Will a federal Victims Bill of Rights address the practical needs of victims?

While the government continues consultations with victims, provinces/territories and various criminal justice system stakeholders across Canada in order to move forward with a federal Victims Bill of Rights, the CRCVC remains cautiously optimistic.  Being involved in the initial consultation process with victims and victim-serving agencies on April 23, we have observed the enormity of this task.  How can we, as a country, truly satisfy the complex needs of victims or persons harmed by crime and violence?  Do they not deserve to have their lives restored to what they once were or as close to this as possible?  It is only Wednesday following a long weekend and we’ve already had two calls at the office from victims at either end of the country expressing concerns that we hear too commonly.

The first caller was a man from the West coast who was violently assaulted with metal pipes by strangers a number of years ago.  He cannot work as a result of this assault and is destitute.  He cannot afford to continue the medical treatments doctors tell him are necessary to heal.   He requires physiotherapy and massage therapy (to be able to get off pain killers), but can afford neither because he is on social assistance.  He is forced to live in shelters where, he tells us, he is often living among people convicted of heinous crimes who are reintegrating into the community.   He has no family or friends in Canada who can help him “get back on his feet”.  He came to Canada thinking our country was the best place in the world to live; yet he received only $1,000.00 in financial assistance from his province following his victimization.  He is now stuck in a cycle of poverty from which he cannot escape.

A mother from the East coast also called the office this week to talk to us about the murder of her beloved son.  He had a bright future ahead of him and was murdered by a man who was on bail for the brutal assault of an elderly man.  Following her son’s murder, the killer fled and an accomplice has been charged.  The mother informed me that she found out horrific details about how her son died at a preliminary hearing recently.  No one, not the police, Crown or victim services took the time to meet with the victim’s mother before the hearing to inform her of the details of the crime, which were much more vicious than she initially believed.  Instead, she was chastised by the Crown for her emotional outburst in the courtroom and told to control herself in the future.  She knows that she is in for many years of court proceedings and that she may not ever find out the truth about what happened to her son.

These two cases highlight the practical challenges many victims still face in Canada on a daily basis.  They cannot count on a kind, sympathetic response from government compensation programs, which were historically designed to provide some financial assistance to help victims recover from the trauma they have endured.  Instead, they face complex application forms and cold bureaucracies that pay a pittance to them (if they are lucky) with respect to the harm and loss they have suffered.  These programs, if standardized across the country, could do so much more to help victims heal and move forward positively with their lives.

When it comes to the criminal investigation and prosecution, victims continue to face challenges accessing the information they want and need.  Police often cannot share information about the progress of an investigation with victims so that evidence is not compromised.  Once a case moves toward trial, many Crowns are overworked and do not have time to spend with family members to update them about how the legal process is proceeding.  Victims are still shut out in many ways and face re-victimization by professionals who don’t understand how information, sensitivity and compassion can make a real difference to victims in their recovery.  Many victims do not even get referred to local victim services agencies, which employ specially trained staff and volunteers to provide support, assistance, community referrals and much needed information.

The question we are left pondering at the CRCVC is how will a federal Victims Bill of Rights address and correct the practical problems faced by victims in the provinces/territories where they live?  We feel the legislation must not be limited to federal jurisdiction, such as simply reiterating existing provisions of the Criminal Code and Corrections and Conditional Release Act for victims, but the complexity of doing so is a real challenge.  We will continue to closely follow the development of this legislation…

The Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime offers support, research and education to survivors and stakeholders.

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