Alberta's economic slump is fueling a spike in reports of domestic violence, according to police and women's shelter workers in Calgary and Edmonton.
Ever since the price of crude plummeted in 2014, the oil-rich province has been hit with mass layoffs and soaring unemployment, which is being exacerbated by ongoing wildfires in the province's north that have ravaged homes and energy sector businesses. Over the last two weeks, a number of major oil and gas companies have been forced to evacuate work camps and stall operations while hundreds of fire crews battle the blaze that has crossed into neighboring Saskatchewan and grown to more than 500,000 hectares.
One of the first signs of the troubling collateral damage of the economic downturn came in December, when officials revealed a 30 percent increase in suicides in the province in 2015 compared to 2014. Now, police in Calgary are sounding the alarm over an increase in calls related to domestic abuse.
"We know there is a connection between increased unemployment and increased domestic violence as people who are already prone to violence are home more and are facing significant stressors," Staff Sergeant Rob Davidson of Calgary Police's domestic conflict unit told a press conference called this week specifically to draw attention to the problem.
His department released statistics showing a 70 percent increase in domestic assaults involving weapons in 2015 from the year before. The department also received more than 3,200 phone calls for domestic violence in 2015 — a 10 percent increase from 2014, and a 24 percent increase over the average phone calls received in the last five years.
'People who are already prone to violence are home more and are facing significant stressors.'
The police force said in a news statement that statistics from 2016 so far, including a 40 percent increase in calls, indicate that things will likely look the same if they don't get worse.
Davidson stressed that unemployment is not a direct cause of domestic violence, and that "in no way does it excuse it."
Kim Ruse, executive director of the Calgary Women's Emergency Shelter, told VICE News her staff has been inundated by phone calls about domestic abuse over the last two years. This year, they've seen a 300 percent increase, including people reporting not only physical and emotional abuse in the home, but also financial abuse.
"That's when a spouse or partner is controlling access to credit, refusing to allow someone to have a bank account, and not giving the other person freedom with their finances," she said, noting that the shelter also experienced a spike in reports of domestic violence during the last economic slowdown in 2009.
"This time we are hearing that with so many people laid off, the family dynamics are shifting, so people would normally be out of the house for eight hours a day all of the sudden are in the house, and the time you spend together changes, on top of the financial challenges," Ruse said.
Even though Ruse's stance is that violence is a choice, she said it's hard to ignore that these spikes coincide with one of the most challenging economic crises in the province. "I wonder if what we're seeing is those who might not actually get that far in a healthy economy are faced with one one pressure, one more stress. It's almost like a tipping point," she added.
While other police forces in Alberta haven't yet said they are dealing with the same sorts of increase in domestic violence reports, the president of the Edmonton Women's Shelter board told VICE News he has seen a spike in women and children accessing the shelter in the last two to three years.
"We're averaging about 700 women and children per year in the city, and that's gone up at least 20 percent," said Lance Beswick. His group has three shelters, all of which are always operating at capacity.
"Obviously the economy right now is putting extra pressure on people, but I don't know if we can say it's a direct cause," Beswick said. "The main cause of domestic assault is thuggery more than anything else."
For Lana Wells, a professor at the University of Calgary who specializes on prevention of domestic violence, the new numbers in the city are striking, but she said Alberta already has one of the highest rates of police-reported spousal abuse in Canada.
'The main cause of domestic assault is thuggery more than anything else.'
"The numbers are alarming before the economic downturn," Wells said in an interview. "It is a pandemic. We have already above-average rates of violence. So it is a critical time to shed light on it."
Wells authored a study in 2012 that found one woman every hour in the province experienced some form of interpersonal violence, and that it was costing the Alberta government $600 million at the very least in costs associated with hospital visits, social assistance, and counseling — but not including police and court services costs. She says these costs over those five years are closer to $1 billion, and that they have likely risen in recent years.
"We need to figure out prevention strategies to ensure we can respond to the crisis before it happens so that when we are experiencing forest fires and economic downtowns, people don't turn to violence to deal with stress," said Wells.
An upcoming mental health review of the province is expected to probe the 30 percent spike in suicides in Alberta in 2015, compared to the year before.
VICE News has been following the wildfires plaguing northern Alberta. Check out more of that coverage here.
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne