Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch’s proposal to legalize mace and pepper spray wouldn’t actually protect women, say critics.
“Ending violence against women is not about improving lighting, having rape whistles, or legalizing pepper spray. Ending violence against women is about ensuring that women live in a society that respects them,” said Sambriddhi Nepal, manager of fund development for Vancouver's WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre.
“Pepper spray won’t end sexism,” she told The Huffington Post Canada in an email.
Leitch wants to make it legal for Canadians to carry mace and pepper spray. "Do I think that this policy change will solve the problem of violence against women overall? Of course not,” the Ontario MP said in an interview with HuffPost. “But I do think this is an important step.”
Leitch said she “can’t answer” why pepper spray and mace are illegal to carry.
Devices that contain such substances have been banned since 1978 because they can be used as weapons to incapacitate someone as part of a robbery or sexual assault, explained Ian McLeod, a spokesman for the federal justice department.
Pepper spray can "cause serious damage," according to Const. Marc Soucy, media relations officer for the Ottawa police, who added that officers must undergo training before carrying it.
Leitch said that legalizing it is a “common sense change” that will “empower women and men to be able to defend themselves."
But violence doesn’t happen because women can’t defend themselves, Nepal said.
“Violence against women happens because perpetrators assault women,” she said. “We need to be holding perpetrators accountable.”
"It’s not the solution for everything that happens when it comes to violence against women and girls."
— Kelly Leitch
According to Leitch, there is a “wide range of reasons” that women experience violence, but she said, "I’m not going to get into a laundry list of items."
“I’ve put forward an idea, one step, for very specific situations. It’s not the solution for everything that happens when it comes to violence against women and girls.”
Leitch’s proposal is also concerning to Kate McInturff, a senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives who writes its annual report on the best and worst cities for Canadian women. She said the policy furthers the myth that women are largely assaulted by strangers in public places.
'Sounds like an episode of Law and Order'
“This sounds like an episode of Law and Order, with someone walking through a dark alley clutching their purse,” McInturff told HuffPost. “And the reality is that women are in much greater danger when they’re getting a ride home from a friend, or studying in their dorm room, or even in their family home. So, it’s really not addressing the majority of situations.”
Only about 16 per cent of police-reported violence against women is perpetrated by a stranger, according to Statistics Canada.
Canadian women are most likely to be attacked by their husbands and boyfriends, the data says. And the Canadian Women’s Foundation estimates that once every six days, a woman is murdered by her partner in Canada.
“We don’t look at drunk driving and say pedestrians are the problem. We say that drunk drivers are the problem.”
— Kate McInturff, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
Racism and racial inequality is also a factor — indigenous women are six times more likely to be killed than other women.
“Violence against women is one of the only violent crimes where we ask the victim to provide the solution,” McInturff said. “We don’t look at drunk driving and say pedestrians are the problem. We say that drunk drivers are the problem.”
Both Nepal and McInturff agreed that funding services for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence would be a better way to tackle the issue.
WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre in Vancouver says a proposal to legalize pepper spray won't alleviate violence against women. (Photo: Facebook/WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre)
And the organizations that do that work need money. According to Oxfam, Canada’s Status of Women department is “sorely underfunded.” Under former prime minister Stephen Harper — who named Leitch as Status of Women minister — women’s organizations saw all federal funding cut for any work that involved advocacy, general research or lobbying the government.
“Resources should be invested in not only supporting survivors of sexual violence through counselling, victim services and support groups, but also on shifting society to ensure that women don’t experience future violence,” Nepal said. “We should also invest in education programs for our youth.”
Leitch said she believes access to pepper spray and services for survivors are both important.
“This isn’t an either or for me,” she said. “And anyone who depicts it as that is missing the boat.”
When asked if she would pair the pepper spray policy with additional funding for women’s organizations, Leitch said that she had to run and ended the interview.
“Focusing on something a victim can do to prevent her own victimization is really going in the wrong direction,” McInturff said. “We need to look at who is perpetrating the crime and figure out how to stop them from perpetrating that crime.”
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