Breaking the silence the first step to healing abuse (from November 2 issue of the Yukon News)
Vuntut Gwitchin MLA Lorraine Peter is telling a story nobody wants to hear to help First Nations women speak out against physical and sexual violence in the communities.
During the 1980s, Peter was raising her 5-year-old son in Old Crow, while working at the Vuntut Gwitchin band office.
She was also hiding a terrible secret.
“I was physically abused,” she revealed in an exclusive interview Tuesday.
“I wanted to keep working so I kind of tried to hide my physical appearance, to pretend that I was OK.”
November is Women Abuse Prevention Month and the timing couldn’t be more poignant for Peter’s message.
Last week three First Nations women — all from small communities and all victims of abuse — faced trial in Whitehorse on charges of murder and manslaughter.
Their histories prove violence creates violence, said Peter.
She is pushing the government to give communities more financial and human resources to deal with family violence where and when it happens.
She knows all too well that without help nearby, women outside of Whitehorse are often forced to live in silence, for fear of coming out of the shadows.
“I just didn’t want to be judged by other people,” she said of her experience in Old Crow in the ‘80s.
“I was thinking of what other people would think — about how could I work in a public place going through this kind of situation.
“Basically, I put on a mask to try to hide whatever I was going through, both emotionally and physically.”
Peter remained silent, as did those around her.
“I felt judged by other people. It’s not a matter of what they said, it was the silence that had the most impact.”
Silence is powerful: it not only keeps victims of abuse hidden, it allows those who abuse to abuse again, said Peter.
While she found a way out of her problem (today, Peter is happily married to her husband Ernie, who works in Alaska) giving abused women the confidence to come forward in Yukon communities will be difficult, she said.
“We’re not going to just pack up and pack up our kids and move to some place like Whitehorse, because there again is another challenge,” she said.
“We want to stay in our own community and so, sometimes, one would feel it’s just better to be silent and deal with our situation the best way we can instead of uprooting ourselves and our children.”
Aboriginal women are three times as likely to be victims of assault from their spouses as the average Canadian woman.
A United Nations report found that Canadian aboriginal women are five times as likely to die from violence as non-aboriginal Canadians.
To combat these chilling statistics, the Yukon needs to devote more money to the problem, she said.
But more importantly, the government needs to provide Yukon communities with full-time people that are trained to help — not just social workers on periodical visits, said Peter.
Having someone nearby would make abused women, “more willing to face those challenges that they have to face,” she said.
“In each individual community, there’s not a person that you can go to in the social department that has the professional skills to address these kinds of issues when they’re happening.”
Many organizations working to help women are forced to run with volunteers doing the brunt of the work.
The Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society Yukon’s future is also in doubt as its funding is set to run out, she says.
She also questions how a BC-based help line for women can help women in isolated communities.
“How are they going to understand those issues? Are they familiar with the needs remote communities create? There’s no way out.
“Sometimes it’s quite dangerous.”
Unfortunately, the same is true of Whitehorse-based social workers, she said.
The Yukon’s minister for the Women’s Directorate, Elaine Taylor, announced a family violence awareness campaign to mark the month dedicated to recognizing abuse.
The Women’s directorate is working with the department of Justice, Education and Health and Social Services to come up with a wider plan to combat the problem, Taylor told Peter in the legislature Monday.
But if family abuse victims are to break their silence, they need to feel confident their problems will be respected — and solved within their community, said Peter.
A recent incident in Old Crow showed her that coming out and sharing problems with family and friends can make healing easier.
She is more reticent to talk about what happened the second time — only willing to say that a man, under the influence of alcohol, harassed her, and that it never went to court.
“I was able to speak to my family and friends and community members and they were aware of what happened, so they were able to support me through this period,” she said.
“And that’s the difference between back when I was going through the other situation and the situation that happened to me not too long ago.
“I’m more able to talk about it and seek support from my family friends and community members.”
The frustration of not being able to take the matter to court, to send a message, “that this type of behaviour is unacceptable,” has also emboldened Peter to push for resources in communities.
She remembers living as an abuse victim in silence, and hopes if help makes its way to communities, that more women will be able to come forward.
“When I wasn’t able to share with people around me what was happening to me it was a lonely, scary place to be,” said Peter.
“I just felt that nobody cared. The more I internalized that, the harder it was to reach out.”