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Indigenous shelters for victims of abuse in Canada, 2020/2021

Released: 2022-09-16

In Canada, First Nations people, Métis and Inuit are overrepresented among victims of violence. Research has shown that colonial policies and practices—such as the residential school system—and historical and ongoing racism, discrimination and marginalization have contributed to an increased risk of violent victimization among Indigenous people. The destructive consequences for communities, families and individuals have resulted in intergenerational trauma. Further, it has been consistently reported that Indigenous women and girls are at greater risk of experiencing intimate partner violence, evidence of the impacts historical and present-day conditions have.

Shelters for victims of abuse offer support that can alleviate some of the consequences of intimate partner violence, such as homelessness. In 2020/2021, there were 93 shelters operating across Canada with ties to First Nations, Métis or Inuit communities or organizations that were primarily mandated to serve victims of abuse. These shelters, which mainly serve people from Indigenous communities, play an important role for victims of abuse by offering them a safe environment and basic living needs, as well as various other types of support and outreach services.

Just over half (54%) of all Indigenous shelters were in rural areas and about 4 in 10 (39%) were on reserves. The large majority (80%) of Indigenous shelters were in First Nations, Métis or Inuit communities, while the remaining 20% had other ties to Indigenous communities or organizations, such as being owned or operated by an Indigenous governing body.

The vast majority (92%) of Indigenous shelters were short-term facilities, which generally mandate stays for a period of less than three months. A small proportion (8%) of Indigenous shelters reported that they provide long-term accommodation, a period of three months or more, to their clients. In contrast, there were 432 non-Indigenous shelters in Canada in 2020/2021. One quarter (25%) of these non-Indigenous shelters offered long-term accommodation, while the remaining 75% were short-term facilities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on people across Canada in 2020/2021. Throughout this period, various health and safety authorities raised the issue of violence in the home as a major concern because of the increased risk of experiencing victimization while isolated at home and during heightened periods of emotional and economic stress. For example, women and children, who are particularly vulnerable to certain types of family violence, were often unable to escape their abusers because they were more isolated in their homes during this period.

It has been reported that the pandemic also exacerbated already difficult social circumstances and living conditions many marginalized population groups in Canada face, notably Indigenous people, as various public health guidelines and measures were put in place to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. For instance, many Indigenous people lack access to adequate and suitable housing—due to various factors, such as a lack of affordable housing—and crowded housing conditions increased the risk of COVID-19 transmission for many individuals. These conditions did not allow people to follow public health guidelines and isolate if they were sick and may also have heightened social stress and conflict in the home.

The Juristat article "Shelters for victims of abuse with ties to Indigenous communities or organizations in Canada, 2020/2021," released today, uses data from the 2020/2021 cycle of the Survey of Residential Facilities for Victims of Abuse (SRFVA) and presents information on Indigenous shelters in Canada. The article contains information on how these shelters adapted their operations during the first year of the pandemic with the implementation of different measures and practices. In addition, it presents detailed information on the characteristics of Indigenous shelters for victims of abuse, as well as on the residents who are staying in these facilities. While Indigenous shelters are the focus of this article, information on non-Indigenous shelters is provided throughout for context. Information is presented for 2020/2021 or a single snapshot day (April 14, 2021), a predetermined business day meant to represent a typical day of operations for shelters across Canada.

About 4 in 10 beds in short-term Indigenous shelters are occupied on the survey snapshot day

Shelters for victims of abuse reported lower occupancy rates on the survey snapshot day of April 14, 2021, compared with what was reported during the 2017/2018 cycle, when SRFVA was last conducted. Short-term Indigenous shelters reported that 41% of the beds in their facilities were occupied on that day, while this was the case for 57% of the beds in short-term non-Indigenous shelters. In comparison, the occupancy rate for short-term Indigenous shelters before the pandemic (2017/2018) was 75%.

Overall, 12% of short-term Indigenous shelters and 17% of short-term non-Indigenous shelters were considered full (that is, 90% occupancy or greater) on April 14, 2021. These proportions are lower than what was reported by shelters on the snapshot day in 2017/2018 (34% of Indigenous shelters and 36% of non-Indigenous shelters).

Short-term Indigenous shelters report longer average lengths of stay than short-term non-Indigenous facilities

Long-term shelters provide extended services to victims of abuse and allow for longer stays, which is especially important for victims of abuse who face barriers in finding permanent housing. However, housing challenges, such as the lack of affordability and the general shortage of long-term shelters for victims of abuse in Canada, can sometimes result in victims staying in short-term shelters for longer than the expected maximum length of stay because they have nowhere else to go. In 2020/2021, 23% of short-term Indigenous shelters and 18% of short-term non-Indigenous shelters reported average lengths of stay at their facilities that exceeded their general mandate of three months.

A higher proportion of shelters located in urban areas reported longer average lengths of stay than shelters located in rural areas, which may be related to the current housing situation in Canada and the lack of affordable housing for purchase or rent in urban areas. In 2020/2021, over one-quarter (27%) of short-term urban Indigenous shelters reported average lengths of stay of three months or more, compared with 20% of rural Indigenous shelters.

Lack of permanent housing continues to be the most common issue shelters face

Shelters for victims of abuse can face many challenges that can affect their operations, their residents and the services they provide. In 2020/2021, both Indigenous (37%) and non-Indigenous (41%) shelters reported that the most common issue they faced was a lack of permanent housing, as has been reported by shelter associations for more than two decades.

Accommodation capacity is the greatest pandemic-related challenge for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous shelters

The pandemic has affected the operations of shelters and their ability to provide support and services to victims of abuse. About one-third of Indigenous (32%) and non-Indigenous (34%) shelters reported that, overall, the pandemic has affected their ability to provide services to victims to a great extent. Both types of shelters reported that the most challenging time was the period when the initial lockdown and restrictions were implemented across the country.

The greatest pandemic-related challenge faced by both Indigenous (46%) and non-Indigenous (47%) shelters in 2020/2021 was accommodation capacity because physical distancing requirements decreased the number of residents that could be accommodated in shelters. Compared with prior to the pandemic, many shelters reported reducing the number of beds or units in their facilities (65% of Indigenous shelters and 61% of non-Indigenous shelters). Over a one-year period, shelters also admitted fewer residents to their facilities than were admitted during the last cycle of the SRFVA in 2017/2018 (29% fewer admissions to Indigenous shelters in 2020/2021 and 31% fewer admissions to non-Indigenous shelters).

Chart 1  Chart 1: Percent of shelters for victims of abuse reporting a great extent of impact due to the COVID-19 pandemic, by type of impact and type of shelter, Canada, 2020/2021
Percent of shelters for victims of abuse reporting a great extent of impact due to the COVID-19 pandemic, by type of impact and type of shelter, Canada, 2020/2021

Yet, compared with the pre-pandemic period, half of Indigenous (50%) and almost half of non-Indigenous (49%) shelters reported that the number of crisis calls they received increased. Furthermore, some shelters reported an increase in the use of other methods of communication (e.g., video conferencing, letters) to provide support or services to individuals outside of their facilities (48% of Indigenous shelters and 72% of non-Indigenous shelters).

Some shelters reported staffing-related challenges throughout the pandemic. For example, over one-quarter of Indigenous shelters reported facing challenges related to staff availability because of family or caregiving responsibilities (28%) and self-isolation requirements (26%).

Shelters implement new measures and expand services throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, while continuing to serve victims of abuse

To help reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus while continuing to provide a safe place to stay, shelters have implemented a variety of different measures throughout the pandemic. These measures include implementing enhanced health protection and cleaning practices (98% of Indigenous shelters and 95% of non-Indigenous shelters) and using new forms of community outreach (e.g., new public awareness campaigns) (58% of Indigenous shelters and 61% of non-Indigenous shelters). Many shelters also reported making changes to their shelter spaces such as creating designated areas where residents could self-isolate (58% of Indigenous shelters and 68% of non-Indigenous shelters).

It was less common for Indigenous shelters than non-Indigenous shelters to report using new technologies to communicate with victims (e.g., encrypted messaging, providing virtual services and support) (55% versus 79%), and adapting or adding new programs and services (52% versus 73%).

  Note to readers

The Survey of Residential Facilities for Victims of Abuse (SRFVA) is a census of Canadian shelters (residential facilities) primarily mandated to provide residential services to victims of abuse.

With the exception of questions related to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on shelters, the information presented in this article refers to two distinct time periods. First, data pertaining to the number of annual admissions and average length of stay are based on a 12-month reference period (2020/2021) that preceded the SRFVA. Respondents were asked to select a 12-month reference period that most closely resembled the period their shelter refers to in its annual reports. Second, the characteristics of shelters as well as the profile of those using the shelters, are based on the snapshot day April 14, 2021.

Five SRFVA questions allow respondent shelters to identify whether they are associated with Indigenous communities or organizations in Canada:

  1. Is your facility an Aboriginal organization?
  2. Is your facility located in a First Nations, Métis or Inuit community?
  3. Is your facility located on a reserve?
  4. Is your facility owned by a First Nations government (band council)?
  5. Is your facility operated by a First Nations government (band council)?

A shelter was defined as Indigenous if it responded yes to any of the above questions. In addition, some shelters that did not report this information in 2020/2021 were identified as Indigenous or non-Indigenous by linking to the 2017/2018 SRFVA dataset and pulling the information that was provided for the five Indigenous questions during that cycle of the survey.

An admission refers to the official acceptance of a resident into the shelter, with the allocation of a bed, child's bed, crib, bedroom or bedroom unit, or apartment. The total number of admissions is based on all admissions for the 12-month reference period and includes people who may have been admitted more than once. Each shelter visit is counted as a separate admission. For example, the same person being admitted to a shelter three times in a year would count as three admissions.

Throughout this article, analyses exclude shelters that did not provide a response to the specific question being analyzed. At the national level, this includes from 26% to 32% of all shelters and from 25% to 29% of all women and accompanying children for analysis based on the number of residents. The percentage of excluded shelters or residents varies by question and by region, and for Indigenous and non-Indigenous shelters. For questions where there was an unknown answer category, calculations include these unknown responses.

Occupancy is calculated by dividing the total number of residents on the survey snapshot day by the total number of funded beds, and multiplying the result by 100.

The sum of percentages may not add up to 100% because of rounding.


The article "Shelters for victims of abuse with ties to Indigenous communities or organizations in Canada, 2020/2021" is now available as part of the publication Juristat (Catalogue number85-002-X). Additional data are available upon request.

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