New law protects women from spouses who beat and berate, provides emergency protection

Shelter from a storm of abuse


Women in Nunavut who live in fear of being beaten by their husbands have some new options next month, when the territory's new Family Abuse Intervention Act comes into force.

The most dramatic feature offered by the new law, which received final reading by MLAs in December, is an emergency protection order, which allows police to bar an alleged wife beater from the family home.

This solves an old problem: a woman presses charges against an abusive husband, but until his case is heard in court, she continues to live, in fear, with him in the home.

But it may create a new problem: in a territory with such an acute housing shortage, where will these wife beaters go?

This, and other complications, are being considered by justice employees as they tour the territory this month to prepare residents for the new law.

When the Northwest Territories passed similar legislation, they spent a year conducting a public education campaign, so that residents understood some of the big changes brought about by the law.

In contrast, Nunavut will have spent just two months preparing for the act's implementation in March.

But Rebekah Williams, a justice employee who is helping lead the training effort, says she's spoken to many residents who say they've already waited too long for the tools offered by the new law.

"People were actually saying it's a long time. We've been waiting for this a long time. They say, we're so happy with this act."

Maybe. But groups like the Qulliit Status of Women Council have warned the government that the act may not work unless a lot more money is invested in homeless shelters and counselling services. That hasn't happened.

But each community does have a new worker, Williams said, whose job is to explain the new law to residents, and help people apply for various orders under the act.

Most these workers are already members of community justice committees, which are responsible for helping divert young or first-time offenders from the courts.

These employees are also looking for any vacant buildings, Williams said, that may serve as temporary lodgings for residents who become homeless as a consequence of an emergency protection order.

That may be a difficult task, given the territory's acute housing shortage.

But Williams said what's really important is whether residents work together to help people who are abused, and those who are abusive.

"We're treating it as community driven. It's driven by people," she says.

An emergency order may give an applicant possession of a family home and children, and prevent an alleged abusive spouse from contacting the family.

The order may also be used to give a couple a "calming period" of three days, where no contact with the spouse is allowed.

Break the terms of any order, and an alleged abuser could be sent to jail.

A community intervention order, also offered under the act, requires both spouses to attend traditional counselling with an elder.

Other orders require the alleged abuser to provide financial assistance or compensation, which may help women with children, for example, who are fleeing an abusive relationship and possess little money.

All these orders may be made by a justice of the peace, independent of whether the alleged abuser has been charged or convicted of a crime. The JP only needs to be convinced that abuse has occurred, and will likely happen again.

Abuse takes many forms, Williams says. It's not just rape or assault.

It also includes more subtle forms of control, such as screening phone calls, opening mail, and controlling who you see and where you go.

The law also covers emotional abuse, where a spouse may belittle a partner in public, ignore him or her for long periods of time or treat him or her like a servant.

Williams stresses to anyone in these situations that help is available.

"When you look in every community, there are people in place. It may not be formal, but they're in there."

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