Justice minister aims to rebuild trust after predecessor's domestic violence comments

Justice Minister Barb Adams says she wants survivors of domestic violence to know she takes the issue seriously, and is coming into the portfolio with an understanding that her predecessor's comments caused damage. (CBC - image credit)
Justice Minister Barb Adams says she wants survivors of domestic violence to know she takes the issue seriously, and is coming into the portfolio with an understanding that her predecessor's comments caused damage. (CBC - image credit)

Nova Scotia's new justice minister says there is work to do to rebuild trust with service organizations following controversial comments a former cabinet colleague made last week about domestic violence.

Brad Johns resigned as justice minister a day after casting doubt on the pervasiveness of domestic violence and telling reporters he thought there were "bigger issues" in the province, including drugs and guns.

His comments came on the fourth anniversary of the mass shooting in Nova Scotia that began with an assault on the gunman's wife and claimed the lives of 22 people.

Barb Adams, who was sworn in Monday as justice minister and attorney general, said she's already been talking with service organizations and using that opportunity to listen to concerns.

"I need to be sure that Nova Scotians know that I take domestic violence very seriously and that I come to this role with that appreciation that there are some new wounds that need to be addressed," she said in an interview Thursday.

Paid leave for survivors to be reviewed

Jill Balser, the minister responsible for the Advisory Council on the Status of Women and the provincial labour minister, said she's also heard the anger and frustration from women's centres and transition houses following Johns's comments.

The government has taken steps to increase support for those organizations — most recently through funding increases in the 2024-25 budget — but Balser said she knows more needs to be done.

Those efforts will include consultation beginning this summer on the amount of paid leave from work available to domestic violence survivors.

Earlier this week, the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour called on the government to increase the amount of paid leave for survivors to five days from three.

Federation president Danny Cavanagh said he was prompted to act after Johns's remarks.

"I think we, as a society [in] this day and age, need to be doing all we can to help people get out of those situations," said Cavanagh.

Jill Balser is Nova Scotia's labour minister.
Jill Balser is Nova Scotia's labour minister.

Nova Scotia Labour Minister Jill Balser says her department will review the provisions in the Labour Standards Code related to paid leave for domestic violence survivors. (Robert Short/CBC)

The federation has argued in the past for 10 days of paid leave, but Cavanagh said an increase to five would at least put Nova Scotia more in line with other provinces.

The Liberal government in 2018 introduced unpaid leave for up to 16 continuous weeks and 10 intermittent days for survivors to seek services and supports. Opposition parties at the time, including the Tories, welcomed the change, but said it was only a first step.

Balser said her department has already started to look at leave provisions in the Labour Standards Code for people with serious illness, such as cancer. She said it's important to show domestic violence survivors they are also supported.

"We are committed to looking at this," she said. "We're going to do that work and speak to Nova Scotians and better understand the impact that this change could potentially have."

Looking at how departments collaborate

Despite supports that have increased in recent years, service organizations have voiced concerns about their ability to meet the demand they are seeing from people who need help. The availabilty of housing is another challenge that's been identified.

Statistics from the province's housing agency show that as of March, 35 of the 165 applicants on the priority access waitlist for public housing identified as domestic violence survivors. It takes an average of 16 months for anyone on the priority waitlist to receive a placement.

Adams, who is also the province's minister of seniors and long-term care, said that if there are barriers to someone being able to leave a dangerous situation, it is a problem for all government departments.

As she settles into her new portfolio, Adams said a priority will be learning how various government departments work together on the issue and what more can be done collectively to improve the situation.

"We want people who need to get out to be safe [and] to be able to do so immediately," she said.