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No way out: Women fleeing violence – a hidden crisis

Nunavut has the highest incidence of intimate partner violence than any other jurisdiction in the country. Shelter use, per capita, is also the highest in the country. At the heart of this territory's housing crisis lies an even more dangerous crisis: without second-stage housing women seeking to create safe lives for themselves and their children have nowhere to go. Emergency shelters are the last stop. This is the first part of a three-part series.

Editor's note: This story contains words and situations that may not be suitable for some readers.

Casey Lessard/NNSL photo
In the absence of second-stage housing, Iqaluit's emergency shelter, Qimavvik, is the last stop for women and children fleeing violence. Nunavut is the only jurisdiction without such a facility, which is designed to offer long-term, secure housing with support and referral services for women while they search for permanent housing.

In a territory where providing basic, adequate housing for the population is impossible, second-stage housing for women and children fleeing violence is just one more item on a list of persistent needs.

Nunavut is the only jurisdiction in Canada without such housing.

"We got the shit end of the stick," said YWCA Agvvik Nunavut president Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, who was elected in April, referring to the services left after the NWT split in two. "Second-stage housing physically fell on their side of the new border. They're benefiting from resources that were intended for that entire population. It's time for it to be remedied."

Acting executive director for Agvvik Dianne Rogers calls it gender-based negligence.

"Exactly. Most of the leaders were men," said Arnaquq-Baril.

Agvvik runs Qimavvik , a 26-bed emergency shelter in Apex for women and children fleeing domestic violence, and Sivummut, a 12-bed shelter in Iqaluit for women facing homelessness.

Second-stage housing – a facility offering long-term, secure housing with support and referral services designed to assist women while they search for permanent housing – is more than an item on a wish list. The absence of such housing affects women and children at their most vulnerable.

Statistics Canada data published in 2006 reports that 28 per cent of Nunavut women are victims of spousal violence, compared to seven per cent in the provinces. In 2011, it reported the rate of violent crime against women in Nunavut was nearly 13 times higher than the rate for Canada. According to the 2011 report Violence Against Aboriginal Women, shelter use in Nunavut on a single day was 10 times higher than any of the provinces.

The 2013 report Measuring Violence Against Women: Statistical Trends states that "Nunavut recorded the highest territorial rate of intimate partner violence against women, at 7,772 female intimate partner violence victims per 100,000 population. This rate was four times higher than Yukon's rate (1,900) and double the rate recorded for the Northwest Territories (3,818)."

The highest rate for the provinces fell to Saskatchewan, at roughly 1,300 per 100,000.

photo courtesy Nunavut Court of Justice
In 2013, Nunavut’s intimate partner violence rate – 7,772 per 100,000 population – was six times higher than Saskatchewan's, the province with the highest rate at roughly 1,300 per 100,000.

Behind the numbers
But numbers don't show how Nunavut women fleeing violence are often trapped in a repeating loop of trauma due to lack of adequate services.

"We're an emergency shelter. This is as far as the ladies can go," said shelter director Jeannie Bishop.

The alternatives are not viable options: they can return to the abuser; couch surf; trade sex for a bed, food and shelter; or go south and possibly experience more exploitation, such as sex trafficking, said Bishop and Rogers.

In the south and other northern jurisdictions where women fleeing violence have a range of housing options – including emergency shelters, second-stage and affordable housing – a typical stay in an emergency shelter can last up to six weeks. Bishop says the Agvvik board of directors understands this is not the south, or even the Northwest Territories.

"We won't put them out, unless they are safe and have someplace to go," said Rogers, though she says the Qimavvik policy does stipulate a six-week maximum stay.

Women come to Qimavvik from all over the territory – it's the largest of five emergency family violence shelters.

"Social Services workers will refer somebody here, from different communities, and mental health workers would refer someone here. Some are self-referred. Some come through the medical system, the boarding homes, the RCMP," said Rogers.

"Some people just show up at the door, arrive in a taxi."

Qimavvik is always at capacity or more, and both Bishop and Rogers know there are so many other women they will never see.

"I have a friend, a psych nurse at the hospital, who comes up six weeks at a time. She was saying every day there is a woman who comes in because of domestic violence. They don't call us," said Bishop.

"But if there was second-stage housing, if they knew there was a place for them to make that change and have that support, maybe they would."

Bishop recalls doing a presentation outside the territory where she talked about the lack of second-stage housing in Nunavut – the response was shock.

"But people have a tendency to go, 'Oh, yeah, the housing problem is really bad there.' This isn't a housing problem. Let's not mix it all together," she says.

"This is a human rights issue. And people say, 'Well, yeah, you put them in second-stage housing and that'll fill right up and then what?' You know what? Then we may have a two-year rotation. But at least they have those two years of having their own place – stability, healing for the family, opportunity for treatment if there are substance issues, whether they want to get a job with the government or they want to go to Arctic College."

Arnaquq-Baril adds it's ridiculous for people to suggest second-stage housing won't help.

"If it filled up right away, that's an indicator that it's needed. Probably a lot more women would come here to the emergency shelter if they knew there was transitional housing. Then there's less trauma being passed on, because they are breaking that cycle."


Nunavut's emergency shelters for women and children fleeing violence:

Cambridge Bay, St. Michael's Crisis Shelter: 867-983-5232

Iqaluit, Qimavvik Shelter: 867-979-4500

Kugaaruk Family Violence Centre: 867-769-6100

Kugluktuk Women's Crises Centre: 867-982-3210

Rankin Inlet, Kataujaq Society Shelter: 867 645-2214