rather than the more ubiquitous “conflict,” was up 36 per cent over the five-year average.
Tragically, domestic violence is not something that happens at the margins of our society. It’s pervasive, a phenomenon too aptly illustrated by the “heat” map released by Calgary’s HomeFront in November 2015, which visually plotted the distribution of six months’ worth of HomeFront’s clients. “Calgary is in crisis,” says Maggie MacKillop, executive director of HomeFront, the collaborative non-profit organization that works hand-in-hand with the CPS and other partners to connect survivors to resources.
The victims of the crisis are, predominantly, women and children, and their path to becoming survivors is full of financial, legal and emotional barriers. The most effective responses to Calgary’s — and Alberta’s — domestic violence crisis focus on eliminating specific barriers survivors face between living in an abusive situation and getting themselves and their families to safety.
In mid-2014, the Alberta SPCA began a pet safekeeping program for families fleeing violence, taking that load off survivors’ minds. The Calgary Humane Society offers a similar program. The SPCA’s program is notable because it is an unlegislated and unmandated grassroots initiative by an organization that looked at the challenge presented by domestic violence and asked itself if there was any concrete action it could take. It found it, and took it.
Deborah Drever, MLA for Calgary-Bow, followed a similar approach when she brought forward the Residential Tenancies (Safer Spaces for Victims of Domestic Violence) Amendment Act as a private member’s bill that allows victims of family violence to end a residential tenancy agreement without financial penalty.
“Domestic violence has always been an issue I was passionate about, and when I had the chance to present an [independent member’s bill], I wanted to address that issue in some very real way,” Drever says.
The Safer Spaces amendments were proclaimed into force in August 2016, and by the end of October had been used by 41 Alberta women, according to records from the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters (ACWS).
“Considering that people are still getting their policies and processes in place in response to this new piece of legislation, that’s great,” says Jan Reimer, ACWS’s executive director. “It’s a piece of what we need: it’s making systems more friendly to women, and that’s important.”
Safer Spaces hasn’t solved the problem of domestic violence in Alberta. But every small act, every step helps — especially when it pulls different stakeholders and institutions into more collaborative and creative conversations.
“The significant thing about Safer Spaces was that it was a provincial government-level initiative, but [government representatives] came out and did community consultations. They spoke to the people who are the boots on the ground,” says MacKillop. “It really opened up the conversation around the idea that it takes a community, everyone, from government to boots on the ground, to end domestic violence.”
These are conversations HomeFront has been fostering since it was first created in May 2000 as the Calgary Justice Working Project, a grassroots organization of community and justice coming together because they knew they had to address domestic violence better. “At that time recidivism was off the charts, victims had no voice before the courts, and trials were set years in advance,” recalls MacKillop. “We had to change that. We had to move families from crisis to safety faster.”
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