The Chief Public Health Officer’s Report on the State of Public Health in Canada 2016: A Focus on Family Violence in Canada

A message from Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer

Families are the building blocks of our society and a safe haven to nurture children and our intimate relationships. Yet, some Canadians families are in crisis and the statistics are staggering. For many, this report may be difficult and disturbing to read.

In 2014, 131 Canadians died at the hands of a family member and there were 133,920 reported victims of dating or family violence, with the majority of victims being women. Just under 9 million Canadians have reported experiencing abuse before the age of 15 years.

Family violence impacts health beyond just immediate physical injury, and increases the risk for a number of conditions, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as high blood pressure, cancer and heart disease. Despite the work of many researchers, health care professionals, organizations and communities, we still do not have a good understanding of why family violence happens, nor do we know how best to intervene.

This report sheds light on a topic that can be hard to talk about. Family violence often remains hidden. Working together, we can unravel why, when, where, how, and to whom family violence happens and improve our efforts to support healthy Canadian families.

Dr. Gregory Taylor
Chief Public Health Officer of Canada

Need help or more information on family violence? Please see the following websites:

If you or someone you know are in immediate need of help call 911 or your local police emergency number.

Table of Contents


Many individuals and organizations have contributed to the development of The Chief Public Health Officer’s Report on the State of Public Health in Canada, 2016: A Focus on Family Violence in Canada.

I would like to express my appreciation to the consultants who provided invaluable expert advice:

  • Dr. David Mowat, Canadian Partnership Against Cancer;
  • Dr. Daryl Pullman, Memorial University;
  • Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc, University of British Colombia
  • Dr. Harriet MacMillan, McMaster University, the Preventing Violence Across the Lifespan Research (PreVAiL) Network;
  • Dr. Jeff Reading, University of Victoria;
  • Dr. John Frank, University of Edinburgh;
  • Dr. Margo Greenwood, University of Northern British Columbia, National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health
  • Dr. Michael Routledge, Chief Provincial Public Health Officer, Manitoba;
  • Dr. Peter Donnelly, President and Chief Executive Officer of Public Health Ontario, and;
  • Dr. Peter Glynn, Health Systems Consultant

In addition, I would also like to recognize contributions made by partners and stakeholders who were consulted on the report under tight timelines, including Status of Women Canada, Health Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Justice Canada, Statistics Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Canadian Women’s Foundation, Dr. Nadine Wathen from Western University and the PreVAiL Network, Dr. Debra Pepler from York University and the Promoting Relationship and Eliminating Violence Network (PREVNet) and Dr. Wendy Craig from Queen’s University and PREVNet.

I would also like to sincerely thank the many individuals and groups within the Public Health Agency of Canada for all of their efforts related to the development of my report, including representatives from the Family Violence Prevention program and the Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention Branch: Dr. Lil Tonmyr, Jennifer Shortall, Jessica Laurin, Matthew Enticknap, Natasha Kuran, Shanna Sunley, Shannon Hurley, Sherrill MacDonald, Simone Powell, Sydney Millar, Tanya Lary, Tracey Reynolds and Dr. Wendy Hovdestad; and notably the members of my report unit and support staff: Dr. Stephanie Rees-Tregunno, Michael Halucha, Judith O’Brien, Rhonda Fraser, Meheria Arya, Fatimah Elbarrani, Crystal Stroud, Michelle MacRae and Lori Engler-Todd.

Key messages

Family violence is an important public health issue. Its impacts on health go beyond direct physical injury, are widespread and long-lasting and can be severe, particularly for mental health. Even less severe forms of family violence can affect health.

Some Canadian families are experiencing unhealthy conflict, abuse and violence that have the potential to affect their health. Known collectively as family violence, it takes many forms, ranges in severity and includes neglect as well as physical, sexual, emotional, and financial abuse. People who experience family violence need to be supported while people who are abusive or violent need to be held accountable.

Family violence is a complex issue that can happen at any point in a lifetime. In Canada:

  • An average of 172 homicides is committed every year by a family member.
  • For approximately 85,000 victims of violent crimes, the person responsible for the crime was a family member.
  • Just under 9 million or about one in three Canadians said they had experienced abuse before the age of 15 years.
  • Just under 760,000 Canadians said they had experienced unhealthy spousal conflict, abuse or violence in the previous five years.
  • More than 766,000 older Canadians said they had experienced abuse or neglect in the previous year.

Women, children, Indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, and people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or questioning are at greater risk of experiencing family violence and its impacts. Women are more likely than men to be killed by an intimate partner and more likely to experience sexual abuse, more severe and chronic forms of intimate partner violence, particularly forms that include threats and force to gain control. Women are also more likely to experience health impacts.

Violence against women and children is a public health issue of global importance. Global data show that one out of every three women will experience physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime. Approximately 18% of women and almost 8% of men say they have been victims of sexual abuse as children.

Family violence is complicated – no single factor can accurately predict when it will happen. Different combinations of factors at the individual, family, relationship, community and societal level affect the risk for family violence. Examples of factors include beliefs about gender and violence, and relationship characteristics such as power and control.

People are reluctant to talk about family violence, meaning it often goes unreported. Reasons for not reporting family violence include fear and concerns about safety, stigma, and not being believed. In some cases, people believe it is a personal matter or not important enough. They may also be dependent on the person who is being abusive or violent.

Using what we know about the social determinants of health can help prevent family violence and build effective ways to address it. Approaches to prevention include changing beliefs and attitudes, building safe and supportive communities, supporting our youth, healthy families and relationships and promoting good health and well-being.

More knowledge is needed about the effectiveness of prevention strategies and interventions in different situations.

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