Gender-Based Violence in Northwestern Ontario

What makes our district unique, compounding the issue of gender-based violence and justice for survivors and victims?


The physical geography and sparse population of Northwestern Ontario are significant factors interfering with the systemic response to gender-based violence within the justice system.

  • The region of Northwestern Ontario encompasses almost half of Ontario, but is home to just 1.7% of Ontario’s total population.
  • Thunder Bay and Kenora are the only municipalities in the region with a population of greater than 10,000 people.
  • Many First Nation communities are only accessible by air or seasonal ice roads.

Residents of small, isolated communities are often deterred from reporting gender-based violence due to their remoteness and close community ties; they may also fear racist responses, criminalization of community members and potential ostracization from family and their home community.

    • Survivors and children cannot escape their perpetrator quickly. There have been some instances when a flight was chartered specifically to evacuate the woman and her children; however, this is not always possible.
    • Most small communities do not have shelter or victim services and many do not have police forces. Exclusion and restraining orders can rarely be enforced in small, isolated communities.
    • Survivors or witnesses may not report gender-based violence, as it can be impossible to remain anonymous or confidential.
    • In most cases, the survivor and her children, and/or the perpetrator, will be forced to move temporarily away from their family, community and support system – often to a larger city centre, where they or their children may face racism and racist violence.
    • Many bail conditions or safe houses are not culturally appropriate for those who have never left their communities and are suddenly forced to temporarily reside elsewhere. In some cases, perpetrators and those experiencing gender-based violence may be dependent on one another for income, housing, childcare or daily living support, which may force the survivor to return to a violent relationship.
    • Whether it is the survivor and her children or the perpetrator who are forced to leave, it can represent a loss to the entire community.

    The Ontario Court of Justice divides the province into seven regions, each with a regional senior judge and Justice of the Peace. The Northwest region encompasses most of Northwestern Ontario – roughly the equal land area of the other six regions combined.

    • Access to the legal system is hindered by this central judicial system, inadequate communication infrastructure and lack of transportation options
    • Only a few urban centres have courthouses and legal staff – other communities must access justice by travelling long distances to these centres or via satellite services or online proceedings.
    • Safe shelter, social support and access to the legal system are inadequate for most in the region – especially in remote, isolated communities

    Community resources can also be more difficult to access in Northwestern Ontario due to its geography. Many roles, such as medical practitioners, social workers or addiction specialists, work on rotating schedules out of satellite offices.

    • A chronic shortage of family doctors is an acute problem in Thunder Bay. Nearly 1 in 5 residents still lack a primary health care provider, according to estimates from the city’s Community Economic Development Commission.
    • Shortage of personal support workers is leading to inadequate care for those living in long-term facilities, according to an Ontario Health Coalition 2020 report. Long-term care homes are working with shortages on almost all shifts every day and there are not enough workers to staff existing beds.
    • There is a significant shortage of optometrists, chiropractors, physicians, dentists, pharmacists, dieticians and other health diagnosing and treating professionals working in Northern Ontario.

    High rates of alcoholism and drug abuse in the region contribute to higher rates of gender-based violence.

    • Thunder Bay has the highest per-capita opioid overdose death rate in Ontario. High addiction rates among the city’s vulnerable people, along with statistics showing significant and growing trends of opioid-related overdoses and deaths, led first responders and other health officials to declare the issue a community crisis in June 2019.
    • There exists a gap in rehabilitative services, as well as long distances to travel to access those that are in place.
    • Services are especially lacking for women with addictions, with a very limited number of gender specific detox and rehabilitative beds compared to those intended for male patients.
    • Gang related drug and human trafficking are well established in Thunder Bay

    Distance and access to resources compounds poverty in Northwestern Ontario, especially in remote communities. Women living in poverty are particularly vulnerable, as the lack of financial resources is a key determinant influencing a person’s decision to leave violent situations. 


    • Those experiencing gender-based violence and poverty have significant barriers in leaving the perpetrator, including a lack of income, inadequate housing and childcare, in addition to lack of access to justice to address custody, child support and division of assets.
    • Very few Northern communities have the resources to provide shelter for survivors.

    Northwestern Ontario is home to large segments of marginalized peoples, including Indigenous people, low-income households and the precariously housed.


    • The Thunder Bay and Kenora regions have high levels of homelessness, as well as many people in transit to and from northern communities; this can make it difficult finding the accused, victims and witnesses for trial. As a consequence, charges are often withdrawn if no witnesses or complainants come forward or attend court. In some situations, Justices may issue bench warrants, requiring that witnesses (who are most likely the victims of the criminal matter in question) must attend court to testify, even if they are traumatized or afraid of the accused. This practice criminalizes women who have already experienced trauma and may result in arrest and short-term incarceration, as well as other harms inflicted when women come into conflict with police and the legal system.
    • A significant number of women become targets of human traffickers, victims of home invasions and trap houses
    • Northwestern Ontario sees higher rates of sole support mothers or lone parent families
    • Northwestern Ontario also sees higher rates of chronic disease

    Most government services, including social and legal services, are funded based on population. Compared to metropolitan regions in Southern Ontario, the North has a relatively small population spread over great distances, with no secure or publicly-funded ground transportation network connecting them. Tax revenues are generally too small for municipalities to cover a full suite of public services.

    • All service providers face higher costs, but those in more populated areas can lever fewer resources to maintain numerous service site across their region.
    • Public services are often delivered through small satellite offices or by contracting with local businesses or municipalities. This results in fragmentation of services, including access to justice and victim supports.
    • This model of public service also impacts safety and confidentiality. There are many reports of court cases being heard (and overheard) in the local Legion Hall; or perpetrator and survivor being transported in the same police car to a court event in Thunder Bay.

    In 2015, Thunder Bay reported more hate crimes than any other city in Canada on a per capita basis. The city has had one of the highest per capita homicide rates of any Canadian city with a population of over 100,000 since 2015 and is widely referred to as the murder capital, or hate crime capital, of Canada.  

    There is an understandable high level of distrust of police and the justice system by marginalized communities, affecting willingness of survivors and witnesses to follow through with the court process, or even report instances of gender-based violence to police in the first place.  

    • The Office of the Independent Police Review Director, which looked at the Thunder Bay police investigation of nine Indigenous deaths, released a report in December 2018 which concluded the investigations were shoddy – in large part because of systemic racism – and recommended all the deaths be reinvestigated.
    • That report concluded the police service in Thunder Bay was rife with racist attitudes, and that a “crisis of trust” existed between police and Indigenous residents.
    • Indigenous people are overrepresented in Canada’s criminal justice system as both victims and as people accused or convicted of crime. In 2017/2018, Indigenous adults accounted for 30% of admissions to provincial/territorial custody, while representing approximately 4% of the Canadian adult population. In comparison, ten years ago, 21% of admissions to provincial/territorial custody were Indigenous.

    Criminal courts have introduced a special pre-sentence report to mitigate this disparity. Gladue is a sentencing principle which recognizes that Indigenous people face historical trauma and systemic racism, and attempts to deal with the crisis of overincarceration of the Indigenous population by changing how a judge determines a sentence. Although well intended, some feel that it is too far downstream (i.e. after Indigenous people are already in conflict with the legal system) to mitigate the problem. It is also unevenly applied in cases of female offenders.

    Gladue principles are derived from the case of Jamie Tanis Gladue, a young Métis woman who had experienced violence, who then killed her husband during a domestic dispute. Researchers at the Native Women’s Association of Canada and women’s advocates have expressed concern that Gladue principles applied in cases of gender-based violence often put Indigenous women at greater risk of harm, if conditions or sentences are reduced for the offender. They recommend a balanced approach instead.


    Northwestern Ontario is comprised of the traditional territory of a large number of First Nations. As a result, the area is home to a larger proportion of Indigenous people than most of urban and suburban Canada. Since Europeans first came to North America, Canadian institutions such as police, courts and child welfare agencies have been used as instruments of colonization to oppress and steal sovereignty from First Nations people.

    • The Robinson-Superior Treaty (signed in 1850) concerns the north shore of Lake Superior. The Crown’s main motivation for entering into the Robinson Treaties was to open up the land for mineral resource exploration. Miners has already been developing mines in the area, forcing First Nations to petition for compensation for the already-affected lands. Annuities to the First Nations’ members have not changed since 1874, at $4 per member a year. In December 2019, Sudbury Superior Court Justice Patricia Hennessy ruled that the First Nations should have received annuities increases since the treaty signing in 1850.
    • Treaty 3 (signed in 1873) granted the government access to the traditional Saulteaux lands while First Nations retained hunting and fishing rights and reserve land. At the time, the expansion of the Canadian Pacific Railway depended on the successful signing of the treaty. The Anishinaabe received one-time payments of $15 per family and a yearly annuity of $5 per person. Many of the First Nations who signed maintain that the intent of the treaty was to share the land with the government, not surrender it.
    • Treaty 9 (signed in 1905-1906) was intended to purchase the interests of the resident First Nations to lands and resources to make way for white settlement and resource development. Although ratification of the treaty required the agreement of Indigenous peoples living in the territory, none were involved in creating the terms of the written document. Many sources agree that what was spoken by commissioners at the treaty signings did not reflect the written document.

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