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No way out: Women fleeing violence – a life-threatening cycle

Nunavut has the highest incidence of intimate partner violence compared to 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 second part of a three-part series.

Editor's note: This story contains situations that may not be suitable for some readers. Names are withheld for privacy.

Read the first instalment here: No way out: Women fleeing violence – a hidden crisis

Michele LeTourneau/NNSL photo
YWCA Agvvik Nunavut president Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, centre, with Qimaavik emergency shelter staff Victoria Marie Coman, left, and elder Ida Atagoyuk. Without second-stage housing in the territory, the shelter is the last stop for women and children fleeing violence.

Past the Qimaavik emergency shelter's secure door, women and children fleeing domestic violence share accommodations, two families per room, and on this day 31 people share one bath.

They come from all over the territory, seeking safety and protection. Their stay at Qimaavik often extends far beyond the mandated six weeks usual for an emergency shelter because Nunavut can't offer the next step – second-stage housing.

"As women we flee violence. As women we have lost our children to child services. As women we are abused financially, physically, emotionally, mentally," said Sarah, who is now in her 50s.

She set out in life escaping violence, a teenaged runaway. Her family's history haunts her.

"My sister's son murdered his whole family, then committed suicide. My late sister committed suicide way back in the day when he was just a baby. It's a vicious cycle, intergenerational trauma.

"I've escaped death many times in my life. I've been stabbed. I've been beaten. I've been forced not to leave relationships. I've had broken teeth. You name it, it's happened to me.

"I've had experience with foster care, I've had experience with alcoholism. I cleaned up my act many, many years ago, got my children back, went to university. I became part of society that can do for themselves."

Years after establishing herself, she returned to Iqaluit.

"I did have a job, but I lost it soon after I had a major relapse to alcohol," said Sarah. "I drank to numb my reality. I became suicidal. Very suicidal. I had to be sent out of town."

After a year of trying to get into a shelter, she finally made it into Qimaavik, and now Sivummut since renovations to the shelter for women facing homelessness were completed, but she's ready for the next step – second-stage housing, a facility offering long-term, secure housing with support and a range of services designed to assist women while they search for affordable housing.

"This place is one place where we can finally breathe a little. But from here on where do we go? What is out there that would help us?"

Sarah pauses to steady her voice.

"Nothing. There is nothing."

Nunavut is the only jurisdiction without a housing flow for women and children from emergency shelter to second-stage housing to affordable housing.

Fleeing from the father of her children, not for the first time in nine years, L came to Iqaluit from another community in late 2016. She has two children under six years of age. At first she and her children lived with her parents, but then at her cousin's because her parents separated and moved. When her abuser arrived in Iqaluit, L had to leave her cousin's.

Dianne Rogers, executive director for YWCA Agvvik – which runs Qimaavik and Sivummut – said often women run out their welcome at relatives or friends.

"I would say because of the overcrowding in Nunavut and the trauma they've already endured … it's just not the place for them," said shelter director Jeannie Bishop.

"Or the family feels there's some danger providing a place of sanctuary for them," said Rogers.

L had been at Qimaavik since July of 2017. Early in 2018, her children were apprehended, not for the first time. She struggles with alcohol. There was violence in her upbringing. Her younger sister, as well as cousins, died by suicide.

"I thought we were just normal," said L.

Her sobriety was fragile when she spoke with Nunavut News but, she said, with some counseling she started to understand herself, started to heal.

"I was doing very good last year when I got here. I completely quit everything. I'm drinking here and there now," she said.

"When I lost my kids I was so mad at everybody. The cycle kept going and going. My kids are growing up and I'm putting myself in their shoes, how scary it used to be, with fighting parents. I don't want to raise my kids that way."

Sarah and L's stories, with some variations, are the stories of the many women Rogers and Bishop encounter on a daily basis.

"Usually the cry is, 'I just need my own home. I just need a place for myself and my children.' Because it's just so difficult to plan your future if you're in a shelter and this is the last stop," said Rogers.

The shelter can be chaotic.

"Somebody who has lived intergenerational trauma, plus their lived experience of trauma, it's difficult to not react and learn how to respond, when you're in a shelter with many other women who are surviving abuse," said Bishop.

'Physically and sexually abused'

"And many children. The children are child witnesses. They've also been physically and sexually abused, some of them. So you've got a lot of behavioural issues, as well, amongst the children. Mothers are trying to parent their kids in a communal situation," said Rogers.

L persisted. She got a job, though working nights and trying to get sleep at the shelter took its toll.

"It's so tiring when you're here long enough. I really do need it (second-stage housing). I'm doing night shift at times, and today I got off at seven this morning. I only slept three hours. I do that three times a week," said L.

The prospect of not getting onto the Iqaluit Housing Authority waiting list until she's been in the city for two years, then sitting on a list for three to five years, took its toll. Losing her kids again took her to rock bottom, she said. She was allowed three visits a week with her children, at the shelter.

"There's so much in here. I don't even want my kids to be here anymore. It's chaos. The other day I had to stop two ladies fighting."

Her eyes fill with tears.

L left the shelter sometime after speaking with Nunavut News, not for the first time.

'A volatile environment'

"Women come in from an abusive situation. There's a period where they may be in shock. They come to a place where they can grieve, they have their anger, and there's some acceptance. But, then, another woman comes through the door – like what happened a few days ago – and she can't see out of one of her eyes. She's got a cracked arm. What happens is our women who have done some healing are subjected to being re-traumatized," said Bishop.

Qimaavik has saved many women's lives, said Sarah. But second-stage housing would save many more.

"It's very important to note that those of us who go back into our environment because there's no second-stage housing have lost their lives. This is a reality in Nunavut. Lost their lives, along with their children's. We hear their sad news all the time here in Nunavut. The amount of women who are murdered, it's incredible. And we shake our heads," said Sarah.

"If second stage housing could be introduced here … many of us could get back on with our lives, to careers – whether working, or as full-time mothers. We could have our own spaces, before we actually have our own permanent places.

"Why are we not being heard?"


Nunavut's emergency shelters:

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

Iqaluit, Qimaavik Shelter: 867-979-4500

Kugaaruk Family Violence Centre: 867-769-6100

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

Rankin Inlet, Kataujaq Society Shelter: 867 645-2214