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How an N.L. woman and senator are lobbying for intimate partner violence law

On a rainy day in Ottawa, Georgina McGrath's footsteps echo as she walks into the Senate to again tell her story of abuse. But this time would be different.

'It's not going to change my story, but there is a big chance that it will change somebody else's story'

A woman's lips are in a straight line. She is wearing a pink jacket. Her blonde hair is curled.

On a rainy day in Ottawa, Georgina McGrath's footsteps echo as she walks into the Senate to again tell her story of abuse. But this time it would be different — and broadcast across the country.

McGrath was invited to speak on private member's bill S-249, which calls for the creation of Canada's first-ever legislated national strategy for the prevention of intimate partner violence.

"I had senators coming to me thanking me for what I was doing for all Canadians, and all that went through my mind was 10 years ago you were being beaten, and today here you are going to sit down to testify," McGrath told CBC News in a recent interview.

"Not for myself, because it's not going to change my story, but there is a big chance that it will change somebody else's story."

McGrath's story is not uncommon — and, she said, that's the problem.

More than a decade ago, McGrath said she was a strong, determined businesswoman in control of multiple companies in Labrador.

At home, however, she was in control of very little.

"It started with a violator from Happy Valley-Goose Bay," McGrath told the Senate's committee on social affairs, science and technology on April 11.

"It became constant emotional, mental and physical abuse. This nightmare ended with a rifle. He looked at me and said, 'This bullet is for you, and this one is for me.'"

McGrath survived that relationship, and her former partner was ultimately charged with firearms offences.

In 2012, a new man swept her off her feet — and into the most abusive situation yet. McGrath said it culminated in a vicious beating two years later that led to her suicide attempt.

Again, she survived, and the next year began speaking publicly about her experiences.

Addressing the need for a law

After years of lobbying and advocating provincially for support in combating intimate partner violence, McGrath approached Sen. Fabian Manning in 2017 to see if there was an opportunity to present a law federally that would address intimate partner violence.

"It just can't be about one province," she said.

"It has to be Canada as a whole because we have to talk about every woman or every person that's being abused when it comes to intimate partner violence."

Manning — a long-time politician, provincially and federally, whose career has mainly focused on the fishery — took up the cause, and made a promise to McGrath that he'd see it through.

WATCH | A decade after escaping her abusive partners, an N.L. woman goes to Ottawa to lobby for new legislation:

A decade after escaping her abusive partners, an N.L. woman goes to Ottawa to lobby for new legislation

1 hour ago

Duration 8:56

The CBC's Ariana Kelland reports on the efforts of a Newfoundland and Labrador woman who has turned her experience with intimate partner violence into potentially shaping a new Canadian law.

The two are both from St. Mary's Bay, in eastern Newfoundland, and McGrath trusted him.

"I've met personally with 120 odd women here in Newfoundland, Labrador. I've met with different organizations in Ottawa [and] from across the country," Manning told CBC News.

"It's sad that we have to do this. It's sad intimate partner violence is such an issue, but it is … it's reality."

Since presenting the bill in 2018, it has been sidelined multiple times because of the pandemic and a federal election in 2021.

Manning said the bill asks the federal government to develop legislation within two years of passing that would address "an epidemic in our country at the present time."

Manning hopes the legislation — if passed — can work in parallel with the federal government's current gender-based violence plan.

"No doubt the action plan is needed … But legislation is law."

Over the last month, the Senate's social affairs committee has been hearing from a number of advocacy groups, medical professionals and police, who have weighed in on what they believe should and should not be included.

McGrath said she believes earlier education must be implemented across the country, and is calling for judges to be trained to exclusively handle intimate partner violence cases.

Strangulation, however, is another topic that is near the top of that list.

"When we go into our hospitals across our country, if we have a gunshot or a knife wound, it's automatic that the emergency room has to, the doctor has to, contact the police," McGrath told CBC News.

"Strangulation… It doesn't. If they're holding a gun … there's a distance. Strangulation, they're in your face. Their eyes are in your eyes. Except their eyes are empty."

A legal 'grey area'

The Hibbs family of Conception Bay South are supportive of any new legislation that could save individuals from abuse.

Their 35-year-old daughter, Juliane, was gunned down alongside her partner Vince Dillon in a parking lot in C.B.S. in October 2013.

Her ex-boyfriend later shot himself.

The attack came years after Juliane Hibbs had left him and nearly two decades after she left her family home at the age of 16 to be with him.

"Our daughter was living with the person who ultimately murdered her and you know we tried and tried every avenue we could to get some intervention and just like we met like we had a brick wall every time we turned," her father, Phil Hibbs, said.

Phil Hibbs said they went to police and the courts and were stonewalled from getting her out of the abusive relationship, and said they were repeatedly told teens between the ages of 16 to 18 are in a legal "grey area."

For years, the Hibbs family only saw their daughter during fleeting moments in the community. She was afraid to speak to them, they said.

"We knew it was his control and manipulation which we tried to portray to law enforcement and … even at one point in the court system," Phil Hibbs said.

"And [they look at you like] what part of the planet are you from? This is how this works. If she's in danger, she will tell you."

Debbie Hibbs has spoken at Confederation Building in St. John's for 10 years in a row about what happened to Juliane, watching each time as the same purple flag is raised for awareness about the issue of gender-based violence, beating the same drum to the same group of politicians and advocates.

"It's like nothing changes and you speak out to raise awareness, but like, nobody's listening," Debbie Hibbs said. "And I don't know why."

For them, the proposed bill holds promise but they are cautious to hope for real change.

"Here's a chance now for government to take this and run with it," Phil Hibbs said. "Let's see if they will."

'I am blessed today'

Today, McGrath lives with her husband on a small hobby farm in picturesque Branch, St. Mary's Bay, at the edge of the Atlantic ocean.

Inside a white barn, McGrath is in her element, feeding two sheep simultaneously with bottles.

"It's so peaceful. Most times I'd rather be around animals than people," she laughed. "I love tending to them and nurturing them."

McGrath been told she's saved lives by guiding women out of abusive homes.

Each time it takes something from her, too, she said, but it's all worth it.

"I am blessed today."

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Ariana Kelland

Investigative reporter

Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's. She is working as a member of CBC's Atlantic Investigative Unit. Email: ariana.kelland@cbc.ca

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