Vol. 78, No. 2Cover stories

Two women talk in front of building.

‘Their hands are tied’

Combating intimate partner violence in remote towns

Many rural and northern communities don't have resources for victims of intimate partner violence — the YWCA in Yellowknife, N.W.T., is one of only five women's shelters in the territory. Credit: Alayna Ward


In rural and northern Canada, communities are small, resources are scarce and family violence is common. The Northwest Territories — one of Canada's northernmost regions — has more than seven times the national average for intimate partner violence (IPV), according to Statistics Canada.

"We've had women snowmobile out to a road and have their sister pick them up and bring them to the shelter. We've had women jump out of a truck while their husband is in the liquor store to take a cab to the shelter," says Lyda Fuller, executive director of the YWCA in Yellowknife, N.W.T. "In the small communities, it's really quite prevalent."

Now, these national statistics are being combined with data from the RCMP and interviews with front-line service workers, as part of a five-year research project wrapping up in late 2016. The results will provide the first detailed look at IPV in rural and northern areas.

The project — Rural and Northern Community Response to Intimate Partner Violence — used mapping technology to see where crimes are reported, where enforcement happens, and where services are offered.

Led by the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, researchers from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Northwest Territories collected data on domestic violence crimes. With the involvement of local community organizations like the YWCA, they determined the needs of people living with IPV, and what the gaps were in meeting those needs.

"Violence in these communities is normalized and we want that message out there that it's not OK, we can stop this," says Pertice Moffitt, lead researcher in Northwest Territories.

The project pointed out areas where services could be improved, with the goal of creating — and sustaining — non-violent communities.

Isolated intimacy

In the Northwest Territories, a third of communities don't have an RCMP presence. In many cases, especially in rural and northern areas, one RCMP detachment can have jurisdiction over a large geographic area.

On top of the isolation, most of these communities are extremely small — 27 out of 33 have populations of less than 1,000. As a result, many of these areas don't have easy access to support workers or victim services — there are only five women's shelters in the territory.

"We found that there are huge gaps in the territory where there aren't services provided," says Moffitt. "Every community has intimate partner violence, even those where there aren't resources available."

She says rural and northern residents face a near impassible list of barriers when it comes to being safe from violent family members. Isolation, lack of housing, limited access to transportation, absence of technology and various socio-economic factors such as income and culture, can all prevent a victim from getting help.

"Women feel like their hands are tied," says Moffitt. "They can go to a shelter, but when they come back, they go right back into the same situation they left. So who is it that they go to? How do they get there? Some people don't know, and that's a part of education and awareness that we're trying to promote."

Emergency help

Awareness is important not only for community members, but also for the RCMP and service providers in remote areas.

A secondary part of the project looked at mapping out Emergency Protection Orders (EPOs) that had been filed by RCMP officers across the Northwest Territories. Similar to a restraining order, a court-imposed EPO protects the victim, ordering the abuser to stay away.

"In areas with a lot of EPOs, that tells me there's a high understanding of front-line workers about the resources available," says Sgt. Greg Towler, Criminal Operations in the Northwest Territories. "Areas where there are low amounts of EPOs but statistics show a high rate of IPV, that's where we will focus our RCMP awareness training."

Making sure RCMP officers — who are often the first responders and only resource in many communities — are aware of services, resources and avenues of support for victims is important for stopping the problem, says Towler.

Information from the project will be disseminated to community workers, policy makers and government agencies at the end of this year. But in the meantime, Fuller says it's important for the community to play a role in proactively combating partner violence.

"We really need communities to participate in the solutions and be in charge of what they want to do to address intimate partner violence," she says. "We need to empower communities to start a dialogue and create safe spaces for these people. It needs to become a dynamic process of learning and growth for the whole community."

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