No public education planned for controversial law

Family abuse act to be in force by 2008


The Government of Nunavut is preparing to bring the Family Abuse Prevention Act into force by the end of this year.

This proposed law, which is to receive third and final reading in late October or early November, would give justices of the peace new powers, including the ability to bar acused wife beaters from their homes, following a phone call from a fearful spouse, before a crime has been committed.

When similar legislation was passed in the Northwest Territories, a rigorous public education campaign was held for one year before the law was brought into force.

There's no sign that such a campaign will be done in Nunavut. Last month, MLAs approved plans to spend about $2 million this year to prepare for the act.

That money will be spent on making community justice workers full-time employees, rather than half-time, as they are now. The money will also be used to train JPs on how to exercise their proposed new powers.

But what's equally important is public understanding of the proposed law's powers, and limits, says Rebecca Latour, an employee of the NWT's justice department, who helped lead public consultations in 16 communities before their Protection Against Family Violence Act came into force in early 2005.

"Public education is so important," Latour said. "We put a lot of time and money into that."

It's important because there is no simple solution to violence in homes, in the NWT or Nunavut. At times, requesting an emergency protection order to keep a violent spouse away from the family home "is the best thing ever," Latour says. Other times, it may make matters worse.

To help abused women decide what options make the most sense, a team of counsellors staff a 24-hour help line in the NWT.

"It's kind of hard to think in the long term when you're running for your life," Latour said.

In Nunavut, community justice workers are expected to field such calls, and work from local RCMP detachments.

The NWT's Protection Against Family Violence line has taken a lot of calls. NWT officials expected to receive about 50 applications for protection orders during the first year the law was in force. Instead, they received more than 120. A similar number of applications were made the following year.

An emergency protection order is just one of several choices the laws in the NWT and Nunavut offer. Alternatives include an order that lets police enter a home to retrieve the belongings of a fearful spouse.

The proposed Nunavut law also has provisions to make an abusive spouse attend "traditional counselling" with elders selected by local justice committees.

Perhaps the biggest misconception addressed during public consultations in the NWT was that abused women hoped the new law could make their partners less violent.

"It's no magic bullet," Latour said.

"A lot of people in violent situations, they don't want [the relationship] to end."

"You can't change other people. But what can you do for yourself and your kids?"

One big question that Nunavut's proposed law raises is, with an acute housing shortage across the territory and few homeless shelters, where will abusive men evicted from their homes go?

In the NWT, "our shelters are extra full," Latour said. "But we know the majority of victims don't go to shelters."

Instead, they depend on family and friends to take them in. And while Latour wondered if angry men in the NWT who had been ejected from their homes would stir a political backlash against the law, so far, "it hasn't become a huge issue that's become political."

Most abused women aren't interested in evicting their abusive spouses anyhow, Latour said. Instead, she said she commonly hears comments like, "I just want some help to get my stuff, and I'm out of there."

The NWT's law includes one provision that requires abusers to not drink in the presence of their spouses.

In some cases, it works wonders, Latour said. But if the abuser already resents authority, it may simply create more anger.

Nunavut's act, like the NWT, includes provisions for elders abused by family members. But an elder may not want to report an abusive son, whom he or she depends on to chop wood or buy groceries, Latour said.

And some separation orders are simply unrealistic. "It's a little difficult in a community of 190," Latour said.

While the overwhelming majority of applicants for protection orders in the NWT are women, several men have also applied, Latour said.

Latour also warns that the abuse legislation "can't stand by itself. It really needs to be part of a bigger safety network for families." That safety network includes emergency shelters and family counsellors.

Women in Nunavut who flee violent relationships sometimes arrive at the women's shelter with little more than the clothes on their backs. With the option of an emergency protection order, "that inconvenience is now with the abuser," Latour said.

"It's forcing people to look at family violence in a different way. It's difficult," Latour said.

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