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Should family violence be a stated priority for new MLAs?


An NWT women's advocate says she was disheartened to find family violence not listed among 22 priorities set out by new MLAs for the next four years.

Priorities published by the 19 MLAs on October 25 include settling land claims, increasing affordable housing, diversifying the economy, and advancing universal healthcare – but the territory's crisis of domestic violence is not mentioned.

Lyda Fuller, executive director of YWCA NWT, said: "You work so hard and for so long trying to address this issue, which is a huge issue in the territory, especially impactful for women and kids. We really had hoped that it would be part of the plan for the next four years."

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Fuller's organization provides family housing, shelter from family violence, after-school activities for children, and a range of programming.

She feels the NWT government's focus is on broader economic interests and projects like the polytechnic university. Family violence may no longer be "compelling enough for people to say we can actually do something about it in four years," said Fuller, "whereas, a university, maybe they can – and for economic opportunities, we certainly hope they can."

The NWT's rate of domestic violence far exceeds that in southern Canada. A 2017 study, citing statistics published in 2013, stated: "the rate of violence against women is nine times the national rate."

On October 21, the Coalition against Family Violence advocacy group urged MLAs to take the issue seriously in a letter sent to all newly elected territorial politicians. The coalition held its first meeting in two years directly following the territorial election.

Responding to that letter and Fuller's comments, Premier Caroline Cochrane said MLAs had received letters from many organizations since taking office.

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Had all of those requests made MLAs' priority list, said Cochrane on Tuesday, "there would be at least 100 priorities."

The premier told reporters: "We learned in the last assembly that too many priorities and too many mandate commitments isn't the best way of doing business.

"Just because they're not on the [list of] 22 priorities, that does not mean we will not be addressing them."

Cochrane said family violence remained of utmost concern to the territorial government.

"It needs to be something that we work on, but it's not only the GNWT that can do that. It's every single individual. All of us have to do that," Cochrane said, urging residents to intervene and listen to people in situations of family violence.

She called on people to stop contributing to a culture of violence by, for example, laughing at jokes about "women and gender and positions and families."

"We all need to be part of the solution," she said.

The coalition's letter to MLAs was signed by Fuller and submitted on behalf of the Yellowknife Women's Society, NWT Seniors Society, Side Door Youth Centre, and YWCA NWT.

The letter urges the new government to create an action plan to address family violence.

The Status of Women Council of the NWT, which was not a signatory to the letter, nevertheless said politicians should press ahead with creation of an action plan.

"We remain hopeful that the 19th Legislative Assembly will approve the development of this framework to address family violence. The most recent NWT Family Violence Action Plan ended in 2012," executive director Louise Elder said by email.

The coalition's letter outlines three "pillars" under which work can be done to tackle violence: prevention, emergency services, and healing.

More money needs to go to programs for children who witness violence, the coalition stated, claiming these are currently "poorly funded." The regional centres of Inuvik, Fort Smith, and Hay River receive funding of $12,500 for such programs, the letter stated, adding Yellowknife receives $50,000 but an estimated $115,000 is needed for a program to be effective.

"Children who witness family violence are more likely to experience child abuse, as well [as] behavioural issues and developmental delays related to stunted brain development associated with trauma," the letter stated. The coalition warns that children exposed to this violence can be more likely to perpetrate or accept this kind of treatment in the future.

The coalition called not only for affordable housing – which did make the list of MLAs' priorities – but work "across the supportive housing spectrum" on housing for seniors, people with mental health challenges, those with forms of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and other needs.

Lyda Fuller, seen in a submitted photo, said advocates will "keep the pressure on" the GNWT.

The letter claimed family violence shelters in the NWT are underfunded, having trouble meeting new employment standards, and struggling to hire and retain staff – particularly in the Beaufort Delta, Fuller added.

"Often you'll recruit staff and train them and then, when they get proficient at their job, they're stolen by the government, essentially," she said.

Fuller vowed the coalition would continue looking for gaps in the needs of women and children and "keep the pressure on" politicians.

The new ministers of housing, health, and education can expect a visit from the coalition, she said. "We will be knocking on your door and telling you what we think should happen, and giving you compelling reasons why it should happen."

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