'We want to focus on healing families.'

Will new law curb domestic violence?


Janet Brewster knows how abusive relationships can swallow up your life. She's been in one herself, and she's seen how they can end.

Her aunt, Sylvia Lyall, was strangled to death in her Iqaluit apartment nearly four years ago. At the time, family members were horrified, but not surprised. Everyone knew Lyall was being abused. They had seen the bruises and cuts.

Her common-law spouse, Pat Anablak, was on probation at the time for beating Lyall so viciously she had been hospitalized. Now he's spending 10 years in prison for manslaughter.

Would Sylvia Lyall be alive if Nunavut's new initiative to curb domestic abusive, the Family Abuse Intervention Act, existed years ago? It's a question that's impossible to answer, but Brewster can't help but wonder.

The law, which came into force March 1, gives police and justices of the peace new powers to protect Nunavut residents in abusive relationships.

Most controversially, someone who fears that abuse is imminent may receive an emergency protection order, which would ban the alleged abuser from the family home.

But Brewster worries the new law may not help much until more emergency shelters and social housing is built in the territory. "How can we expect FAIA to be successful," she asked, "if there's nowhere to go?"

Justice officials reply that the new law isn't creating a new problem.

They say it's simply shifting the burden to find shelter from those fleeing abuse, who are overwhelmingly women and children, to the abuser, who are overwhelmingly men with pent-up rage that boils over when they drink.

Community justice workers, hired to help implement the act, are searching for places to shelter men displaced by emergency orders in each community. But, given Nunavut's severe housing shortage, they haven't had much luck.

Markus Weber, deputy minister of justice, says in Arctic Bay, two residents have offered their homes up for people displaced by emergency orders. But no such homes exist in many communities, he admits, just as there are few homeless shelters in the territory.

In most cases, he says he expects the families of an abusive resident will take him or her in.

Brewster sighs when she hears this. She's lived in an overcrowded home. She knows it means people go hungry, tempers flare, and people begin to act irrationally. Shuffling abusive people from home to home sounds to her like a recipe for more disorder.

She acknowledges that the housing crisis is a problem that's too big for Nunavut to solve by itself. But she says the Nunavut government needs to do everything – "beg, borrow and steal" – in its power to solve the housing shortage, because it only compounds Nunavut's tangle of social woes.

Violent crimes occur in Nunavut 10 times as frequently as the national average, according to Statistics Canada's 2006 crime figures. Sexual assault rates in the territory are 20 times higher than the rest of the country. Most this violence occurs behind closed doors, between spouses and family.

Yet when Brewster listens to members of the legislative assembly, they largely focus on constituency complaints, and rarely mention Nunavut's big social problems. "It just drives me nuts," she said.

"It's easier to focus on runways that have potholes than on people who have holes in their hearts."

Much abuse in Nunavut spans generations, Brewster said. Parents abused in residential schools became abusive to their children. Entire families are damaged. "It's not just someone getting drunk and pissed off," she said. "These are deep-seated issues."

It will take a long time, and a lot of counselling, to heal.

Another feature of the law brings the abuser and abused together, for "traditional Inuit counselling," with an elder and family members. This community intervention order was designed in recognition that Inuit culture puts a big emphasis on keeping couples together, says Nunavut's premier and justice minister, Paul Okalik.

"We want to return to our culture and focus on healing the families," he said.

Weber, Okalik's deputy minister, stresses that the new law is meant to deter future abuse. It doesn't change how people will be treated who have already broken the law. If someone is drunk and violent, RCMP will respond as usual, by dragging him or her off to the drunk tank, and laying the appropriate charges.

But RCMP also see emergency protection orders as a tool to prevent men already charged with violent crimes from committing further abuse, by keeping them away from the family home, while they await trial.

Marty Cheliak, Nunavut's top Mountie, says officers are rarely surprised when they respond to domestic abuse reports. It's often the same couples they see, trapped in an ugly cycle of escalating violence.

He says the new law will let RCMP intervene before, rather than after, a woman is battered again.

But he said RCMP will likely spend the next year teaching its members about the new law, and wait until 2009 before aggressively pushing for emergency protection orders in homes where they believe domestic violence has happened, and will happen again soon.

Each community has a community justice worker who is responsible for explaining the new law to residents. Residents who wish to apply for one of the act's protection orders, or want to learn more, may approach this worker, or the RCMP.

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