Family Violence Initiative



Historical Context

One of the earliest reports that uncovered the depth to which Aboriginal women in Canada experience domestic violence was Breaking Free (Ontario Native Women's Association, 1989). In the 1980's and early 1990's, although there was a rapidly growing body of information about woman abuse, it was radical in that it was one of the first reports done by and for Aboriginal women and their communities in a way that was accessible to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal service providers, policy makers and funding bodies. What it also did was shift the public gaze to a problem that had, for the most part, been swept under the proverbial rug. At a time when the women's movement, in general, had seen significant development and expansion of women-centred services, such as the establishment of shelters and sexual assault services, women of colour and ethnically diverse backgrounds were challenging the mainstream women's movement. The idea of multiple forms of oppression was germinating; specifically, women of diverse backgrounds experienced paternalism and sexual discrimination differently, particularly women who had also experienced colonialism.

Aboriginal women, as with many other marginalized and racialized women, took the first steps to adding their voices. In 1984, Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada began publically voicing their concerns about the violence against women in Inuit communities (British Columbia Ministry of Aboriginal Relations & Reconciliation, 2011). According to the Breaking Free (1989) document, Aboriginal women experienced levels of violence at rates that were, quite simply, appalling. At that time, 8 out of 10 Aboriginal women in Ontario had experienced some form of family violence (Ontario Native Women's Association, 1989). Further, the Woman Abuse Working Group stated, "Aboriginal women are 8 times more likely to suffer abuse than non-Aboriginal women, and of those, 87% had been physically injured and 57% had been sexually abused" (Health Canada, 1997 cited in WAWG, 2008).

The origins of the problem of violence against Aboriginal women were not yet fully publicly articulated. Later, the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, published in 1995, would become the most comprehensive effort to bring those and other issues to light. But the idea of promising practices in service delivery could not yet be considered; promising practices emerge out of concerted efforts from multiple providers and supports over a period of time, who then have the opportunity to engage in reflective discussions about what they are doing. The services that existed, what informal supports women had, were often overwhelmed by the demand. Few Aboriginal-specific shelters existed, and non-Aboriginal shelters were not always perceived as supportive by Aboriginal women (ONWA, 1989). While everyone wanted to see an end to domestic violence, community-based social service was still largely in its infancy.

Now, two decades later, we have growing numbers of Aboriginal service providers, academics and researchers talking and writing about this issue. Organizations, like the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) and the Ontario Native Women's Association (ONWA), and more recently, the National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health, have been working to disseminate information on Aboriginal women's issues in Canada. We have Aboriginal-specific shelters both on and off-reserve across the country, although still relatively few, and chronically under-funded, as with most women's services. We have organizations that work to address the complex, multi-layered issues of domestic violence in Aboriginal communities—reserve, urban and rural. But what have we really learned? What truly works? After more than two decades of heightened efforts to end behaviours and attitudes that many argue are not traditional, but rather a direct result of the colonial experience (Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission, 1999), what promising practices are emerging?

What We Know. What is Being Done.

In the years between the initial report by ONWA (1989) and 2011, we have seen a burgeoning of Aboriginal-specific services in all sectors: health, politics, employment, education, business, media, justice, recreation, sports, technology, social services across Canada. Although we see rapidly growing numbers of Aboriginal people completing secondary and post-secondary education, participating in substance abuse treatment, involved in the workforce, politics, and so on, violence against Aboriginal women remains at levels consistently higher than the experience of their non-Aboriginal sisters. In 2004, the General Social Survey (GSS) indicated that Aboriginal women experienced domestic violence at rates three times higher than for non-Aboriginal women. Five years later, in the 2009 GSS, the rates were largely unchanged, ranking at 2.5 times higher than for non-Aboriginal women. In A Strategic Framework to End Violence Against Aboriginal Women (Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres, 2007), it is suspected that rates in some northern Ontario communities are as high as 75-90 %. In the Territories, out of all violent crimes, the rates of spousal assaults have a median range of 10%, with the Yukon Territory having the lowest (6%), and Nunavut having the highest rates (14%) (Perreault & Hutton Mahoney, 2012; Department of Justice, 2007).

The contributing factors to Aboriginal domestic violence have also largely remained the same. The most publicly prominent factor currently is the continuing inter-generational impact of the residential schools legacy. The socio-cultural disruptions that occurred in residential schools are, in some cases, five generations in the making. They are profound and far-reaching. Even generations of individuals who did not attend residential schools are directly affected. The sociological impacts of colonialism, which eradicated aspects of traditional culture, left voids in essential roles, such as parenting and being in healthy relationships with others, that are only beginning to be addressed comprehensively, despite the Government of Canada's formal apology to the survivors of residential schools in 2008, and the subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The effects of colonialism persist in other more recent factors, including the thousands4 of Aboriginal children taken into care by the child welfare system, the ongoing paternalism of the Indian Act, poverty, substance abuse, poorer health outcomes, discrimination, and so on, that continue to adversely affect Aboriginal women, children, and men. Even as we see a growing public awareness of health and social issues, there is still a significant lack of knowledge, across Canadian society, about how the past informs the present, and how Canada's history has shaped, and continues to shape, the lives of its Aboriginal peoples. Much of the debate on effective amelioration of intra-familial violence focuses on the need for enhanced funding and culturally-based services (Cooper & Salomons, 2010), and strengthened data collection methods in different sectors (Johnson & Fraser, 2009; Native Women's Association of Canada, 2009). While data collection and enhanced funding for more services are important to the overall strategy, there are other elements that also have to be addressed.

Key issues for Aboriginal women have historically centred on a lack of cross-cultural awareness in non-Aboriginal shelters, services and programs, a fear of their children being apprehended by the child welfare system as a result of entering a shelter (Ontario Native Women's Association, 1989), and often a concern for the offender. Women who are forced to flee their communities may also feel isolated, experience culture-shock, and remain disadvantaged when it comes to matrimonial property rights (because of the Indian Act). The protective aspects of remaining within one's own community are important considerations in supporting women and children, particularly as extended family and friends are more readily available and able to support them. More broadly, culturally based supports, such as talking circles and traditional healing practices, strengthen Aboriginal women by enhancing self-esteem and confidence as their sense of positive personal and cultural identity is augmented. And, with the recognition that many offenders were also victims, themselves, the availability of restorative justice services is seen as more in line with cultural values.

As Aboriginal paradigms have gained further acceptance by non-Aboriginal funding sources, organizations and communities have made concerted efforts to ensure their respective cultural values are reflected in their services. By the same token, funding sources often expect that the services will provide culturally appropriate supports without understanding that the more holistic approach will require more funding to address the complex and inter-related needs, when the funds granted for similar mainstream services are inadequate to begin with. Further, the outcomes to be reported on to the funding sources may not, in fact, be consistent with the communities' perceptions of appropriate or desirable goals and service activities. Time lines, staff qualifications and recompense, catchment area, and location of the service are examples of issues that can present as points of difficulty in considering promising practices. Too often funds are short-term, and fail to recognize the complexity of the issues, that require a more complex and longer response to provide adequate healing and so positive outcomes. Perhaps the most important factor that needs to be considered is the Aboriginal concept of holism and healing: that all "ills" have to be remedied by addressing systemic, familial, communal and individual factors.

Although studies point to the high levels of domestic and family violence against Aboriginal women, racialized violence against Aboriginal girls and women at the hands of strangers has also been a strong undercurrent in the reality of daily life. Investigations have led to convictions in cases of individual and serial murders where Aboriginal women and girls have been targeted simply because "of their gender and their Aboriginal identity." (NWAC, 2007). The cases of the missing and murdered Aboriginal girls and women in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and on the so-called "Highway of Tears" in British Columbia draw attention to the socio-economic marginalization of Aboriginal women, which contributed in a myriad of ways to the additional vulnerability of many of those women, from those who entered the sex trade through abuse, addictions and lack of opportunity, through those who were successfully enrolled in school but had no safe means of transportation for the long distances between their home communities and their school or to the nearest towns (MacDonald, 2005; Lheidli T'enneh First Nation et al, 2006).

As Aboriginal services in all provinces and territories continue to work to end the violence, each organization and service offers a range of different services, all of which contribute to the enhancing the lives of Aboriginal women. Many offer education upgrading, employment training and other similar initiatives. Services offering housing address the overwhelming need for adequate geared-to-income or affordable housing. These can range from transitional or second-stage housing for those leaving shelters, to Aboriginal-controlled non-profit housing. Yet other services and initiatives are focused on strengthening cultural identity and pride, such as the work done in Friendship Centres across the country. Pilot project public awareness campaigns often take on some of the more holistic needs to engage men and communities in reducing violence, such as the "I am a Kind Man" initiative of the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres or the Mi'kmaw Men's Intervention Program in Nova Scotia. Aboriginal children and youth also have access to a variety of services and programs, including those geared to reducing gang related activities, supporting witnesses of violence, and so on. Role model programs, such as the Butterfly Club in Winnipeg or the "Our Gang" program of Kahnawake work to provide youth with alternatives and empowerment. This compendium explores the growing knowledge base that has emerged out of the many and varied efforts to address the many forms of violence against Aboriginal women. As public discourse broadens, the efforts to more effectively intervene are assessed, evaluated and refined, looping back to further enhancement and refinement.

This compendium is an effort to expand on that discourse, a living document that aims to aid in eradicating violence in Aboriginal communities and violence against Aboriginal women. As more services, strategies and treatment modalities are incorporated, the knowledge gained can be added to the initial base found within this document. While not exhaustive, this represents a beginning point. Promising practices included in this compendium are those programs that are relevant to addressing issues of violence against girls and women, both from prevention and support perspectives, programs that have been implemented and have shown, or are starting to show positive impacts on the lives of women and their communities, and for which there was information available. The practices themselves were identified by independent data collectors from across Canada, who contacted organizations and agency representatives. Each was asked to participate in an interview designed to highlight key aspects of their programs. All programs in this compendium have provided written approval to share their information. Unfortunately, some promising programs could not be included for a variety of reasons; including being unable to arrange interviews in the time available, lack of permission to share the information or not meeting the criteria for inclusion.

The compendium notes services which are organized into broad categories to be considered as interconnected parts of a whole circle or wheel. The various programs and practices fall within a number of broad service areas: mental health interventions, services for survivors of physical and sexual abuse, outreach to sex trade workers, fetal alcohol syndrome prevention and intervention, family violence interventions, health relationships for women, children and youth, changing community attitudes toward violence, law enforcement, support networks for the families of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, raising awareness in the broader community, residential schools healing, renewal of family roles and responsibilities, support for parents, healing and reintegration of offenders, alternatives to gangs, access to justice services and affordable housing for survivors of violence. Further, each of these service areas fits within larger dimensions: economic circumstances, historical legacy, interactions within communities, and social conditions.

As the linkages across and between these services, and the included literature are explored, there are key themes and challenges that are evident. One key theme, for example, is that for many Aboriginal people, spirituality is generally seen as a key element of healing. Ceremonies are integral to facilitating that spiritual connection, thereby facilitating the necessary healing (Bell, 2008; Couture et al, 2001). The importance of culture cannot be overstated with respect to service provision. Violence against Aboriginal women is considered inconsistent with traditional values, and instead is viewed as one manifestation of the colonial experience. Other manifestations include the economic and social marginalization of Aboriginal peoples, and particularly of Aboriginal women (Mann, 2005; National Clearinghouse on Family Violence, 2008). There are culturally-based philosophies and practices that argue there are alternative means to address community-wide problems (Couture & Couture, 2003; Couture et al, 2001; Krawl, 1994). Another key theme is that of human rights. While not minimizing the importance of domestic violence, the larger issue of violence against Aboriginal women as a human rights issue has been documented by organizations such as the Native Women's Association of Canada (2007), Amnesty International (2009), and the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (Jacobs & Williams, 2008). Indeed, the teaching of Aboriginal history is viewed as key to achieving successful outcomes in a number of the promising practices included here.

It is worth noting that securing adequate funding, as previously mentioned, remains a significant challenge for communities and organizations in providing sustained supports to Aboriginal women, and was raised in the interviews on the majority of the promising practices included here. There are a few key areas of impact.

First, for most communities and services, there are virtually no streams of "core" funding. Each year the service or program must apply to renew one or more lines of funding. Workers are never certain about their continued employment. Most significantly, however, is that this maintains instability in program and service planning; what women may be able to access one year is too often gone in the next. Given the interconnected needs of individuals targeted by any service or program, and the need for a culturally-relevant, holistic approach, funders should be considering multi-year funding for Aboriginal community programs, with a minimum five-year timeframe. To provide less makes it nearly impossible for services to show measurable results.

Second, even where funding is relatively stable, the levels are too often inadequate. This impacts the organizations' and communities' abilities to recruit and retain qualified staff, particularly where training may be required to add Aboriginal staff with direct knowledge of the community, culture and language. It also limits the additional resources needed to run groups and bring in external traditional and professional supports for the women and children.

Third, although approximately half of Aboriginal people now live in urban areas, geography still presents challenges to the accessibility of services for a large number of Aboriginal people and communities. For clients and service providers alike, travel to and from communities and services can be hampered by geography and rising travel costs. Depending on the region, travel may take several hours, increasing the time and human resources involved, but often without the necessary funding, as travel costs are often ineligible expenses by funders, particularly where funding programs are conceived primarily on the basis of urban realities. For remote, isolated communities accessible only by plane or winter roads, this presents even greater challenges. Even for programs offered in urban areas, however, there may be barriers to accessibility of services. While First Nations have medical transportation vans that take clients to doctors' and therapists' appointments, the same is not true for those living off-reserve. Even in more urban areas, access to public transit is not a viable option for many clients, and a car is a luxury.

Promising Practices…

Throughout this document there are kernels of new knowledge and strands of old knowledge combining in ways that will help move the issue of violence against Aboriginal women forward. As with any type of human service, addressing violence is a work in progress. We all work toward the day when no Aboriginal woman is marginalized, abused or violated. In accordance with the old knowledge, we work toward the day when Aboriginal women are once again truly recognized for their contributions to all of society, and honoured for their roles as life-givers. From the women who have been victimized, as well as those who have worked with them, and those who have investigated this field comes the new knowledge of how we can do this work more effectively.