Calgary faces domestic violence epidemic, experts say

The story is chilling: Melissa Rae Blommaert, 33, was found lying on a Bowness street early Monday morning and died of blunt-force trauma shortly after.

Police say she was run over following a verbal argument.

Her husband, Ronald John Candaele, 35, has been charged with second-degree murder. 

If he is found guilty, Blommaert's death will be one more case in what Calgary police say amounts to a citywide epidemic.

They responded to approximately 25,000 calls related to domestic violence in 2019, while Alberta has the third-highest rate of domestic violence in the country. 

"I feel angry and frustrated that this keeps happening," said Lana Wells, the Brenda Strafford Chair in the Prevention of Domestic Violence at the University of Calgary.

"All of us, as Calgarians and Albertans and Canadians, need to be getting behind this issue — trying to understand it and trying to stop it," she told CBC News.

Melissa Blommaert/Facebook

Attitudes and beliefs contribute to it

Andrea Silverstone is the executive director of Sagesse. It's an organization that supports individuals, organizations and communities in breaking the cycle of domestic violence. 

She said that to understand domestic violence, Albertans have to start thinking collectively about what causes it, the attitudes and beliefs that contribute to it, and how to change it systemically.

And because there isn't just one reason behind the city and province's high rates, understanding and addressing the issue is complicated.

Statistically, economies that trend toward boom-and-bust cycles tend to see higher rates of domestic violence, Silverstone said. Unemployment, underemployment and financial stress can exacerbate tension within families.

Rural communities in Alberta have limited access to support, and victims fear that coming forward could lead to financial and social isolation.

Rates of domestic violence also spike in the wake of natural disasters — and in recent years, Alberta has seen both fires and floods.

"Any sort of pressure on the system of a relationship can create a higher rate," Silverstone said.

And finally, Silverstone said, there are fewer women in the workforce in Alberta when compared with other provinces.

This can perpetuate harmful attitudes about masculinity and women's independence that she says can contribute to higher rates of domestic violence.

Engaging men and boys 'critical'

Wells has spent 10 years researching how to stop domestic violence before it starts.

She said that opening a dialogue with men, and having them advocate for prevention, is essential to reducing the rates.

"A critical area is engaging men and boys in violence prevention and gender equality. So, how do we better socialize men and boys to be non-violent and to have gender equitable relationships?" Wells said.

"We have to go upstream — work with fathers, work with mentors and champions in the community, work in schools and work with men who need support," Wells said.

Staff Sgt. Paul Wozney, who is in charge of the Calgary Police Service's domestic conflict unit, told CBC News that police do see female offenders in domestic violence cases — but about 85 per cent of aggressors are male.

Educating young people about healthy relationships and conflict resolution, Wozney said, can help break cycles of violence that are sometimes generational.

"We're going to need to get in the hearts and minds of little Calgarians, our children, and teach them what healthy relationships look like," Wozney said. 

"What's acceptable in terms of how people, how boys and girls, should treat one another."

Every Albertan needs to understand 

Awareness about domestic violence, the experts say, has to extend to all of us.

Calling the police or speaking up if we notice a disturbance, Wozney said, can make a sizeable difference — but people often don't.

"We need to be talking about this all the time, and holding people accountable," he said. 

Recognizing the signs of a friend or relative in crisis — and knowing how to respond if a friend or relative confides in you — is also essential.

Stephanie Rousseau/CBC

"The role that friends and family play is integral to helping people to identify when they're in a violent situation, or when they're using violence," Silverstone said.

"They can be really good supporters to help to navigate them away from those behaviours or into safety or services."

Sagesse offers programs that teach people how to recognize domestic violence, empathize around the issue, ask questions and connect people to services they need.

"We are trying to teach Albertans how to listen when you tell [them]," Silverstone said.

"Every Albertan needs to understand that they play a role in ending domestic violence."

Education key to fighting stigma, shame

Teaching Albertans how to listen is essential to breaking cycles of domestic violence, Sagesse representatives said.

Overall, the organization's goal isn't necessarily to convince people who are experiencing it to disclose, they said.

Rather, it seeks to build a society where it is safe to disclose — and aims to do this by lessening the stigma that surrounds domestic violence through the educational services it provides.

Because according to Silverstone, stigma and shame are forces that prevent people from finding support.

"It can happen to anyone. Domestic violence knows no boundaries," Silverstone said. 

"Often people feel ashamed because they think it's their fault, or that they've caused some reason that this is happening to them, and this is not the case.… The first thing is to know that they're not alone."

Sagesse can be reached at 403-234-7337.

People looking for help can call 211, or the Connect Family and Sexual Abuse Network at 1-877-237-5888 for sexual abuse, or 403-234-7233 for domestic abuse.

The Family Violence Information Line offers 24-hour support in more than 170 languages. It can be reached at 310-1818.