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Emergency protection orders aren’t working in the NWT, report finds


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

Emergency protection orders in the NWT are beset by major gaps in legislation and enforcement, creating obstacles for people who need protection from domestic violence, a new report states.

Emergency protection orders are documents issued by a judge that order an abusive person to stay away from an applicant, as well as their children, for up to 90 days. They can be requested through RCMP or a toll-free crisis line.

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The YWCA NWT’s report, created with support from an RCMP domestic violence initiative fund, was published last week. It combines statistics and court transcripts with first-hand accounts from people who have applied for emergency protection orders, police officers, and service workers.

The final report, which covers the period between 2017 and 2019, concludes emergency protection orders are ineffective.

More: Read the full report

Pertice Moffitt, a research associate at the Aurora Research Institute, is the study’s lead author.

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When properly issued and enforced, she said, the orders are useful tools in protecting women and children from abuse.

Pertice Moffitt. Photo: Submitted

Yet in the NWT, both issuing and enforcing are a problem.

The report found the onus is almost entirely on people experiencing violence to initiate the process of receiving an emergency protection order, which can be daunting when they are already under duress.

Court transcripts have shown judges and police using what the report dubs “victim-blaming language,” such as denying applicants an order if the abuse didn’t require “medical help” or calling women’s stories “debatable.”

In the 11 NWT communities where there is no police detachment, the report found enforcement became virtually impossible.

One police officer is quoted as saying some respondents – those accused of abuse and restrained by an order – view the document as no more than “a piece of paper.”

“As in all things in the territory and at all levels, we are a small jurisdiction, and we are under-resourced in many areas,” Moffitt said about the challenge of enforcement.

“I think we have a very unique context in the North, in terms of cultural diversity, in terms of large spaces, remote places – all of these things need to be carefully considered when we’re putting legislation in place.

“We can’t just take a policy or something from the south and expect that it’s going to work in the North. It needs to be carefully looked at.”

The NWT has long had some of the highest rates of domestic violence in Canada.

Advocates attribute this to a variety of factors, including the territory’s remote geography and intergenerational trauma wrought by colonialism.

Between 2014 and 2018, the YWCA NWT found an average of 73 emergency protection orders were filed each year.

That number has increased during the pandemic, which Moffitt said had made the importance of supporting women and families in escaping violence even more apparent.

Many people experiencing domestic violence suddenly found themselves isolated alongside their abuser, Moffitt said, while the capacity of emergency family shelters dropped to accommodate social distancing.

‘It’s just heartbreaking’

The YWCA NWT isn’t the only northern women’s organization sounding the alarm about a lack of support for those experiencing abuse.  

Jane Weyallon is the president of the Native Women’s Association of the NWT, which provides victim services to primarily Indigenous women.

Weyallon said she had witnessed many of the issues documented in the YWCA NWT report.

She said emergency protection orders were hard to request and receive in a timely manner in communities with limited police or legal presence, while the lack of anonymity in small communities could deter people from seeking help.

“Most of the victims are young girls and women, so they are fearful of the community members or other families, or how they are going to be viewed,” Weyallon explained.

“By the time the court comes, what happens to the victim? They don’t show up for court and the case is dropped, then the abuser gets away.

“When there’s children involved in the family … what does the system do? They apprehend the kids to protect them, but in the meantime, they’re separating the family.

“It’s just heartbreaking. I wish that we can do more to protect the victims, the vulnerable children.”

Weyallon said more must be done to help people experiencing violence navigate the system, with more access to prevention programs, on-the-land healing, and mental health supports.

The Native Women’s Association hopes to obtain status to issue emergency protection orders alongside the YWCA, she continued.  

“This is where we would like the Department of Justice to work with us,” Weyallon said. “If they work with us on this, I’m sure we can be given that status, then we can do more to work with the families.

“We want to make things better for the family. We want to break the cycle of domestic violence.”

Report’s recommendations

The report offers a number of ways to improve emergency protection orders in the territory.

For example, it urges the GNWT to abandon issuing such orders in communities without an RCMP presence and instead focus on individual risk assessments to determine best forms of protection.

Other recommendations including adjusting legislation to allow orders to be issued in response to both online and in-person stalking; providing more personal support to applicants while an order is in effect; and carrying out more research.

According to Moffitt, the solution is not to abandon the orders altogether. She argued they can be a valuable source of protection and empowerment for those suffering abuse.

Instead, she said, the territory needs to critically re-examine its system and change it to better suit the needs of women and families in the North.

“It takes a lot of courage to come forward and address violence,” Moffitt said.

“There is still an element of blame and shame. We need to get rid of this stigma, we need to improve the livelihood of all families in the territory.

“What we really hope is we will do something that will reduce pain and suffering for women and children and their families.”

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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