Supporting Victims of Domestic Violence: Abolishing the Conditional Permanent Residence Provision and the Next Steps

Supporting Victims of Domestic Violence: Abolishing the Conditional Permanent Residence Provision and the Next Steps

Arden Mathieson
Summer Law Clerk
Edmonton Community Legal Centre

Prior to April 28, 2017, immigrants to Canada under the spousal sponsorship program had to live with their sponsors for two years in order to prove their relationships were genuine. If they moved out before the end of the second year—they lost their permanent residence and were accused of misrepresentation. This conditional permanent residence provision was introduced in October 2012, as a means to prevent immigration to Canada through fraudulent marriages. What may have been a well-intentioned attempt to regulate immigration, actually resulted in increased marginalization of immigrant spouses who were experiencing domestic violence.

The permanent residence provision forced victims of domestic violence to choose between leaving their abusive partners and losing their immigration status. Worse, some sponsors took advantage of the provision to perpetrate or continue violence and abuse. The West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund’s [LEAF] position paper captures this vividly: “[A]busive sponsors prey upon the precarious immigration status of their partners to control their behaviour and stop them from reporting the violence or leaving the relationship.”[1]

Low levels of reporting and language barriers limit our understanding of family violence, particularly within newcomer families. Relatively little data exists on how family violence plays out among those who have relocated to Canada. A recent resource by Justice Canada, Abuse is Wrong in any Language, recognizes that, sometimes, behaviours occur in immigrant families that are not always recognized as family violence or crimes.[2]
Examples of family violence include:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional/psychological abuse/violence
  • Economic or financial abuse
  • Spiritual abuse[3]

There are many ways an immigrant could prove they were once in a genuine relationship without continuing to live with an abusive spouse: for example, immigration officers often rely on documented love letters, text messages, emails, photos from events like weddings and anniversaries, marriage certificates, children’s birth certificates, letters from family or friends, and sworn affidavits. So why, given that the federal government was aware that domestic violence was a problem in spousal sponsorship, did they require permanent residents to stay in an unsafe homes and relationships?

In April 2017, the Liberal government abolished the conditional permanent residence provision for spouses and partners. Abolishing the provision is a good first step toward conceptualizing access to justice for vulnerable immigrants, but it is not enough. As service providers, we also need to understand how to support immigrants once they leave abusive sponsors.

As the Honourable Donna Martinson, a retired judge of the British Columbia Supreme Court, has explained:

Meaningful access to justice requires more than just providing women and children with access to any lawyer, or any judge. The justice part of access to justice requires that those lawyers and judges dealing with family law cases and criminal law cases have the interest in, aptitude for, and the professional experience and expertise required to deal with the complexities of, and multifaceted nature of, IPV [intimate partner violence].[4]

To provide access to justice (and not just access to the justice system), it is essential for lawyers, judges and immigration officers to take professional training in how to recognize and respond to domestic violence, and in the tactics and dynamics of coercive control. Unless the key players have the right training, serious harm to immigrants ’physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being will continue, unexposed.

In my experience with the Edmonton Community Legal Centre (“ECLC”), I have noticed that abusive sponsors can use the legal system to exert power and control over immigrant victims of domestic violence in two ways. Firstly, abusive sponsors may initiate unwarranted civil or family litigation to exert their dominance. Often unable to afford legal representation, the Respondent spouses may succumb to the demands of their abusers. Secondly, abusive sponsors may threaten (and some individuals act on these threats) to call the police to have their partners charged with non-existent crimes; revoke immigration sponsorships; make anonymous, unwarranted tips to social assistance authorities to prompt fraud investigations; or complain to Child Protective Services about their partners’ fabricated neglect or abuse of their children. The engagement of any one of these legal systems can trigger investigations by multiple authorities. For example, a call to the police will usually prompt a report to Child Protective Services and, for spouses without permanent residence, to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. In such circumstances, participation in the legal system by sponsored spouses is not access to justice; rather, it further marginalizes vulnerable newcomers. In this way, newcomers may have access to a legal forum or process, but not access to justice.

An in-depth and intersectional appreciation of domestic violence — and of how it is enabled by social structures and institutions, law included — is critical. These structures include the overlapping systems of oppression that operate not only to render some spouses—most often women–more vulnerable to violence and with fewer resources to exit relationships, but also to construe only some spouses as “victims” deserving of legal redress.

Now that the conditional permanent residence provision for spouses has been abolished, the next step is collaboration between legal actors.  Lawyers, judges, and immigration officers must integrate with social service providers like shelters, counsellors, social workers, and churches to meet the needs of vulnerable immigrant spouses. None of the above actors can address domestic violence on their own. As experts in our respective fields, we must learn from each other and capitalize on shared resources. It is not enough that an abused immigrant is permitted to leave their sponsor and continue to reside in Canada. True access to justice requires physical and psychological supports. This is why at The Edmonton Community Legal Center we have a multi-disciplinary team that includes an immigration lawyer, a registered immigration consultant, asocial benefits advocate, and a family law client liaison who connect clients with the various social services they need.

REACH Edmonton provides training to prevent family violence in a cultural context. If you are connected to families from emerging ethno-cultural communities and would like a session on healthy families or healthy youth relationships, contact Justin Otteson (780-238-3756) or Helen Rusich (780-619-8780) of REACH Edmonton.  I encourage members of the public, legal actors and service providers to join me in learning more about how to best support immigrant women and other vulnerable spouses.

[1] West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund. (2015, January). Position Paper: Sanctuary City Policy. Retrieved June 21, 2017, from

[2] Government of Canada Department of Justice. (2009). Abuse is Wrong in any Language. In Criminal Justice. Retrieved from

[3] Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants. (2006, September). Prevention of Domestic Violence against Immigrant and Refugee Women. Retrieved from

[4] Hon Martinson, D. (October, 2014.) keynote address delivered at the Canadian Observatory on the Justice System’s Responses to Intimate Partner Violence National Conference, University of New Brunswick:  Multiple Court Proceedings and Intimate Partner Violence: A Dangerous Disconnect. Retrieved from:

About Arden Mathieson

Arden Mathieson is a second year law student at Thompson Rivers University with a keen interest in administrative and constitutional law, environmental issues and access to justice. She is working as a Summer Law Clerk with the Immigration Department at ECLC. Arden is involved with the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre, an organization that supports survivors of sexual violence on Vancouver Island, and the Indigenous Law Students Association, an organization that advocates for aboriginal law students across Canada. When in Edmonton, Arden enjoys touring craft breweries and walking her dog (Gunner Mathieson) in the River Valley.
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