Local organizations working to overcome family violence

November is Domestic Violence Awareness Month in Canada, also recognized in Alberta as Family Violence Prevention Month.

Violence and abuse within families or between intimate partners have obvious damaging effects on the direct victims. Like most social problems, domestic violence also has consequences that ripple through entire communities.

Organizations like Stepping Stones Crisis Society, which serves Cold Lake and Bonnyville, and Capella Centre in St. Paul offer shelter and other services to women escaping violence. Both are also heavily involved in education and prevention programs.

But the problem persists.

“Family violence is quite prevalent, and probably more so than people realize,” said Cindy Yang, Stepping Stone’s director of strategic priorities. Yang said the abuse can go undetected because it goes beyond physical violence.

“We know that there’s various facets or tactics that perpetrators will use beyond physical abuse. So that includes financial abuse, that includes sexual abuse, that includes emotional abuse and spiritual abuse, things like that,” she said.

“And specifically with seniors, of course, that could look like elder abuse—any action or inaction by self or others that jeopardizes the health or well-being of an older person.”

Jack McIntyre is executive director of Capella Centre in St. Paul, which operates the Columbus House of Hope shelter and offers other services. He says seniors rarely come seeking shelter—they had two seniors register last year—but he agrees with Yang that elder abuse is a serious, and under-reported, part of the family violence issue.

“The thing with older people is that they tend to try to stay in relationships longer than they should, or maybe longer than is good for them anyway,” McIntyre said. “The other thing is financial dependence, because for younger people, it’s maybe somewhat easier to leave.”

He said rates of violence against older adults are 45 per cent higher in rural areas than urban areas.

But it’s gender, not age, that most starkly defines the likelihood of experiencing domestic violence.

“It’s gender-based violence,” McIntyre said. “It’s men beating up on women. It’s abusing them, whether it’s financially, psychologically, sexually, physically, mentally, spiritually. It’s so unfortunate and so unnecessary.”

He said it’s also disproportionately Indigenous women who come seeking safety—something he said is directly attributable to the disruptive trauma of residential schools. That experience has left a legacy of poverty, mental health issues, addiction, and a self-perpetuating cycle of violence.

But he said he sees Indigenous communities becoming healthier as they take more control of their governance and their social structures. “It’s a fight. I think they’re winning, and I think there’s more understanding in the general population, which really helps a lot,” he said.

He and Yang both say they’d love nothing more than to work themselves out of a job—they’d love to see and end to family violence once and for all.

But that day is a long way off. Meanwhile demand for shelter, counselling, and other services continues to grow. Construction is underway on a new Stepping Stones facility in Cold Lake that will house all of their operations under one roof.

“We offer a 24/7 emergency residential shelter that is open to women with or without their children, that includes senior women as well,” Yang said. “We are able to take them into our residential program and provide them supports that way. 

Those who are not able to access shelter or who do not need shelter services can reach out through Stepping Stones’ 24/7 helpline, which is also open to men.

Yang said the new facility will be a big help.

“We know that domestic violence and family violence is a community issue, and it’s going to take the community to resolve the issue,” she said. “Our new building is going to be a lot more accessible, especially for those who have mobility challenges. So we are going to be able to welcome and more safely support those who might be in a wheelchair or that have some mobility barriers and things like that.”

This will apply to their second-stage apartments as well as the emergency shelter. “We’re really looking forward to being a lot more accessible and inclusive in that way,” Yang said.

But family violence as a community issue requires massive awareness-raising and education as steps toward prevention. This includes “bystander training”—what you can do when you suspect someone is in danger—as well as multi-agency approaches to prevention.

McIntyre is encouraged by the all-in community effort he is seeing in St. Paul.

“I’ve been in a couple of meetings here in town where there was the mayor, there was representation from the county,” he said. “There were at least six or seven police officers, and the commanding officer for the area was here. We had the town’s CAO, Indigenous representation from Frog Lake, Saddle Lake, Goodfish; emergency services, the Friendship Centre, all the right people were there.

“And they’re all working in the right direction. I’ve lived in St. Paul for 30 years and I’ve never seen so many important people, people that can actually make a difference, in one place.”

Yang said the Cold Lake community at large is invited to take part in a vigil and an awareness walk on November 30 in honour of the victims and survivors of family violence.

“We’re welcoming anybody to come and attend, either for the walk or the vigil or both,” she said. “And if anybody would like to, there will be opportunities for people to share their story. And if for those who would like to share the story but have concerns about privacy and confidentiality, if they reach out to us directly we are able to provide a proxy.”

The walk will start at 3:00 pm at the Stepping Stones administration office, 5205 50th Street. The vigil will follow at 4:00.

While the issues of domestic abuse are devastating to individuals, families, and communities, McIntyre sees a glimmer of hope.

“Maybe it’s my perception, but I’m hopeful and I’m thinking that the people we’re dealing with are
more hopeful, too,” he said. “What we try to give them here is hope and some faith in themselves, because anybody that’s come here has taken a huge, huge step to get out of their situation. And it takes a lot of courage to do that.

“I’m really hoping that in my lifetime we’ll see this place shut down and become second stage housing. Or more along the lines where people can live in harmony and be here because they need a place to live, and not because they need a place to be safe.”