Margaret Scott/NewsArt
Debbie Douglas, Avvy Go and Sarah Blackstock

Ask just about any woman in this country if she or a woman she knows has experienced violence, and the answer will be “yes.”

And yet, for the most part, the policies and public discourse of this country imply violence against women in Canada is no big deal.

But violence against women is a big deal, traumatizing thousands of women in this country and profoundly impacting their lives. Every six days a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner, and every day more than 3,000 women are living in emergency shelters to escape domestic violence. Twelve per cent of all violent crime in Canada or 40,000 arrests result from domestic violence each year, although only 22 per cent of all domestic violence incidents are reported to the police.

Such is the current state of domestic violence against women in Canada.

If the Canadian government were to pass a law today requiring all Canadians with a spouse to stay in that relationship for two years before they would be eligible to, say, file for separation or divorce, many Canadians would be outraged. Women’s rights advocates would decry such a draconian measure as it would effectively trap women in abusive relationships.

Yet this is precisely what the government has chosen to do, albeit to a smaller yet extremely vulnerable group.

As of Oct. 25, 2012, a new regulation imposes a two-year condition on all permanent residents who come to Canada as a sponsored spouse. The regulation applies to all sponsored spouses who at the time of the sponsorship application have resided for two years or less with their sponsors, and do not have any children in common. Once they arrive in Canada, the sponsored spouse must continue to cohabit with her sponsor in a conjugal relationship for at least two years, or risk losing her permanent resident status and ultimately be deported.

Prior to the passage of this regulation, women’s rights advocates and immigrant organizations warned federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney that this rule would endanger the lives of women in abusive relationships, many of whom would be too ashamed and too afraid to speak out for fear of losing their immigration status. Nevertheless, the minister passed the regulation, while putting in place an “exemption” from the two-year condition for those who could prove they are subject to abuse or neglect.

But as one can deduce from the serious under-reporting of domestic violence incidents, fleeing from abuse is not as easy as picking up the phone and calling the police. The fear, the shame, the lack of income and lack of a place to go are significant obstacles faced by many women experiencing violence. Add risk of deportation to that list and surely one can appreciate the enormous barriers faced by abused sponsored immigrant women.

And then they have to prove the abuse occurred. In a culture that is still hesitant to acknowledge the prevalence of violence against women, this is rarely easy. In a society that is increasingly xenophobic and concerned about outsiders looking for a free ride, this might prove impossible.

Even without the conditional visa, many immigrant women are forced to remain in abusive relationships.

Recall the case of Rona Amir Mohammad, the first wife of Montreal’s Mohammad Shafia. She came to Canada on a visa as a domestic servant of the family and found herself trapped in an abusive marriage. With the renewal of the visa hanging over her head and at the mercy of the Shafia family, Rona was too afraid to flee. She ended up becoming one of the murder victims of Shafia, who along with his son drowned Rona and his own daughters.

The government has justified the new regulation in the name of curbing “marriage fraud” or “marriage of convenience” without offering evidence of the prevalence of these problems. According to the Canadian Border Services Agency, about 120 cases a year are referred to removal proceedings on suspected misrepresentation relating to spousal sponsorship. Even if all 120 cases are found to involve marriage fraud, which is highly unlikely, it still does not justify amending the law and putting the lives of thousands of women at risk.

Domestic violence is still a major issue in Canada, but rates of domestic violence have fallen in recent years, thanks to advancements in gender equality. The conditional permanent residence regulation is a major step backward in Canada’s fight against gender-based violence. It resurrects the notion of women as chattels of their spouse with no legal right outside of their husband and his family.

At the heart of this we must decide if we should allow political expediency to trump the rights, safety, value and humanity of all women. On this day, the anniversary of the 1989 Montreal Massacre, as we recommit ourselves to eradicate violence against all women, let us say no to the conditional permanent resident status.

Debbie Douglas is executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants.

Avvy Go is director of the Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic.

Sarah Blackstock is director of advocacy and communications at the YWCA.


This article was first published on Wednesday December 05, 2012 on The Star