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Old Wounds Illustration by Selena Wong.

Old Wounds

Aboriginal women face staggering rates of domestic violence, especially on remote reserves.

In February 2012, Karen woke up in the hospital in Thunder Bay, Ontario with no recollection of why she was there. She remembered that she had been folding laundry when her husband Robert came home and started shouting at her. He was angry that she hadn’t finished her chores, and that he was missing a pair of socks. By the time Karen came to, she had been unconscious for more than a day and a half.   

The twenty-five-year-old Aboriginal woman has dealt with abuse for much of her life. As a foster child, she moved a total of fifty-four times between the ages of three and sixteen. Her foster brothers raped her repeatedly, but when she asked for help no one believed her. Her Children’s Aid worker said that she was like the boy who cried wolf—until a clinic found evidence of vaginal scarring and semen.

That February, Karen was only allowed to leave the hospital after meeting with her counsellor, a social worker assigned by the city’s child and family services. In the past, when the counsellor asked about the bruises on Karen’s face, she had lied. This time, she told her everything. Karen had been with Robert since she was fifteen. Back then, she was using and selling prescription drugs, and was involved with gangs. Robert got her off drugs and into drinking instead. When they had their first baby, and got their first place, their relationship grew increasingly troubled, and the violence started. By now, the physical and emotional abuse she and her four children suffered was escalating. Robert had even threatened her life, and her attempts to escape had failed.

After leaving the hospital, Karen’s counsellor drove her to Robert’s mother’s apartment, where the couple was staying with their children. Robert’s mother called him at work. He pulled up to the house just as Karen jumped into the car with the children. Her counsellor saw the fear in her face and sped out of the parking lot.

On reserve and off, Karen and other First Nations women in Ontario experience higher rates of domestic violence than non-Aboriginals. (The names of abused women interviewed in this story have been changed for safety reasons, and identifying details, such as the names of their reserves, have also been omitted.) According to Statistics Canada, Aboriginal women are more than three times as likely to be victims of spousal abuse. They are also more likely to suffer physical injury requiring medical attention, and they face higher rates of life-threatening violence, such as being beaten, choked, having a gun or knife used against them or being sexually assaulted. In urban areas, Aboriginal women might have better access to help and resources, but in many isolated communities they are far from the services they need. They face the same challenges as women everywhere in Canada who are caught up in abusive situations—and then some.

Sometimes, domestic abuse can turn deadly. In December 2011, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women announced that it would conduct an inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Sisters in Spirit—a five-year initiative, launched by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, that documented a total of 582 missing and murdered women—had drawn the UN’s attention to the problem. In Ontario, NWAC identified fourteen cases of missing Aboriginal women and another fifty-six instances of murder dating back to the 1970s. When the relationship between the victim and the killer could be established, NWAC determined that 58 percent of these murders were committed by partners or ex-partners.

Much news coverage has focused on Aboriginal women dying and disappearing on the West Coast, particularly on the infamous Highway of Tears between Prince George and Prince Rupert, in British Columbia. But the situation in Ontario—the province with the largest number of Aboriginal people in Canada—gets much less attention. Almost half of Ontario’s Aboriginal population lives north of Thunder Bay, concentrated in towns and cities like Kenora, Fort Frances, Dryden, Sioux Lookout and Red Lake. Most are Ojibwe, Cree or mixed-ancestry Oji-Cree. Just over fifteen thousand people live on twenty-five tiny fly-in reserves, many of which have a population of fewer than five hundred residents.

Most of the women murdered in Ontario were mothers to two or more children. They were killed on reserves, in cities and towns, and in rural areas. Had Karen not fled to a shelter, she could have been one of them. If she hadn’t escaped, she says, her husband “probably would have just dragged my ass out and kicked the shit out of me. His perspective was, if I was to leave, it’s death.”

Early one winter morning, on a reserve near the Manitoba border, David woke up in the two-bedroom wood shack that his partner Jacqueline lived in with her three youngest children. One of her sons was spending the night with friends, but Jacqueline and the other two children were sound asleep. On his way to the bathroom, David smelled something burning. “Fire!” he shouted. Even with the lights on, the house was black with smoke. Jacqueline and the children managed to make it outside. They ran to the local firefighter’s house and banged on his door. Soon the fire was out, but the shack’s bathroom was destroyed.

The fire started when Jacqueline’s laundry, drying in the bathroom, was hung too close to one of the shack’s four space heaters. The little shelter is poorly insulted and has no heat, and the windows are boarded up in an attempt to keep the cold air out. Jacqueline has repeatedly asked her reserve’s band council to fix the shack’s furnace, which has been broken since she moved into the house three years ago. When the bathroom burned down, she asked the council to help her again. But, because her ex-husband has a large home on the reserve, and because she was the one who left him, she says the band council assumes that she should just return to him.

When he drank, Jacqueline’s husband would hit and sexually assault her. His father sometimes intervened to stop the abuse, but he died in 2004, and things got worse. Three months after her father-in-law’s death, Jacqueline and three of her children left the reserve, heading to the New Starts for Women shelter in Red Lake before moving on to Thunder Bay. While she was in Thunder Bay, she became addicted to OxyContin and Percocet. She lost her children to the Children’s Aid Society. In 2010, she quit drugs and returned to the reserve. Two years ago, she finally got her children back.

Seeking refuge at a shelter is difficult for women who live on isolated reserves. Getting out usually means flying, and leaving behind the only home they’ve ever known. Because the reserves are so small, coming home after a stay in a shelter often means returning to their abusers—and to a band council that may not be sympathetic. Jacqueline insists that her decision to leave her husband is behind the council’s refusal to give her a decent place to live. And she suspects that she’s been denied jobs on the reserve because of their separation. Leaving for good, however, isn’t an option. “I want to be near my parents,” she says. “My nieces and nephews told me that they needed me when I was gone. They don’t want to see me leave again.”

Jacqueline’s story is familiar to Kathy Campbell, the executive director at New Starts for Women. The band council and chief control most affairs on reserves, from housing to education and social services, she says—they control how much help an abused woman can get in her community. “Everything goes through the chief and council,” Campbell says. “That’s the way it is.” Campbell recalls the chief of one reserve accompanying a woman’s husband to the airport to try to keep her from flying to a shelter.

Sue Hanson, a transitional support worker at the women’s shelter in the town of Atikokan, says that women trying to leave violent relationships can also face financial retribution from councils. One woman who fled her reserve to stay at a shelter had three children in university. They were each informed that their funding, arranged through the band council, was now cut off. “Frankly, if you’ve pissed somebody off, you don’t get your education paid for,” Hanson says.

For a lot of women, simply getting to the point where they’re punished for seeking help is a challenge. “When they choose to live a life of peace, they have to have a lot more courage than a non-Aboriginal woman,” says Donna Kroocmo, the executive director of the women’s shelter in Atikokan. “An Aboriginal woman has to not only give up her extended family, but she also has to give up her entire community.”

Because many northern Ontario reserves are so small, fear of gossip plays a huge role in keeping women from seeking help, says Rachel Garrick, a former domestic-violence workshop coordinator at Equay-wuk, a women’s organization that serves about two dozen reserves north of Sioux Lookout. Most reserves have a few social-service workers, but it’s rare that someone is specifically tasked with addressing domestic violence. The small population also means that the crisis worker might be related to the woman or her abuser, says Cindy Richard, a front-line worker at the Atikokan shelter. “Violence is rampant for sure,” she says. When a taxi arrives to take a woman to a shelter, “everyone knows where she’s going and what she’s doing.”

When women on reserves do seek help, they often find it easier to go to outsiders, according to a community nurse who has worked in several reserves in northern Ontario. The nurse asked to not be named since outsiders—including police officers, nurses and teachers—who speak critically about reserves are sometimes banned from returning through a band-council resolution. She recalls the story of one woman who came to see her about a respiratory tract infection. “I lifted up her sleeve to do her blood pressure and she had cigarette burns all down her arm,” the nurse says. “I asked her whether or not someone did it to her. And she said, very quietly, yes. I asked if it was her boyfriend and she said yes.”

In some cases, calling the police isn’t an option. Emergency 911 numbers don’t exist for many small communities, and it’s not uncommon for some fly-in reserves to go days without a police presence. Michelle Donio-King, the coordinator of Nishnawbe-Aski Legal Services, which serves forty-nine First Nations in northern Ontario, says she once called the police station on a Nishnawbe-Aski Nation reserve, and no one picked up the phone. When she called the police-services office, she found out that the community had been without an officer for a few days.

When the police do become involved, they sometimes aren’t much help. Karen gave up calling the police long before she ended up in the hospital, which is why Robert wasn’t charged. On several earlier occasions when she did call the police, Robert received minor sentences and hit Karen when he came home anyway. When she was pregnant with her eldest daughter and beaten so badly that she could barely open her eyes, he was sentenced to only twenty-seven weekends in jail.

Those sorts of short-term sentences—which do not come with required participation in the Partner Assault Response program, anger-management sessions or other mandatory treatment—scare women like Karen, because their partners come back angrier than when they left. “He’d go to jail, but then he’d be out the next day. ‘Oh shit, I’m in for it now,’” says Karen.

On another occasion, Karen was charged for lashing out in self-defence. She and Robert were arguing in their kitchen, and he grabbed her throat. She couldn’t breathe and, feeling like she was losing consciousness, she grabbed the first thing she could reach. Robert finally let go when she smashed a coffee pot over his head. He called the police while Karen was upstairs putting their children to bed. When the officers arrived, he was lying on the floor. They arrested Karen. She showed them her bruises but the charges stuck.

In other cases, women hesitate to step forward to complain about abuse because they fear being left on their own. When their partners are sent to jail in the middle of the winter, for instance, women on reserves sometimes rely on neighbours and family for help with tasks like cutting wood and caring for children. “I’ve heard a lot of women … say that that’s one of the reasons that they do return” to abusive partners, says Kroocmo. “They feel that, even if he only helps out an hour a day, that helps her a bit.”

Hanson says that many women also stay in violent relationships because even abusive partners provide protection from other men on reserves. If a husband is sent off to jail, “now the woman is in danger because she’s a single woman living in the community,” says Hanson. “That husband may be abusive towards her, but he’s also her protector in the community.”

Poverty, addiction and mental illness in Aboriginal communities often complicate women’s efforts to leave their abusers. These social problems are rooted in centuries-long efforts to assimilate Aboriginal people into European-Canadian culture. The federal Indian Act, enacted in 1876, was intended as a temporary set of laws until Aboriginal people were fully integrated into Canadian society—that is, until First Nations people ceased to be. Although many of the Indian Act’s worst excesses have since been repealed, it had, and continues to have, far-reaching domination over Aboriginal people’s lives. The government controlled land, resources, Indian status and education. Many traditional ceremonies and dances were made illegal. Children were taken from their parents at a young age to study in residential schools, which were infamously designed to “take the Indian out of the child.” Many students were punished for speaking their own language, and they returned to their parents with new beliefs about their heritage, about right and wrong, about men and women. During the so-called “Sixties Scoop,” approximately twenty thousand Aboriginal children were removed from their homes and placed into foster care. In both residential schools and in care, some children experienced physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

These intrusions had lasting effects. Many still suffer from the abuse dealt to them, their parents and their grandparents in schools and in foster care. Parents remember losing their children and children remember losing their families. Without the means to heal, suffering passed from one generation to the next.

Martin White drops sage, cedar, tobacco and sweet grass in the smudge bowl and then lights the sacred medicines. Using an eagle feather, smoke is carried over the bodies of the people sitting in a circle around him, starting from the top of the head and working toward the floor. Smudging is a First Nations tradition that is used to purify mind and body. It is how White opens each meeting of the I Am A Kind Man program at the Thunder Bay Indian Friendship Centre.

The program is offered as an alternative to the Partner Assault Response curriculum, which is designed to help domestic-abuse offenders control their anger and is mandated by the Ministry of the Attorney General. I Am A Kind Man promotes traditional beliefs about women and relationships because, White says, abuse was never a tolerated part of Ojibwe culture. Before Europeans arrived, men “were the protectors of our communities,” says White. “With the school contact, the Sixties Scoop, we started looking at drugs and alcohol in our communities and we put ourselves in the middle.” Traditionally, elders say, Ojibwe women played an important role in the community. While men and women had separate jobs to do, their work was considered complementary, and one was not valued more than another. Women who chose to be hunters, doctors or warriors alongside men were not judged or punished; rather, they were seen as exceptional.

Sam Achneepineskum, an elder from Marten Falls First Nations, agrees. “Ever since contact, slowly things began to change with the introduction of different teachings,” Achneepineskum says. “Missionaries brought the Bible and laws and created a different understanding of how life should be lived. The way that European people understood things at the time, men ruled and man was the boss. It wasn’t until later that women were recognized as people under the law.”

White uses personal experience, history and culture as a means for healing and reconnecting to traditional values. He has been running the program for two year and says there has been only one repeat offender. “For most Aboriginal people that come to the program, something sparks inside them that has been there for a long time,” he says. But the I Am A Kind Man program doesn’t have a full-time coordinator in any of the friendship centres north of Thunder Bay.

Garrick says that communities need to help their people heal first, so they can address the roots of domestic abuse. “For me, that’s where it starts,” she says. “Giving people the tools so that they can make that choice of saying, ‘You know what? This cycle stops with me and it will no longer impact my family.’ I’ve seen many people who’ve done it. I know it can be done, but it’s a lot of work.”

Late one night last February, just over a week after she left the hospital, Karen heard knocking at her door. Without thinking, she opened it to find Robert standing there. She was terrified—until her oldest daughter shook her awake, out of the nightmare. She had been mumbling in her sleep and was covered in sweat. It was only a member of the staff at the Atikokan women’s shelter knocking on another woman’s door.

The town’s shelter is a two-storey building divided into multiple rooms and painted in warm colours. There are traditional Aboriginal decorations on the walls: a colourful medicine wheel in one room, a dream catcher in another. During the day, a few women and children congregate in the kitchen, while others watch television in the living room.

Before coming to Atikokan, Karen sought help at a women’s shelter in Thunder Bay, but there wasn’t enough space. She could either take one bed and put her four children into temporary foster care, or she could leave the city. Considering the abuse she experienced as a foster child herself, placing the kids in care wasn’t an option. Instead, Karen put her children into a taxi and told the driver to take them to Atikokan.

Ojibwe for “caribou bones,” Atikokan is a small town about two and a half hours west of Thunder Bay. Towering trees surround it in every direction. A single road leads in and out. The main drag, off Highway 17, is lined by a few inns, a construction-equipment retailer, a gas station and a single coffee shop. The once-thriving town has suffered since the closure of the two local iron-ore mines. In this community of 2,730 people, Karen can go for a walk without fear of running into Robert. Her daughter is starting school again; Robert would always pull her out of class. And, in the shelter, Karen is starting to unpack her trauma.

In an interview in the shelter’s rec room, Karen wears an oversized hoodie, and her long black hair is messily tied up. She makes a concerted effort to be frank about her past and her relationship, but her fear and sadness is evident just below the surface. Although tears sometimes pool in her eyes, she never lets them fall. “I’m going to need a lot of counselling,” she says. “I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me. Whatever has happened is done.”

Even though Robert is far enough away, Karen’s problems are not. After she left him, Robert cut up her identification and emptied her bank account of all but $8. Without ID, Ontario’s welfare program stopped paying her. When the Thunder Bay Social Services Administration Board discovered that she was no longer receiving Ontario Works checks, her apartment rent was set to market value instead of the low-income rate she had been paying.   

Karen is looking for a job in the Atikokan area. She has a court date soon, to resolve how often Robert can visit the children. She will have to see her husband then. She hopes it will be the last time.