Full Project Description

At the core of this project is a goal to change our country’s understanding of abuse, both in our social structures and in Canada’s criminal codes.


In 1994, Federal Laws changed to increase the number of convictions in domestic abuse cases. This change meant that women could no longer make the choice as to whether or not to press charges; previously, when given the choice, women did not press charges. For twenty years, police authorities have been making the call – without assessing the impact in each particular case.

Still, many women who leave abusive domestic partnerships continue to endure that abuse years after departing, an arrest might amplify the danger here. Sadly, harassment laws do not include daily aggressive acts through face-to-face or electronic communications. Laws that address threatening or intimidating behaviour and communication do not protect recipients of that abuse unless the communications include overt messages of inflicting bodily harm or are received frequently within one day (communication from Women’s Assaulted Helpline). Daily abusive and bullying messages can persist for years, seemingly without end, unless the abuser decides to stop.

The above examples of attempts to change the situation of domestic abuse indicate that this is a “wicked problem”, where attempts to intervene on the system cause other problems. The legal changes may have triggered positive change and still, they have also, simultaneously, caused more damage in the lives of women who have experienced abuse. This research aims to understand the issues, and identify areas to intervene in the system, while anticipating where negative outcomes may occur.

We have designed the research plan and process to suit its status as a wicked problem. This multi-year project includes systems mapping, experience modelling and stakeholder workshops.

Through examination of a process timeline of involved stakeholders, an investigation into the legal precedents that have been set for trying domestic abuse cases, and the laws governing domestic abuse and harassment both provincially and federally, this project will highlight the leverage points whereby change may be facilitated to produce outcomes that will protect and support survivors of domestic abuse as they navigate the legal system. A thorough literature review with expert interviews, combined with ethnographic field research, will explore four thematic domains central to the research.

Thematic Areas

As with most wicked problems, the topic is broad and has no clear “stopping point” for arenas of impact or influence. To begin, we have isolated four thematic areas of inquiry:

  1. a history of federal legislation addressing family violence in Canada,
  2. the impact of domestic abuse on survivors,
  3. personality disorders as they relate to incidents of abuse, and
  4. cultural lens through which abuse is understood, propagated or dismissed

1. A History of Federal Legislation Addressing Family Violence in Canada

The legislation addressing family violence in Canada will be examined both historically and currently, with an emphasis on identifying areas where they fail to address the needs of the abuse survivor and the often resulting escalation of risk factors involved with spousal abuse following legal intervention.

Research has shown that the most dangerous time for an abused woman is when attempting to leave her partner. One study reveals that fifty percent of fatalities occurred within two months of leaving the relationship.

View the full report here: http://domesticabuseandthelaw.ca/canadian-legal-and-justice-systems-review/

2. Impact on Survivors

Through stakeholder interviews, an assessment of the qualitative experiences of survivors – and the impacts of both the abusive relationships and the simultaneous navigation of the legal system – will be mapped. Although psychological abuse is often considered less severe than physical violence, health care providers and advocates around the world are increasingly recognizing that all forms of domestic violence can have devastating physical and emotional health effects. Domestic violence is associated with adult mental health problems such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. Children witnessing family violence regularly exhibit symptoms of low self-esteem, withdrawal, aggression, rebellion, hyperactivity, delinquency, sleep disturbances, somatic complaints, decreased social competencies, learning problems, & relationship difficulties.

3. Personality Disorders

The emerging awareness of sociopathic behaviours and their manifestation in both the corporate and political spheres and in perpetrators of domestic abuse will be explored, with particular attention to current societal and corporate approval and rewarding of sociopathic behavior. Mental health clinicians recognise that antisocial personality disorder (APD) traits play a prevalent part in both the success of high achieving executives and in the intimate abuse situation. Among other traits, APD behaviour is exhibited through unstable interpersonal relationships, disregard for the consequences of one’s behaviour, a failure to learn from experience, egocentricity, disregard for the feelings of others and persistent rule breaking.

4. Culture of Abuse

Cultural norms that may influence the formation of domestic relationships, and on which social values they are based, will be investigated. Mediating factors such as gender, geographic location, ethnicity, and belief systems will be acknowledged in the project. The extent to which these factors can also influence how abuse survivors interface with stakeholders will be explored. For instance, the ways in which abuse can be dismissed or overlooked as an ‘homogenized absence’, or conversely as a ‘pathologized presence’, depending on one’s ethno-cultural background, is of concern. Existing research into how cultural specificity is addressed by the legal system and stakeholders in general, and how it brings certain groups ‘under scrutiny’, will be of critical importance to understanding the wicked problem.