Five years after Parliament passed a law giving victims of crime new rights, Canada's chief victims' advocate is calling on MPs to fix a regime she says has failed to empower and support those harmed by crime.
In a progress report to be released today, Ombudsman for Victims of Crime Heidi Illingworth says the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights has not delivered on its promise to ensure victims' rights are respected and upheld in a more balanced criminal justice system.
She is calling for a parliamentary review of the act and is offering 15 recommendations to the federal government for legislative and administrative measures.
"We think that strengthening victims' rights and providing them a guarantee of support and assistance would encourage more people to actually come forward and empower them to seek legal support and social supports to get through what's happened to them," Illingworth told CBC News.
There has been a troubling rise in domestic violence in some regions of the country since the pandemic began. That's driving home the need to defend victims' rights and procedural fairness, she said.
While 2.2 million crimes are reported to police each year, Illingworth said that figure represents only one-third of actual incidents. Most of them go unreported.
And while LGBT, visible minority and Indigenous people are most likely to become victims of crime, they're less likely to report those crimes because they don't want to engage with police and the criminal justice system due to historical oppression, systemic racism, language barriers or a lack of information about their rights, Illingworth said.
Victims' rights information cards
One of her recommendations is to make it mandatory for police, first responders and other support workers to provide crime victims with information cards explaining their rights and telling them how to assert them.
"If they're not provided information, they don't know they have a right to participate," Illingworth said. "They don't know they have a right to seek protections or to seek restitution from the courts. So it all starts with information."
The report says that the current Canadian Victims Bill of Rights puts the onus on victims to know, understand and assert their rights — while those accused of crimes have guaranteed legal rights they must be made aware of upon arrest or detention.
"Under the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights, victims are not shown equal treatment. They are not automatically told they have the right to receive information on their case; they must specifically ask for it," says the report. "How is a traumatized victim supposed to know they have any rights at all, unless a criminal justice official tells them they do?"
National awareness campaign
Illingworth said victims must have legal options to exercise their rights, including the ability to request judicial reviews by the Federal Court. She's also calling on the federal government to launch a national public education campaign through television and social media to inform victims of their rights and boost their confidence in the justice system.
The report also recommends that the federal government:
Amend the bill of rights to ensure officials in the criminal justice system are told to provide information on restorative justice programs to victims who report crimes.
Amend the bill to guarantee access to supports, such as medical, psychological, legal and social assistance.
Collect nationally consistent data on the treatment of victims in the criminal justice system and report it publicly to pinpoint gaps in services.
Ensure victim support organizations have sustained, stable funding instead of time-limited project funds and grants, and provide core funding for community-based restorative justice programs.
Create a national victims' support service to provide victims with information about their rights, including a national, toll-free, 24/7 hotline to work collaboratively with established provincial lines.
A statement from Justice Minister David Lametti's office says supporting victims and survivors of crime — giving them a more effective voice in the criminal justice system — is a commitment the government takes very seriously.
'Courtesy, compassion and respect'
"The government of Canada will continue to take steps toward creating a criminal justice system that treats victims and survivors of crime with courtesy, compassion and respect. This includes ongoing implementation of the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights at the federal, provincial, and territorial levels, with support provided through the Justice Canada Victims Fund for implementation projects, as well as support through continued policy, awareness raising and coordination efforts to further implementation," the statement reads.
Conservative justice critic Rob Moore said he will review the report to determine how the government can ensure the justice system supports victims, survivors and their families.
"COVID-19 has had negative impacts on the rights of victims of crime and their families over the past number of months. It is important the government focuses on ways to best provide them with support," he said.
Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, said that if the bill of rights does undergo a parliamentary review, MPs must keep in mind that victims aren't always in the best position to make decisions about offenders.
"No question, they should be getting the kinds of supports they need to overcome the trauma and address the loss that they've experienced because of the crime," she said.
"But whether or not their reaction to the offence should have an aggravating effect on a proportion of the sentence or measure within the criminal justice system is something we really need to think about."