Gender-based violence across Canada

Our systems and communities often fail targets of male violence. We can do better.

By Julie S. Lalonde
Published: November 21, 2023

A digital collage with a large drawing of an umbrella overlaid with images of large overlapping hands. Below it, two hands (one black, one pink) reach up and away from a stylized road leading to a distant house partially overlaid with a pixelated, cloudy stain of red colour. In the background is an image of a forest of white tree trunks and a faint yellow sun. Partially obscured.

Illustration: Katy Lemay

Story text

Canada has long enjoyed a reputation for being a leader on human rights. We were early adopters of same‐sex marriage and universal health care: things to be enormously proud of. We have also committed to uphold many international human rights treaties, including the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. 

But Canada often fails to take effective action to ensure the safety of women and girls.

I now call Ottawa home, but I was born and raised in rural Northern Ontario. I was the first in my family to attend university and “move away.” This gives me a unique perspective as I travel across the country, educating thousands of Canadians every year on how to prevent violence against women.

I have been working in this field for 20 years. In that time, I have been repeatedly reminded of the gap between Canada’s reputation on the world stage and our everyday reality. Gender‐based violence targeting women, trans and nonbinary Canadians remains a constant threat. Public awareness has increased over the last decade or so because of global movements like #MeToo. But we have yet to see substantive change.

To better understand this reality, I want to take you back to my hometown.

The catch-22 of community

I spent the first 18 years of my life in Northern Ontario and it had many perks. I grew up with clear, beautiful lakes and rivers in my backyards. I never swam in pools because you just didn’t need them. In rural communities, there is no rush hour traffic to mess up your bike ride home from school. You know all your neighbours and there’s a built‐in sense of community. You feel you are a part of something.

But it’s exactly that familiarity that can make intimate partner violence so dangerous for rural women. When everyone knows everyone, it becomes very difficult to access confidential support. 

This is true from the perspective of the police as well. When I was conducting research on services for sexual assault survivors in rural communities, one officer explained that trust is an easy thing to lose in small communities. There are few officers in each community. If one of them pulls someone over for, say, speeding, then it can sour the driver on that officer forever, making it unlikely that they will entrust them with a report of violence at home.

A digital collage showing two large, cupped hands holding several smaller outstretched arms in various colours reaching up and out. In the background, a large yellow semicircle shape is visible behind a white silhouette of a crowd of people waving flags.

Few people report assaults to police, and even fewer get justice from the legal system. There is a laundry list of reasons why victims of sexual assault and intimate partner violence hesitate to contact police. [1] Survivors are routinely blamed and shamed for the violence they experience. Fear of retribution from an abuser or from their community keeps many people quiet.

We need robust legal reforms in Canada and more training for police and first responders for sure. But we also need to educate all Canadians on ways they can show up for the victims and survivors in their communities. Isolation kills. Community saves lives.

For decades, there have been laws against sexual violence. There is no evidence that carceral solutions are actually working. What we want is to dig up the roots of sexual violence so that it doesn’t happen in the first place.

Tarana Burke

Isolation and support

The tight communal bonds in small communities can, ironically, be isolating for survivors who want to flee their abusers. It makes it hard to know who to trust for support and sympathy or who might help keep them safe as they escape and – importantly – in the months after separation.

When you do feel ready to leave an abuser, there’s also the question of where to go. Women’s shelters are chronically full. A recent report showed that shelters in Canada have to turn away around 19,000 women and children every month. [2] This lack of options is especially dangerous in rural, remote and Northern communities, which have fewer social and health services overall. [3]

It’s also much harder to get anywhere in these communities. Public transit is almost entirely non‐existent in rural Canada. With the pullout of Greyhound buses, many communities found themselves completely isolated. Women and Two‐Spirit people are particularly vulnerable to discrimination and violence made worse by limited freedom of movement. [4]

Isolation is a risk factor for all victims of gender‐based violence. This was made clear during the COVID‐19 pandemic when femicide rates increased around the world – rural and urban. [5] Being told to shelter in place helped reduce the transmission of COVID‐19. But it presented a very dangerous situation for women who desperately needed to flee their abusive homes. [6]

A bright yellow poster with a large central illustration showing three figures holding up a crescent moon shape that contains the words “WOMEN UNITE! Take back the NIGHT.” Typewritten text surrounds the graphic, including: “All women invited. 8:30 p.m. September 19th 1986. Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter.”

The fight to live lives free of violence and fear has a long history. Women’s groups and rape crisis centres have been organizing “Take Back the Night” marches in Canada since the early 1980s.

Image: Vancouver Rape Relief Society

Firearms and gun control

Another factor that puts rural women at higher risk of violence is the presence of firearms. Unlike most Canadians, I grew up with guns in my home, which is much more common in rural, remote and Northern communities. Both my parents were avid hunters, as was my extended family. Thankfully, I grew up in a loving home and so those guns never posed a risk to my family or me. 

But that is not the case for women and children living with abusive men. The presence of guns in an abusive home accounts for many rural femicides. [7] It also partly explains why so few women feel safe enough to leave in the first place. Threatening a partner with a gun, even obliquely, keeps many women trapped out of terror and a desire to survive. [8]

A large crowd of people gathered outside at night, holding candles.

Vigil in Oak Bay, British Columbia, after Andrew Berry murdered his daughters Aubrey, 4, and Chloe, 6, in 2017. Men who commit domestic violence and murder are often motivated by jealousy, possessiveness, anger and a desire for control over women and children.

Photo: The Canadian Press, Chad Hipolito

In 2015, Natalie Warmerdam, Carol Culleton and Anastasia Kuzyk were killed by a man with a long history of committing violence against women. Despite having his gun licence revoked, when he got out of prison for abusing Anastasia, he was easily able to acquire a gun in his rural community and used it to kill two of the three women. A Coroner’s inquest released 86 recommendations for how to prevent similar tragedies. [9] They include a strong emphasis on the role of firearms and the need for more effective gun control. 

Canada’s largest mass casualty happened in April 2020 in rural Nova Scotia. It began when the killer assaulted his common‐law wife. He then easily accessed firearms and went on to kill 22 people. The ensuing Mass Casualty Commission emphasized that easy access to firearms is linked to higher rates of gender‐based violence. It recommended stronger gun control measures related to domestic violence and abuse. [10]

Some groups are more at risk

All women are vulnerable to experiencing violence at the hands of men. But not all women are at equal risk. 

It is important to examine violence against women from an intersectional lens. Intersectionality is a term created by Black legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. It refers to the reality that we embody a variety of identities at once. People at different intersections of identity have different experiences of the world. [11]

For example, as a white woman, I’m not white one day and a woman another – I am a white woman all the time. This means I can relate and connect with other women when it comes to our shared experiences of misogyny, but I move through the world with privilege when it comes to race. I have privilege in some spaces as a white woman, but I also have moments where I have less privilege because I’m a queer person. Depending on the context, I am either privileged or not.

Intersectionality allows us to see how systemic discrimination based on factors such as race, class, age, ability and sexual orientation changes our experiences of being a woman in the world. For example, trans, nonbinary and gender‐nonconforming people experience almost twice as much violence during their adult lives as cisgender Canadians. [12] They are also twice as likely to experience digital harassment. [13]

Groups most at risk of femicides

Women in rural, remote and Northern communities

Women in rural, remote and Northern communities live at disproportionate risk of femicide. Femicide is an emerging term that refers to the unique circumstances that surround the murder of women by men. [14] Some countries like Belgium and Malta have recently added it to their criminal codes [15] and many experts in Canada are calling for the same thing here. In Canada, fewer than 20% of us live in a non‐urban setting and yet rural women and girls represented 42% of femicides in Canada in 2022. [16]

Indigenous women

Indigenous women make up 16% of all femicides and 11% of all missing women in Canada even though Indigenous people make up only 4.3% of the Canadian population.

Disabled women and girls

Sixty percent of disabled women and girls will experience violence in their lifetimes.

Women aged 55+

Women aged 55+ are a growing segment of Canada’s population. They are disproportionately at risk of femicide from both their partners and their sons.

These various groups of women face heightened risks because they are stigmatized, ignored and even victimized by the racism, ableism, ageism, sexism and other biases in our systems of social support, policing and communal care.

Privilege isn’t about what you’ve gone through; it’s about what you haven’t had to go through. And right now, we are in a time that is calling on us to learn the stories that we don’t know.

Janaya Khan

The role of men

To address violence against women, we have to look at how we even talk about it. Even the terms "violence against women" or "gender‐based violence" speak volumes in their silence about perpetrators.

Men commit the vast majority of violence against women: 97% of those accused of sexual violence in Canada are men. [17] Of the 184 women and girls killed in 2022, when a perpetrator was identified, 90% were men. [18] Almost all (91%) of these murders were committed by intimate partners, family members, friends or acquaintances. Very few women are murdered by strangers. A shocking number of sons murder their mothers.

A digital collage showing a large fist clutching several outstretched arms of various colours, reaching up and away. It is hammering a point down into a target beneath it. The background includes a faint sun shape, cloud-like areas of yellow and blue, and a pixelated red band of colour.

Illustration: Katy Lemay.

We don’t call it "Men’s violence against women" but we should, because that’s what it nearly always is. Instead, we use vague and passive language that erases the source of the problem: sexist gender roles and expectations that justify and condone controlling and violent male behaviour by men.

The violent men are the ones who believe they are allowed to and justified in hurting women – the ones who buy in young to the story that causing pain is power.

Alex Manley, The New Masculinity

The way forward

Despite the sobering statistics on gender‐based violence, I remain hopeful. Communities can come together to keep each other safe. Survivors of intimate partner violence rarely flee an abuser without the help of friends, family, neighbours and other helpers. Giving everyday folks the tools to intervene and support survivors is truly lifesaving. 

The Ontario campaign Neighbours, Friends and Families focuses on the power of community to support victims and to call out abusers. Make It Our Business is a campaign that focuses on creating safer workplaces for those whose homes are not safe. 

Canada even has a campaign dedicated to the role that hairstylists play in ending gender‐based violence. For lots of women, the hair salon is a space for pampering and self‐care and many women (myself included!) are incredibly loyal to their stylists. By giving hairstylists training on how to spot red flags that a client is unsafe, a stylist could safely intervene.

There are so many ways that folks can show up for each other, but most people lack the skills to help. The good news is that these skills can be taught. Right to Be offers simple and effective bystander intervention training. It even has a campaign specific to teaching children aged 3 to 10! We need to support the creation and dissemination of these kinds of resources to build community care.

We also need increased funding for front‐line services. We need robust standardized sex education that focuses on consent, healthy relationships and how to handle rejection. We need to engage men and boys in tough conversations about healthy masculinity and resisting the cultural pressure to denigrate women and girls.

A very large crowd of people filling a wide street, marching. Many carry signs with slogans such as “Don’t touch me,” “Abusers deserve consequences” and “No means no.”

A large public protest in Montréal against sexual violence, 2020. Gender‐based violence can take many forms, including workplace and online harassment, stalking, coercive control over behaviour, sexual assault, domestic abuse, and femicide.

Photo: The Canadian Press, Graham Hughes

After the 1989 mass murder of women engineering students at École Polytechnique, Jack Layton and Michael Kaufman created the White Ribbon Campaign. It’s the world’s largest movement to engage men and boys in the fight to end violence against women. Canada is also home to the Moosehide Campaign, an Indigenous‐led movement to engage men and boys in these necessary conversations.

Charlene Senn, from the University of Windsor, created the most effective rape resistance program in the world. Her research proved that the biggest obstacles women and girls face are emotional ones. Girls and women are socialized early and often to prioritize being nice over being safe. Senn’s Flip the Script program teaches girls and women to understand the real risks. It empowers them to trust their guts when they feel unsafe or uncomfortable.

I believe that we have all the necessary pieces to end gender‐based violence in Canada. We can be true leaders on human rights. We can take better care of one another. The time to act is now.

We have to remake what the world is. We have to rediscover who we are in the absence of violence and oppression.

Sarah Polley

Ask yourself:

  • Where did I learn about sex and gender roles and expectations?

  • How might I safely and effectively intervene if I see someone being harassed?

  • How do the men in my life talk about and treat women?


Skip to end of references

  1. Canadian Women’s Foundation. "The Facts About Sexual Assault and Harassment." Back to citation 1
  2. Tara Carman. "Women, children turned away from shelters in Canada almost 19,000 times a month." CBC News. March 5, 2020.… Back to citation 2
  3. Allison Groening, Colin Bonnycastle, Marleny Bonnycastle, Kendra Nixon and Judith Hughes. Housing Needs of Indigenous Women Leaving Intimate Partner Violence in Northern Communities. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – Manitoba. June 2019.… Back to citation 3
  4. Julie S. Lalonde. "Without Greyhound buses, small‐town residents are losing a lifeline." Globe and Mail. May 20, 2021.… Back to citation 4
  5. UN Women. "The Shadow Pandemic: Violence against women during COVID‐19."… Back to citation 5
  6. Julie S. Lalonde. "Sheltered in Place: Violence against Women in Lockdown." Sick of the System: Why the COVID‐19 Recovery Must Be Revolutionary Back to citation 6
  7. Danielle Sutton. "Gender‐related homicide of women and girls in Canada." Statistics Canada. April 5, 2023.–002‑x/2023001/article/00003-eng.htm Back to citation 7
  8. Deborah Doherty and Jennie Hornosty. “Exploring the Links: Firearms, Family Violence and Animal Abuse in Rural Communities.” The Canada Firearms Centre. May 2008. Back to citation 8
  9. Ontario Office of the Chief Coroner. “Verdict of Coroner’s Jury.” June 28, 2022. Back to citation 9
  10. Mass Casualty Commission. “Final Report of the Mass Casualty Commission: Recommendations.” March 30, 2023. Back to citation 10
  11. Columbia Law School. “Kimberlé Crenshaw on Intersectionality, More than Two Decades Later.” June 08, 2017. Back to citation 11
  12. Brianna Jaffray. “Experiences of violent victimization and unwanted sexual behaviours among gay, lesbian, bisexual and other sexual minority people, and the transgender population, in Canada, 2018.” Statistics Canada. September 9, 2020.–002‑x/2020001/article/00009/tbl/tbl10-eng.htm Back to citation 12
  13. Jaffray. Back to citation 13
  14. Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability. “The history of the term ‘femicide.’” Back to citation 14
  15. M. Dawson and M. Carrigan. “Identifying femicide locally and globally: Understanding the utility and accessibility of sex/gender‐related motives and indicators.” Current Sociology, 69(5), pp. 682–704. Back to citation 15
  16. Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability. #CallItFemicide: Understanding sex/gender‐related killings of women and girls in Canada, 2018–2022. Back to citation 16
  17. Susan McDonald, Andrea Wobick and Janet Graham. “Bill C‑46: Records Applications Post‐Mills, A Caselaw Review.” Department of Justice Canada. December 1, 2006. Back to citation 17
  18. #CallItFemicide Back to citation 18

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Suggested citation

Suggested citation : Julie S. Lalonde. “Gender-based violence across Canada.” Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Published November 21, 2023.