Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime – A Place to Turn to

When Prince George, B.C. native Marjean Fichtenberg first heard of her son Dennis’s murder in September of 1993, she knew something was off. Beneath the feelings of shock and grief, Fichtenberg knew there was something not right about the version of events she was given by the police.

It would be the start of a journey that would expose serious flaws in the Canadian justice system, and end with only the second public inquest into a murder in Canadian history.

At the tender age of 25, Dennis Fichtenberg was brutally murdered by Paul Butler, an RCMP informant who had been charged for crimes in the past, but was released on day parole. This was not, however, what the victim’s family was told.

Marjean Fichtenberg turned to the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime (CRCVC), a non-governmental victim’s advocacy organization which was only in its first year of operation.
The CRCVC joined hands with Fichtenberg and after more than two years of relentless inquiring and asking around, finally got the truth out of the RCMP.

“Eventually, after two and a half years of writing literally hundreds of letters … I learned that the man who murdered my son was an RCMP agent,” said Fichtenberg.

Today, Marjean Fichtenberg is the chair of the centre.

It is stories like these that make the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime such a success. Victims of crime and survivors of crime can testify that they and their families require a certain amount support and assistance. Sadly, it is a need not many in the federal government see as being of the utmost importance. The issues victims of crime face range from emotional trauma, to financial pitfalls, especially in the case of domestic violence, when a wife has fled from an abusive relationship, for example.

The CRCVC was founded in 1993 with exactly these pressing issues in mind. A non-profit, non-governmental organization, the CRCVC is a place where victims of crime can turn to, and not be disappointed with the support they receive.

The organization strives to achieve three main goals for victims of crime. First and foremost, they provide advocacy for victims who have issues in their cases relating to the justice system. In the case of Marjean Fichtenberg, that is exactly what she came to the centre for. Fichtenberg desperately sensed that something was wrong with circumstances surrounding her son’s death, and she was determined to find the truth. Writing probing letters and investigating matters that seem adrift in the justice system make up a great deal of the CRCVC’s efforts. This includes working closely with the Correctional Service of Canada and the National Parole.

The resource centre also provides long-term support for victims of crime. Support can come in many forms, but one of the most important, and often overlooked, kind of support a victim of crime can receive, is emotional support.

Fairooz Kermali, a family and child therapist at the Phoenix Centre for Children and Families, said that it is essential that victims of crime receive adequate support if they are to live a life as close to normality again. Trauma, according to Kermali, leaves an emotional and physical mark on a victim. If it is not treated the right way, that trauma can manifest itself when one of the five senses are reminded of a specific traumatic situation.

A loud noise, a certain smell. Any of those could trigger a stressful emotional reaction, followed by physical response similar to the one experienced in the original situation.

A failure to receive treatment could also lead to negative coping methods like drug usage.
“It’s important that victims of crime receive treatment and support because the impact of trauma can be so deep it can stop them from living a full and healthy life,” Kermali said. “Treatment also empowers them to talk back against their perpetrators; it helps them find their voice.”

Another way the CRCVC assists victims of crime is by offering them a wide variety of resources to work with. It’s extremely important that victims are guided in the right direction for their needs. Part of that is to be referred to the right organization, or to the right people to talk to. If the resource centre doesn’t offer a certain kind of assistance, it will, through a vast bank of resources, guide a victim to an appropriate source that will be of help.

One resource that the centre exclusively provides is a monthly newsletter called the National Justice Network Update. The newsletter, which is available both online and on print, keeps victims of crime and those in the victim-support community up to date with issues surrounding crime in Canada. It keeps readers abreast about advocacy centres being built around the country, and awareness campaigns being launched. In the October edition for example, a part of the newsletter was dedicated to the opening of Vancouver’s first ever Child Advocacy Centre. While another section of it talked about a sexual assault awareness campaign being held in Saskatoon. If any new bills have been introduced that support victims of crime, you’ll find it in the NJN Update.

The NJN Update is written and compiled by a different pair of student volunteers every month, usually from the criminology programs of Carleton University and the University of Ottawa. The newsletter is completely free of charge, and anyone can sign up for it on the centre’s website.
It is remarkable to think that for a breed of organization that offers such a crucial kind of service, that funding, of all things, is a massive problem.

The CRCVC does not charge for the services it offers, and only two people sit at its office in Ottawa. The centre survives primarily off project grants, usually from the justice and public departments of the federal government.

This sort of funding means that they have to constantly carry out projects in order to continue receiving funds, a chore executive director Heidi Illingworth, says negatively effects what the CRCVC aims to achieve.

“We have to do all these projects on top of our regular mandates,” she said.

“With having to do projects to stay open, it takes away from the work we want to do with our clients and advocating for them,”

The centre also receives private donations, usually from police departments across the country. A section on their website recognizes these sponsors, and states how much each has given to the running of the resource centre.

Illingworth also said that a lack of dependable funding is preventing them from growing, as the centre has looked to branch out its range of services.

“We would love to expand our services but funding is an issue for us,” Illingworth said. “We don’t have sustainable funding from any source.

And it’s not just them that struggle with money. Steve Sullivan, executive director of Ottawa Victim Services (OVS), said that working in the victim-service industry is far from glamorous.

“We all face financial challenges,” he said. “You’re not going to find too many people working in community-based agencies who are driving Bentleys.”

The OVS offers three different programs for victims of crime, all funded in part by the province of Ontario. One of the programs they provide is emergency financial assistance for victims affected by the most serious crimes - namely homicide and sexual assault. Costs like funerals, counselling sessions, and the replacing of damaged property are all covered by the OVS through the program.

Sullivan said that hiring staff with dedication to the cause is a key factor to success, and that because organizations like his cannot offer a lucrative array of incentives, keeping good staff is a challenge.

“If that’s [catching a paycheck] what you’re aiming for, then you’re in the wrong field,” he said.
The OVS was recently forced to shut down a program earlier this year due to insufficient funding. The Court Accompaniment Program was supposed to give emotional and practical support to women (usually who had experienced domestic violence) when they were attending criminal court proceedings. A team of trained and educated volunteers would accompany the women, and stand by their side as they argued their cases to the court. But because of a lack of funding, the program had to be axed before it could take off.

Incidentally, Sullivan had just begun working at the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime when Marjean Fichtenberg, seeking the truth behind her son’s murder, showed up at its doors in 1993.
“Marjean was tenacious,” Sullivan said. “She had amazing strength and courage,”
He said that working on that particular case was a major learning experience for him, and where he found out how the justice system, “shuts down when someone asks tough questions.”

Sullivan travelled to Prince George with Fichtenberg to attend that historic inquest, only the second of its kind in the history of Canada.

He credits Fichtenberg and her tenacity for playing a part in making sure the justice system is now held accountable for its mistakes. It is because of her, he said, that Canada got its first ever federal Ombudsman for victims of crime on April 23, 2007 – an appointment the CRCVC had been working towards for a very long time.

That position went to none other than Steve Sullivan himself, the centre’s former president. As an Ombudsman, he has the authority to issue reports and recommendations to ministers of justice and public safety. The CRCVC website states that the Ombudsman will, “operate at arm’s lengths from the federal departments responsible for victim issues.” This proximity of working with individuals who call the shots was desperately lacking for victims in crime in Canada. When the centre successfully lobbied for an Ombudsman for victims of crime, this gap took an important step in being narrowed.

This is one of the many triumphs that the centre has celebrated over the years. Another memorable moment came in the spring of 2004, when they joined three women who had suffered great losses as a result of crime, to make a crucial series of amendments to an existing bill. Bill C-13 is a piece of legislation which, after the changes initiated by the CRCVC were made, deemed it compulsory for courts around Canada to include a wider range of offenders into the National DNA Data Bank. Offenders accused of crimes like the use of Internet to lure children, possession of child pornography, and involvement in criminal organizations would now be added to the National DNA Data Bank under the law.

Seeing that financial support for victims of crime is an issue province-wide as well, it is one of the major goals of the CRCVC to see a national program that provides financial assistance for victims of crime.

As it stands right now, all the provinces and territories of Canada have systems for assisting victims of crime.
Illingworth said that the problem with this is that the amount of assistance available is proportionate to the size of the state.

“The level of assistance victims can get is very different depending on which province or territory they were victimized in,” she said. “If you’re a victim in Newfoundland, then there is no financial assistance at all for any of the expenses that you might have – be it counselling, funeral costs if there’s been a homicide – they don’t have anything.”

However in larger provinces like Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia, financial assistance for victims of crime can be significant.

Be it the CRCVC or the Ottawa Victim Services, at the end of the day, victim-service organizations end up competing over a small pot of money available to support their services.

“We all have great projects but there’s just a small number of dollars,” said Sullivan. “So we end up competing for that funding.”

He said victim-service programs should be regarded as, “important enough for tax dollars to be used to fund them.” Right now, some programs are partly funded through what’s called a victim-bye-surcharge. This when you pay a fine for example for a car ticket, a percentage of that fine will go to the funding of a victim service program.

But how many more programs will have to be shut down before somebody realizes the worth of victim support services? How many more victims of crime will be deprived of services before adequate funding is provided?

Marjean Fichtenberg said that the assistance she received from the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime was crucial to her cause. “The support I received over the years from the CRCVC has been invaluable, as I am sure many victims will tell you the same thing,” she said.

But until proper funding for victim-support programs can be provided, organizations like the CRCVC will have to continue “scrapping by,” as Steve Sullivan puts it.

For more information, or if you are a victim of crime seeking assistance, visit the centres website at or pay visit them a visit - they are located at 100-141 Catherine Street, Ottawa, ON.

You can also “Like” their facebook page, and follow them on Twitter @CRCVC.

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