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NWT communities take action against gender-based violence

Last modified: December 9, 2020 at 1:39pm


Warning: This report discusses issues related to gender-based violence, family violence, forms of abuse, and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Details of where to find help in the NWT are included in this article.

NWT organizations are working to help northerners as a United Nations-backed campaign against gender-based violence draws to a close.

The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence began on November 25 and end on December 10, aiming to shed light on violence experienced by women, girls, gender-diverse and 2SLGBTQIA+ people. 

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The Northwest Territories had the second-highest overall rate of intimate partner violence between 2017 and 2018, according to Statistics Canada, second only to Nunavut.

Louise Elder, executive director of the Status of Women Council of the NWT, told Cabin Radio there are “complicated” reasons behind those numbers. 

Louise Elder, executive director of the Status of Women Council of the NWT. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio

“We look at the impact of colonialism and residential school and the intergenerational impact of that on much of our population here,” she said. 

“Statistically, women that live in remote communities are more likely to experience violence – and the NWT is pretty much all remote communities. So that … increases the likelihood of it happening.”

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The homicide rate for Indigenous women has in recent years approached six times that of non-Indigenous women.

Early studies suggest the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened gender-based violence in Canada.

In a survey of more than 250 Indigenous women from May, the Native Women’s Association of Canada found one in five had experienced physical or psychological violence in the three months prior. 

“The preliminary results reveal a deeply concerning spike in the number of Indigenous women who say they are facing more violent incidents since the pandemic began, often by an intimate partner,” the report reads. 

Work related to that survey found more women were “concerned about domestic violence in the midst of this pandemic than they are about the virus.”

The pandemic may strand people in violent situations because of public health restrictions, researchers from the Journal of Family Violence said in a November report.

That report, which examined rural, remote, and northern communities, cites experts who suggest mandatory public health orders – such as those invoked in the NWT in March to slow the spread of virus – have added to the intimate partner violence taking place behind closed doors.

Kristine McLeod, Deputy Grand Chief of the Gwich’in Tribal Council, called family-based and gender-based violence “a serious and persistent problem that can have severe mental, emotional, physical, social, and economic impact on the survivors, as well as in society.”

“Especially in northern communities like ours, there needs to be an increased effort to stand up against violence due to the limited amount of resources available for our survivors,” she said.

‘Culture of silence’

Hawa Dumbuya-Sesay is the executive director of YWCA NWT, which runs two shelters for those fleeing family violence. 

Hawa Dumbuya-Sesay said the biggest challenge is the “culture of silence.” 

Hawa Dumbuya-Sesay
Hawa Dumbuya-Sesay in an image supplied by YWCA NWT.

“We do have that culture here where people are really discouraged from coming forward and speaking out,” she said. “Most times, it’s family members, and people don’t want their stuff out there.”

This can result in people feeling trapped in a violent situation, Dumbuya-Sesay continued, furthering a cycle of abuse. 

“I think it’s so important for people to really have an idea of the seriousness of partner violence or gender-based violence,” she said. 

“It’s very important for people to be aware of those dynamics and the potential outcome, because I think the cultural challenge usually is around people not taking it seriously or not seeing the problem as serious.”

‘Speak up, speak out’

Across the NWT, communities and organizations are taking action.

The Status of Women Council and YWCA NWT ran social media campaigns throughout the 16 Days of Activism.

On Sunday – the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women – the Status of Women Council held a vigil to remember the 14 women killed in the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre in Montréal, Québec. 

In October, the council released a report – entitled We Hear You – informed by three years of conversations with women who faced intimate partner violence. 

That report offers 21 recommendations to the NWT government, including consistent, trauma-informed training related to intimate partner violence and the establishment of a child and youth advocate. 

According to Elder, the current NWT government has committed to the creation of a family violence action plan after the last one lapsed in 2012.

Meanwhile, the Gwich’in Tribal Council hopes to launch programming in the next year to address gender-based violence. 

Deputy Grand Chief of Gwich’in Tribal Council, Kristine McLeod. Photo: Jamie Stevenson

“We recognize the need for this work, and it’s important in improving the well-being of our community members,” McLeod said.

Men’s groups in Yellowknife and Hay River are starting to address gender-based and sexualized violence in response to calls to action from women in the territory. 

“If you think one of your friends or colleagues is being abused, talk to her about it,” Elder said. “If you think someone you know is abusing someone else, to talk to them about it. 

“Be the change you want to see. If you want your children to respect one another, then that’s how you behave because that’s what they learn.”

She added: “And don’t put up with other people putting down women and girls. Speak up, speak out, call it out.”

Who can help?

The YWCA NWT has a 24/7 crisis line for those experiencing or escaping intimate partner/domestic violence. To speak to someone, call 1-866-223-7775. 

There are family shelters and services for those fleeing violent situations in Yellowknife, Fort Smith, Hay River, Inuvik, and Tuktoyaktuk. More information on shelters in the NWT can be found here.

If there is no shelter in your community, there are travel assistance funds available.

Kids Help Phone is available 24/7 for young people. To talk to someone, call 1-800-668-6868, use live chat at www.kidshelpphone.ca, or text 686868.

The Native Women’s Association of the NWT victim services can offer support and services to Indigenous women, men, and children across the NWT, and call be reached toll-free at 1-866-459-1114. 

The territorial government’s Victim Services website includes information about help lines, requesting emergency protection orders, and the Canadian Victim Bill of Rights.

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