By Jessica Mank
The United Nations has designated November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The day recognizes women around the world who are subject to rape, domestic abuse, and other forms of violence.  This day also marks the start of the White Ribbon Campaign (men against violence against women) in Canada. In addition to raising awareness, one of the goals of this day is to highlight that violence against women and girls is not inevitable; prevention is possible and essential.
On the international stage, Canada has supported resolutions calling for the elimination of violence and women. For instance, Canada’s work at the United Nations has supported the development of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women and the mandate for a UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences. At home, the Government of Canada advances a plan of action with undertakings in prevention, protection and prosecution. To read more about the Government of Canada’s general strategy to eliminate violence against women, click here.
With the recent culmination of this year’s federal election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is now faced with the challenge of implementing the reforms he pledged during his campaign, including those for the prevention of domestic violence and sexual assault. Prime Minister Trudeau has announced the launch of a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada by summer 2016. Other policies promised in the Prime Minister’s electoral platform include developing a federal gender violence action plan, increasing investments in growing and maintaining Canada’s network of shelters and transition houses, and establishing a tougher stance on intimate partner violence.  The new government has also spoken out against Bill C-36. 
Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women
Nearly 1,200 Indigenous women were murdered or went missing between 1980 and 2012, according to an RCMP report issued in May 2014. A 2015 update has since been released including statistics and analysis on new cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women that have occurred since then. The update also addresses the initiatives and preventative developments the RCMP has taken in meeting the “Next Steps” outlined in the 2014 Overview.
The previous government did not undertake a federal inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. Part of the action taken by the previous government was extending the Canadian Human Rights Act to cover Indigenous peoples on reserves, launching an RCMP database of missing persons and unidentified remains intended to help police services across the country investigate unsolved disappearances and suspected homicides, and toughening laws related to violent crime. 
Craig Benjamin, campaigner for the human rights of Indigenous peoples at Amnesty International Canada, says its time to move past “simplistic explanations,” such as attributing the phenomenon to crime. “We have to get to the point of understanding the violence is far more pervasive, that it has multiple causes and that it does in fact have deep roots in our society and the relationships between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people.” 
At this point, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett has announced that Prime Minister Trudeau expects to launch pre-inquiry consultations with families, civil society groups and other stakeholders in the next few weeks regarding the national inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. The government plans to make an announcement on its findings in early December 2015. 
In January 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that called for National Action Plans to end violence against women. The resolution provides that all states should adopt National Action Plans in order to address gaps in current policies, programs and services, to involve various women’s organizations in identifying the necessary solutions, and to ensure accountability in delivery. 
Trudeau has pledged to develop and implement a comprehensive federal gender violence strategy and action plan, though it is not yet clear what this plan will look like. His government has also pledged to increase investments in growing and maintaining Canada’s network of shelters and transition houses as part of a broader investment in social infrastructure, and to amend the Criminal Code to reverse onus on bail for those with previous convictions of intimate partner violence. 
The UN resolution recognizes that violence against women is rooted in historically unequal power relations between men and women and urges states to take action to eliminate all forms of violence against women by means of a more “systemic, comprehensive, multisectoral and sustained approach, adequately supported and facilitated by strong institutional mechanisms and financing.” 
In its 2013 report, the Canadian Network of Women’s Shelters and Transition Houses made the case for a Canadian National Action Plan in Violence Against Women, noting:
- The federal government does not currently identify women as an at-risk population in terms of partner violence or sexual assault.
- Focus at the federal level is on gender-neutral victims of crime and family violence.
- Federal initiatives offering support and services to victims of violence against women maintain gender neutrality
- There are many needs that remain unmet by the traditional justice system, social services, and health care system. 
The report states that some of the most pressing issues for victims of domestic violence include the financial impact of crime and violence:
- Many women living with abuse cannot afford to escape the violence and, for economic reasons, may be forced to remain in homes with violent partners.
- Women’s shelters often suffer from inadequate funding to meet the demand in communities for women and their children.
- There a is a lack of safe, affordable community housing for those fleeing violence. 
- Victims who require mental health support to deal with the trauma they have suffered must often seek help at their own expense.
Sex Work and Bill C-36
In December 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s prostitution laws. The court held that the provisions violated the Charter by threatening sex workers’ rights to life, liberty and security of the person. Significantly, critics of Bill C-36 argue that the new bill largely recreates the problems in Bedford and actually limits the safe ways for sex-trade work. Trudeau and the Liberal Party voted against Bill C-36, and have spoken to repealing it while in office. 
In Bedford the SCC acknowledged that prostitutes in Canada face a high risk of physical violence, and held that ss. 210, 212(1)(j) and 213(1)(c) not only deprived applicants of their liberty in light of the availability of imprisonment as a sanction, but also made any security enhancing actions or methods illegal.
Evidence demonstrated that working in-call is the safest way to sell sex, yet those who attempted to increase their level of safety by working in-call faced criminal sanction. Out-call work may be made less dangerous if a prostitute is allowed to hire a bodyguard, but these business relationships were illegal. The law prohibited street prostitutes, largely the most vulnerable prostitutes, from screening clients at an early stage in the transaction, putting them at an increased risk of violence. 
Bill C-36 criminalizes the sale of sexual services in public spaces where persons under the age of 18 could be present. The act also makes it illegal for a person to get a “material benefit” from the sale of sexual services by anyone other than themselves. The enacting federal government maintained that the intention of the bill was to target johns, pimps and traffickers, but critics warn that the bill criminalizes prostitution and its effect will be placing sex workers in jail. 
Prior to being elected, Trudeau campaigned on repealing Bill C-36. It is unclear what his government will propose in its place.
Will Trudeau make an impact on the elimination of violence against women?
Questions remain as to whether Trudeau’s government will be able to deliver on campaign promises to bring reform to the issue of violence against women, and also as to what these reforms will look like. The selection of a gender-equal cabinet signifies a commitment to change and diversity, and holding a majority government will certainly assist the Liberals in implementing reform. However, it also means that expectations for reform remain high. 
So far it is clear that the new government is making the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women one of its first priorities. How quickly this inquiry will materialize and whether it will lead to more purposive action on the part of the federal government remains uncertain.
No timelines have yet been given to a National Action Plan to end violence against women, or to addressing Bill C-36. It regard to the former, it is unclear whether such a National Action Plan will respond to the areas identified in the Canadian Network of Women’s Shelters and Transition Houses’ 2013 report on violence against women.
As to Bill C-36, Pivot, a legal group that helped fight for sex workers’ rights at the SCC has recently stated they will launch a Constitutional challenge if the Liberal government does not act immediately to repeal the bill.  Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould recently commented that the government would look at possible changes to Bill C-36. She stated, “we’ve had some preliminary discussions around the Bedford decision and how we approach it more broadly, and . . . that is going to involve having substantive discussions with people who are fundamentally impacted by this. And that’s something that we’re definitely going to look into and have further to say on that.”