Alberta has the third highest rate of police-reported intimate partner violence in Canada. Specifically in Calgary, there were 5,563 reported victims of domestic violence in 2018, a 43.4 per cent increase from the five-year average. These figures, while alarming, don’t take into account that 85 per cent of incidents aren’t reported to the police.

“Two-thirds of Albertans have experienced sexual or domestic violence, or know somebody who has experienced it. It is so pervasive and costly, and we must prioritize prevention to stop the violence before it starts,” says Lana Wells, Brenda Strafford Chair in the Prevention of Domestic Violence at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Social Work.

As recent as this fall, the city and the province have taken a number of measures to address the issue. The Calgary Police Service has launched a new web-based app to help those affected by domestic abuse and violence. Users can access up to 40 different organizations that offer counselling, financial assistance, and other supports, as well as information on how to plan for safety in a violent situation. And in October of this year, the province introduced new legislation to help individuals at risk of domestic violence get information about whether an intimate partner has a violent or abusive past.

While Wells applauds the policy change and investments made in addressing this complex social issue through intervention, her research on primary prevention indicates the benefits of investing in approaches that stop violence before it starts. To empower everyone to create the social conditions that will prevent domestic violence, Wells launched Shift: The Project to End Domestic Violence.

“Prior to 2010, a lot of the research and work in Alberta was primarily focused on a crisis response to domestic violence, where investments and support were focused on victims of violence. While these investments are critical, our donor Dr. Strafford and the Alberta government really wanted to understand how government and community services could move upstream to stop the violence from happening in the first place,” says Wells. “This is why we created Shift, whose purpose is to identify evidence-informed policies and practices to prevent and stop violence.”

“…Alberta taxpayers have paid more than $521 million, over a five-year period, to deal with the aftermath of domestic violence.”

Launched in 2010, Shift works closely with community organizations, policymakers and government officials to build the capacity of Albertans to understand the importance and value of primary prevention.

In 2012, Wells co-authored a research paper on the heavy economic costs of domestic violence in Alberta. The study estimated that Alberta taxpayers have paid more than $521 million, over a five-year period, to deal with the aftermath of domestic violence. According to Wells and her colleagues, this figure underestimates the total economic burden placed on Albertans, as it only includes costs associated with accessing health services, such as emergency room visits, or hospitalization, and a small range of non-health-related services such as legal aid, and social assistance. The estimate does not include public sector costs such as police involvement or legal and court costs.

“The paper calculated the cost of domestic violence in Alberta, not only for intervention, but also the ongoing costs to help people rebuild their lives. It also discussed the evidence behind primary prevention, and the amount of money you can save if you invest funds in programming that prevents violence,” she says.

“Given our research, we really pushed the Government of Alberta to invest in evidence-based primary prevention approaches. We worked with lead government officials for two years to design Alberta’s family violence prevention framework, which recognizes the need to involve community members in changing attitudes and behaviours to stop and prevent domestic violence, intimate partner violence, and gender-based violence from happening in the first place,” she says.

Wells and her team have spent years researching the underlying causes of domestic violence, and how primary prevention policies, programs, and practices can play a pivotal role in preventing domestic violence. They identified a key gap in the prevention approaches implemented worldwide—the money, the policy, and the legislation have focused on women, and changes in women. Men are missing from the equation.

“…it became clear that we need to engage and mobilize men and boys, specifically young fathers, as gender equality advocates, violence preventers, leaders, and partners in stopping violence against women.”

“Treating men as partners, allies, leaders instead of just offenders and perpetrators, can go a long way in breaking the cycle of violence and abuse,” says Wells.

“During our research, it became clear that we need to engage and mobilize men and boys, specifically young fathers, as gender equality advocates, violence preventers, leaders, and partners in stopping violence against women.”

The innovative approach to combating domestic violence has not gone unnoticed. Since drafting Alberta’s family violence prevention framework, Family Violence Hurts Everyone, Wells has advised the governments of Manitoba, British Columbia, and Nova Scotia on prevention research, helping to design or evaluate their provincial frameworks. In 2015, the Permanent Mission of Canada in Geneva and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights asked Wells to present Shift’s research on engaging men and boys in violence prevention at the United Nation’s 16 days of Activism Against Violence Against Women event launch in Switzerland. In 2017, Wells was asked to moderate and facilitate a session with the United Nations Human Right Council. The group debated a new resolution, which Wells advised on, to engage men and boys in violence prevention and gender equality. The resolution was adopted by all member countries a few weeks later.

While proud of Shift’s achievements, Wells is quick to point out the work they do is not without its challenges.

“Change is hard. Even if we have evidence and facts, to mobilize knowledge and to integrate it into our practices and policies is really hard work. What we’re finding is that once new evidence or facts are identified, it can sometimes take decades to integrate into people’s practices,” says Wells.

“We are what we have learned to be, we care about what we have learned to care about and we do what we have learned to do. Violence, gender discrimination, and destructive relationships are learned behaviours. To understand those behaviours, we can’t just look at the individual. We have to look at how our social-cultural environments are producing violence and injustice.

“Domestic violence is not talked about as much as it should be, and it still isn’t understood. It is pervasive, costly, and preventable – yet our policies and investments are still too focused on after the violence occurs. We need to focus on stopping violence before it starts.

“It is a complex social issue and there is no universal cure for it. But we’re slowly moving in the right direction.”


United Way is proud to partner with Shift: The Project to End Domestic Violence to support change in the area of domestic violence. To find out more about United Way’s investments in this #UNIGNORABLE issue, please visit our website.