On the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, there is little to celebrate as the list of murdered and missing women in British Columbia continues to grow. Foremost, our deepest sympathy to the loved ones of the slain women, as they and whole communities are deeply affected by these horrific crimes.
The very recent murders of Jennifer Ferguson of Surrey, Carla Marie Smith found in Burnaby, Loren Leslie of Fraser Lake, Tyeshia Jones from Duncan, Chassidy Charlie of Burns Lake, Laura Szendrei of Delta, Cynthia Maas found in Prince George, and other women tell us there is important work to be done in this province to address violence against women. When will enough be enough before the big investments that are needed are made? If as many people were dying of influenza or airplane crashes as there are women dying as a result of violence in B.C., we would see big action being taken. The B.C. Centre for Disease Control or the Transportation Safety Board would swoop in with investigators, analyze the causes of the deaths, and make immediate changes to prevent more. But for crimes against women and girls, we do not even have a named central government office mandated to track the deaths, analyze the issues, and lead action for change.
Approximately 26 women have been murdered in B.C. each year for the last 10 years, with the exception of 2002, when that number escalated to 50 women. B.C. has more murdered and missing aboriginal women than anywhere else in Canada. But domestic and sexual violence resulting in death does not tell the whole story, because in addition to the homicides, there are hundreds of thousands of assaults against women in B.C. each year and most are going unreported.
A comprehensive multiyear strategic plan, involving government, community, and the justice system and that will result in immediate action, is needed. Central to this plan should be action related to the grave lack of sanctions against sexual violence in B.C. At a Premier’s Forum on Public Safety convened by Gordon Campbell in 2005, research revealed by the RCMP outlined that “if you are a sex offender in the province of BC right now, you have a 98.5% chance of getting away with it”.
Yet since this forum, nothing has been done to address these issues. The B.C. government has no cross-ministry policy on sexual assault, funding to all B.C. sexual assault services was cut by the province in 2002, and we have only 62 remaining community victim service programs in place to provide the specialized justice and other supports that survivors need. Chronic wait-lists are standard for most of B.C.’s specialized violence against women counselling programs and there are no such programs at all for young women. Nor is enough being done to intervene upon early sex offender behavior before it escalates to deadly levels. Serious sexual predators are not born, but start by committing lower level sex offences, which they are getting away with.
And as this epidemic continues, B.C. boasts a $50-million balance in the Victims of Crime Surcharge Account. The funds for this special account are collected exclusively for services for victims, yet communities and women go without while the surcharge account continues to grow. Pivotal to our public indignation should be a plea to those in power to open this vault and have these funds used for their intended purpose before more women die.
Solutions to increase women’s safety are investments that will cost money. The $50 million would be a good start. It’s all about our priorities in a society that prides itself on ideas of equality, justice, and safety. We need more community victim support services, counselling, and outreach programs. We need serious consequences for the sexual and physical abuse being perpetrated against women. We need adequate resources to prosecute these crimes. We need broad public education in every community to encourage more people to break the silence on violence.
On this International Women’s Day (March 8), let us honour the lives of the women lost and those surviving these crimes. Women and girls are being victimized today, in every city and in every community. Please call for action now.
Tracy Porteous is the executive director of the Ending Violence Association of British Columbia.