Jeannie’s story: how one Nunavik woman left an abusive home
“It’s my life. I have a right to be happy”
For as long as she can remember, Jeannie Sappa’s life has been a struggle; each day’s energy spent trying to make it through to the next one.
Sappa grew up in Kuujjuaraapik and later relocated to Umiujaq, Nunavik’s southernmost communities. For all the happy memories she held onto from her youth, there are more that are not — her childhood home was an alcoholic one.
Seeking love and attention, she began a relationship with her husband when she was just 11 years old, marrying at 18.
For decades, the relationship was defined by violence and alcoholism.
Sappa said her husband — who she chose not to name — beat her if he didn’t like her cooking, if she went out for long periods of time, spoke to other people or if she refused sex. Sometimes he beat her in public.
“I used to live in fear,” Sappa said. “I was silent. I didn’t know what to do.”
Sappa struggled with alcoholism for many years. She tried to leave home, but always came back, not knowing where else to turn.
Neighbours often called the police; Sappa said Sûreté du Québec provincial police officers would often show up at the house to check in, but it rarely had any lasting impact.
As her young daughters grew, Sappa said they would take to defending her against the violence.
Sappa finally pressed charges against her husband when, years ago, he threatened to kill her with a rifle.
She asked the judge in the case to order her husband into counselling, rather than serve jail time. But the impacts of that counselling were short-lived, she said.
To her benefit, Sappa has worked in recent years as a community wellness coordinator with Saturviit Inuit Women’s Association of Nunavik, an organization that works to support Inuit women’s rights and well-being around the region.
Sappa has also worked with the Good Touch, Bad Touch program, a Kativik Regional Police Force-led program that helps school-aged children disclose sexual abuse.
“I started learning about my right to have my safety and protection,” Sappa said. “I finally realized I had a right to protect myself.”
In November 2014, Sappa recalled a major argument with her husband, which led to him beating her repeatedly with a couch cushion, first over her head and then hitting her again and again in the groin area.
The following month, Sappa finally left her partner of 36 years for good. She packed up her belongings and moved up the Hudson coast to Puvirnituq.
“It was difficult not having a place to go to,” she said. “I took that risk because I felt like I was dying.”
Her ex-husband has tried multiple times to contact her, said Sappa, 48, even cutting off her access to their joint bank account at one point.
Despite her ordeal, Sappa doesn’t want to name the man; “I respect him,” she said.
But she wanted to use her experience to help other Nunavimmiut women to make it through similar experiences, and ensure they have the support to do it.
Last winter, Sappa wrote a letter about her life, in English, Inuktitut and French, addressed to Nunavik and Inuit organizations, federal and provincial ministers and the United Nations (see below.)
In it, she called for more services to help women who feel unable to leave abusive partners.
“I’m not the only mother who has this problem and there are a lot of women, even some men, in abusive relationships, who feel they are stuck and have no place to move in,” she said.
“We don’t have the appropriate services we need here in Nunavik. We don’t have women’s shelters. We don’t have the family counselling that we need.”
“I want to see changes for the better in our country,” she said. “We are all the same in the heart, we want to see changes made for our Indigenous women… [and] better lives for our young generations.”
Nunavik could benefit from a more Inuit-focused, holistic approach to wellness, Sappa said. She thinks the new family houses that have been launched in Kuujjuaraapik and Kangiqsualujjuaq are a good start.
Attitudes in the region must change too, Sappa said: the pressure of marriage and religion in Nunavik continues to place an extra burden on women in abusive situations.
“Most of my life, I was told who I should be,” she said. “When you’re learning how to own your own life after being controlled, it’s not easy.”
A month after Sappa wrote her letter, she learned that she had secured social housing in Puvirnituq, a major boost for her sense of independence — the first time she’s been able to create a home of her own.
But Sappa’s fight isn’t over; soon after moving into her new home, she was diagnosed with cancer. She’s been in Montreal undergoing chemotherapy treatments ever since.
She remains positive about her recovery, however, and her eventual return to Nunavik.
Sappa’s friends said they see a difference in her too; they say she finally stopped looking for validation from others and appears to be at peace with herself.
“It’s my life,” Sappa said. “I have a right to be happy.”
If you are or have been a victim of abuse and you live in Nunavik, here are some organizations you can reach out to for help:
• for the KRPF detachment, dial your local code + 9111;
• for medical or psychological assistance, dial your local code + 9090;
• for the Sapumijiit Crisis Line-Crime Victims Assistance Centre, call 1-866-778-0770; and,
• for Tungasuvvik women’s shelter in Kuujjuaq, call 819-964-0536; for Initsiaq women’s shelter in Salluit, call 819-255-8817 and for Ajarpirvik women’s shelter in Inukjuak, call 819-254-1414.
Nunavik men seeking help can contact the Qajaq network at 1-877-964-0770.