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As domestic violence cases climb, advocates call for more monitoring of offenders — and victims

WARNING: This article contains details of domestic violence.

Jill Thomson was violently attacked on an Edmonton sidewalk in December. The assault came a month after her house in nearby Antler Lake burned down.

The husband she is trying to leave is charged with both crimes. 

“I was on the ground and he was just hitting me continuously on my head … I could just feel the pain and the blood was just dripping,” she told CBC News days after the attack, her face bruised, with fresh stitches above her eyebrow and bloody wounds on the back of her head.

“I’m running scared. I don’t stay any place. I keep moving now,” she said.

Her estranged husband had been court-ordered to stay away from her after both incidents. But Thomson says she has little confidence in that. While she did receive an emergency protection order, Thomson said more measures could have made her feel safer.

“I’ve said it to so many people. It’s a piece of paper,” she said. 

Tracking offenders

Cases of domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence and conjugal violence, are not rare in Canada. In 2021, Statistics Canada recorded 788 homicide victims; of those, 90 were killed by an intimate partner. That’s an increase from 2020, when Statistics Canada recorded 84 victims of intimate partner homicide, and 2019, when there were 79 victims.

Electronic monitoring of those accused and convicted in cases of domestic violence can make a difference to victims, advocates say.

But a CBC News analysis of provincial and territorial programs show there is no uniform approach in Canada to whether an accused or offender is tracked.

An ankle bracelet used in the monitoring program can be seen in a supplied photo from the Quebec government.
A photo provided by the Quebec government of the ankle bracelets used in its monitoring program. Quebec is the only province in the country where both the offender and the victim can wear tracking devices. (Government of Quebec)

CBC News reached out to every province and territory’s justice or public safety ministry to ask whether they have any type of monitoring program in domestic violence cases, and if not, if it is something that’s being considered.

Some provinces — Manitoba, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut — have no monitoring program at all. (Of these, only Manitoba said it was evaluating various monitoring options).

Others — Yukon, B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador — can electronically track those accused or convicted in domestic violence cases.

But Quebec is the only province in the country where both the offender and the victim can wear tracking devices — and the victim is alerted if the two devices get too close.

‘High level of fear of being located’

The Jessica Martel Memorial Foundation operates a women’s shelter in Morinville, Alta., roughly 40 kilometres north of Edmonton.

It’s named in memory of Jessica Martel, who was murdered in 2009 by her husband; she had been planning to leave him the day she died.

A crib and single bed can be seen in a unit inside a women's shelter in Morinville, Alberta.
One of the units inside a women’s shelter operated by the Jessica Martel Memorial Foundation in Morinville, Alta. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Since the shelter opened in 2020, executive director Marla Poelzer said the facility has been packed with clients.

“People are in crisis. They’re … fight or flight,” she said.

“Leaving is one of the most dangerous times for people. They’re at extreme risk of increased violence or homicide. … I think there’s definitely a high level of fear of being located.”

Poelzer said the tracking tools being used in Quebec would add a level of safety and likely reduce fears around the abuser getting too close. And she thinks other provinces should follow suit.

“There’s no reason why other provinces couldn’t adopt this tool and definitely try it,” she said.

“People die, right? People are murdered because of domestic violence. So if this does protect people from losing their life, I think it’s a really important step in moving forward.”

‘We need to utilize the technology’

Quebec Conservative Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu has presented a bill before the Senate that he hopes will make life safer for domestic violence victims across Canada.

Bill S-205 is ready for third reading in the Chamber; it would require electronic bracelets to be worn by accusers who receive a peace bond, would require victim consultation before the peace bond is signed and would give judges the authority to send an aggressor to a rehabilitation program. 

Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu sits at a table in his office in Ottawa.
Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu speaks with CBC News from his office in Ottawa on Jan. 31. He has presented a bill before the Senate that he hopes will make life safer for domestic violence victims. (CBC)

Beyond the bill, Boisvenu says he wants to see other provinces and territories follow his province’s lead.

“I’m also surprised why it was just Quebec that went ahead with that bill and other provinces don’t move,” he said.

It’s a sentiment shared by Vince Morelli, the owner of Safe Tracks GPS, a company in Red Deer, Alta., that designs electronic monitoring equipment that can be used in cases of domestic violence.

The devices can create zones where offenders are not allowed to go, such as near a victim’s house, can alert police if the offender is somewhere where he or she should not be and can alert the victim if the offender is too close.

Morelli said monitoring devices work in a way that an emergency protection order or a restraining order does not, and he said programs like Quebec’s can help.

“We can actually keep them apart, which will disrupt domestic violence,” Morelli said.

“What we need to do is get all these provinces to follow what Quebec is doing.”

Vince Morelli speaks to CBC News from his company's office in Red Deer, Alberta.
Vince Morelli started Safe Tracks GPS in 2009. The company in Red Deer, Alta., designs electronic monitoring equipment that can be used in cases of domestic violence. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Over the years, Morelli says he has read and watched countless stories about those who died at the hands of a loved one. 

“It’s just maddening… We need to utilize the technology.”

Morelli said consistent cell coverage is paramount for the devices to work properly — and that is something rural Canada lacks. Beyond that, he said there are bigger challenges of implementing these types of programs, namely, funding.

Quebec’s program, for instance, which was unveiled in 2021, will cost $41 million over five years.

Poelzer, the women’s shelter executive director, said that, while the devices are important, there also needs to be emphasis placed on prevention and early intervention, which she called the keys to breaking the cycle of domestic violence.

‘Mitigating the potential for harm’

When Brian Simpson was first starting out as a police officer, he says he was taken aback by the violence that would happen behind closed doors.

Simpson spent 36 years in law enforcement: 30 years with the RCMP, including as superintendent at the Red Deer detachment, and six years with the Edmonton Police Service, where he was a deputy police chief.

Brian Simpson sits on a couch during an interview with CBC News on February 2, 2023.
Brian Simpson worked in law enforcement for 36 years. He says he is hopeful that Canada’s jumbled approach to monitoring programs will improve. (Peter Evans/CBC)

He said he supports electronic monitoring, noting it can create accountability on the part of the offender, and he said a system like Quebec’s can make a real difference for the victim.

“I think it’s a positive step forward in dealing with those high-risk situations that we see, in terms of, once again, making the victim feel safe, mitigating the potential for harm to that victim,” he said.

Simpson said is hopeful that Canada’s jumbled approach to monitoring programs will improve, adding that he thinks there is now appreciation for the new technology where a victim can be alerted.

“With Quebec having taken the lead, I have no doubt it’s going to create more conversation, which it has. And you’re going to see these other jurisdictions taking a look and saying, ‘Hey, you know, there’s some demonstrated value here, let’s try it and see how it works in our jurisdiction,'” he said.

Peace of mind

Thomson’s husband is now behind bars, awaiting trial.

But she said, until that happened, she felt like the onus fell solely on her to keep herself safe.

“I felt that I was the one being treated like the criminal,” Thomson said when she spoke with CBC News again in late January.

WATCH | Jill Thomson’s estranged husband had been court-ordered to stay away from her: 

as domestic violence cases climb advocates call for more monitoring of offenders and victims 5

Calls to improve monitoring of domestic violence offenders, accused

10 hours ago

Duration 3:01

Advocates and survivors of domestic violence say Canada’s patchwork of programs to electronically monitor offenders and accused is leaving victims vulnerable.

She said a program like Quebec’s should be implemented across the country.

“It would make the victim feel so much safer,” she said.

“It would just bring the sense of safety and security to the … victim, who doesn’t know what to expect next.”

Support is available for anyone affected by intimate partner violence. You can access support services and local resources in Canada by visiting this website. If your situation is urgent, please contact emergency services in your area.

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