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Why it’s so hard for women to legally defend themselves against their attackers

Pepper spray is illegal to carry and Vancouver women run the risk of being perceived as perpetrators of violence.
For many women in Vancouver and across Canada, terrifying and potentially violent situations arise unexpectedly and escalate quickly. 

It can start off seemingly benign. The feeling that someone is watching you a little too closely or happens to be walking in your direction after dark. 

But for many women in Vancouver and across Canada, terrifying and potentially violent situations arise unexpectedly and escalate quickly. 

Last week, Jamie Coutts was followed for 40 minutes by a man in the Tinseltown area. After making several loops around the block to try and get him to stop, she turned her camera on "selfie mode" to record the encounter. 

But Coutts' story is not an anomaly. In fact, numerous women responded to the story by saying they were followed by the same man or other men in the city

On the heels of International Women's Day, #notallmenbutallwomen trended on Twitter after the "not all men" sentiment surfaced on the platform. Many men felt personally attacked by the "me too" movement rather than focusing on the actual issue: violence against women. 

The "not all men but all women" movement acknowledges that not all men sexually assault women, but that every woman has experienced misogyny. Women from around the world continue to share intimate stories of sexual assault and harassment, with many of them expressing that they have lost count of the times they've experienced uncomfortable or traumatic situations. 

Now, many women are voicing concerns about how they can defend themselves in a violent situation. 

Pepper spray is illegal 

Vancouver Police Cst. Tania Visintin confirms with Vancouver Is Awesome that pepper spray is illegal to carry in the city. "Having it in your possession is illegal under the law."

That said, Visintin says the VPD Women's Personal Safety Team offers tactics that are designed to be easily learned and remembered by women who have no prior training.

Vancouver criminal lawyer Kyla Lee says that the short answer is that pepper spray is not lawful. If a woman is searched and an officer finds it on her person, she could face charges for "possession of a weapon for a purpose dangerous to the public peace."  However, she says "there is room for discretion."

"If a woman is attacked and used pepper spray to defend herself, the charge of possession of a weapon for a purpose dangerous to the public peace would be more difficult to prove," explains Lee. "This is because the weapon was used in self-defence, and not dangerous to the public order in that situation. It is not in the public interest to lay charges against a victim of an assault who defends herself, and so I do not expect that charges would be laid in such circumstances." 

With this in mind, Lee adds that it is still not "lawful" to have on your person. 

But do women carry pepper spray? 

Despite the law, several women tell V.I.A. they do carry pepper spray; a few carry knives, too. A couple of them stated that they started carrying a weapon after a traumatizing encounter, while others said they had it in case a scary situation arose. 

A woman on Reddit Vancouver asks "What can we carry around for self-defence?" She adds that "With a surge in attacks against minority groups and women in Vancouver, I feel a great need to carry something that will at least let the attacker know that they don't want to get any closer to me."

At the time of this writing, the post has been commented on 127 times, with many women sharing what they do to defend themselves against potential attackers in lieu of weapons. However, many women state that they use objects that do not consider weapons, such as keys. Under the Criminal Code, however, a weapon can be anything designed, used or intended to cause death or injury or even just to threaten or intimidate another person.

Violence against women

While high-profile cases of violence against women have been highlighted in the media of late, Indigenous women have been disproportionately going missing for decades in Canada.

Executive director of the Battered Women's Support Services (BWSS) Angela Marie MacDougall tells V.I.A. that the missing and murdered Indigenous women human-rights crisis is the point in history to begin the discussion on violence against women in Vancouver and across the country. 

In research conducted by the BWSS, MacDougall says they found that the vast majority of women who were wrongfully arrested in cases of domestic violence were Indigenous, Black or a woman of colour whose first language was not English. 

"In 2008 we began seeing an increase in women wrongfully arrested as perpetrators of a violent offence," she adds. "What we saw was that the police were not following protocol."

While there has been law reform over the years, MacDougall says that "patriarchy is the law of the land." Despite women being "pursued and hunted," she says the law does not enable women to have the ability to protect themselves. 

"The Criminal Code provides very little options for women to self-defend without being accused of being the perpetrator of violence--in terms of how the police would be assessing women's behaviour in that context. It's a bit of a catch 22. On one hand, we live in a society where we're seeing women being street harassed, sexually harassed, sexually assaulted and even abducted--and then we have this prohibition by law enforcement to defend ourselves. 

"So this is, unfortunately, one of the problems in the culture. Women run the risk of being perceived as being a perpetrator."

Women are taking action by memorializing their personal experiences on social media, which MacDougall says is crucial in highlighting marginalized voices. However, women continue to go missing and the systemic issues have roots "that run deep."

"Whoever calls the police first is the one who gets to frame the narrative."

Criminal law lawyer Emma Wilson has defended several women in cases of domestic violence and tells V.I.A. that in some instances the primary aggressor--who is commonly male--will be the first one to call the police. 

"People don't want to call the police on someone they love," she says. "I've seen it many times where someone has been abused by their partner many times and chooses not to report it to the police...Whoever calls the police first is the one who gets to frame the narrative. It determines how the course of the investigation will go. 

"If someone calls them with a compelling story about being assaulted, they might believe them," says Wilson, who adds that police need more time to thoroughly investigate cases of domestic violence due to instances like this. 

Wilson says in the few times where the woman is the one getting charged, she has noticed that the woman is typically not the one who is committing the violence. 


Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS) Crisis line remains open, providing emotional support to women experiencing gender-based domestic violence and/or uncertainty during these difficult times. This may be a time an abusive ex is calling you and trying to convince you to return and may be making you feel vulnerable and using harassment and COVID-19 to make you come back.

If you need to plan around leaving, call the BWSS crisis line during a safe time, text 604-652-1867 or send them an email at

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