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What a national action plan on gender-based violence might achieve — if Canada gets it right


In 1995, then-secretary of state for the status of women Sheila Finestone opened a report on the federal plan for gender equality by urging action.

“Women’s issues are society’s issues,” she wrote. “When successfully resolved, both women and men will reap the benefits.”

And yet, five years after the United Nations recommended every country have a national action plan on violence against women in place, Canada is just preparing to launch its own national plan to tackle gender-based violence — a distinction that has some worrying the 2020 government is already on the wrong track.

“If you’re just lumping it all together under gender identity, I think it’s really hard to know what kind of phenomena we’re dealing with,” says Elizabeth Sheehy, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.

A well-executed national action plan would address the fact that Canada’s responses to violence against women “are largely fragmented, often inaccessible, and can work to impede rather than improve women’s safety,” according to a 2013 blueprint put together by Women’s Shelters Canada. The blueprint also differentiates between violence against women and gender-based violence, the former being one type of the latter.

However, in 2015, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government voted down a motion from NDP MP Niki Ashton that would have created such a plan. Two years later, Justin Trudeau’s government created a federal strategy to address gender-based violence — one the UN special rapporteur on violence against women critiqued last summer as “lacking a human rights based holistic legal framework.”

Last fall, Trudeau’s re-election platform included a promise to spend $30 million on a national action plan to end gender-based violence. Advocates, including Women’s Shelters Canada, have pushed for the national action plan to be launched in the coming months. However, a spokesperson for Maryam Monsef, minister for women and gender equality, declined to offer a timeline, saying the government has “begun developing” the plan.

At first glance, Fae Johnstone, a trans educator, organizer and contributing writer with Xtra, sees the use of the term gender-based violence rather than violence against women as a good sign.

“It’s a really positive shift,” she says, because it allows people to look at the ways in which violence intersects, like the ways in which trans women experience both sexism and transphobia.

“I have a positive response to that (language) because it allows us to get into the deep and nitty-gritty of it, wrap our heads around how powerful those systems can be and create a response that is as intricate and interconnected as those systems of violence themselves.”

The plan will be in keeping with the federal strategy, the spokesperson said, meaning it won’t be women-specific but will look at ending violence “based on gender expression, gender identity or perceived gender and protect those who are most vulnerable to it: women, girls, and LGBTQ2 individuals.”

The lack of specificity is infuriating to Sheehy, and not because she’s trying to say LGBTQ2 people don’t experience violence or that that violence isn’t similar in some ways to the violence cisgender, straight women face but because it’s complicated.


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