CANADA

SILENT SUFFERING

BATTERED WOMEN TELL OF PHYSICAL ABUSE AT THE HANDS OF BOTH MALE AND FEMALE PARTNERS

GLEN ALLEN June 1 1992
CANADA

SILENT SUFFERING

BATTERED WOMEN TELL OF PHYSICAL ABUSE AT THE HANDS OF BOTH MALE AND FEMALE PARTNERS

GLEN ALLEN June 1 1992

SILENT SUFFERING

CANADA

“People may know who we are but pretend not to—like the dry cleaner always mending mysterious tears in our clothing, or the optician continually grinding away deep scratches in the lens of our glasses. Or the pharmacist who gives us funny looks when we purchase Tensor bandages and the jeweller who repairs the same broken chains again and again. Neighbors often know who we are, but they tend to look away. Our doctors sometimes know who we are—if they don’t, they should. I am one of those women and this is my story. ”

The New Brunswick woman’s harrowing story was a reflection of the still confidential testimony heard over 3½ months by a travelling federal task force investigating the abuse of women across Canada. Appearing before the Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women on March 4 in Fredericton, the 35-year-old teach-

BATTERED WOMEN TELL OF PHYSICAL ABUSE AT THE HANDS OF BOTH MALE AND FEMALE PARTNERS

er spoke about her abusive nine-year relationship: she testified that her husband repeatedly beat, bit, kicked, choked and scalded her. As a result, she went on, she suffered a partially collapsed lung and permanent injuries to her

neck and shoulders. But she endured in silence. Only when her husband threatened to kill her did she report him to the local detachment of the RCMP. A year later, a judge found her spouse guilty of assault, placed him on probation and ordered him to undergo counselling. “I wasn’t going to live that way anymore,” the woman, who now is seeking a divorce, said in her 15-page brief to the panel. “I stopped covering up for him. I told.”

Others are telling as well. During a round of closed-door meetings from Jan. 12 to May 2, 4,000 Canadian women and representatives of women’s organizations in 130 Canadian communities recounted similar stories that, taken together, amount to an inventory of abuse that panel members say is both unprecedented in scope and shockingly explicit. The nine-member panel, its activities augmented by four native women advisers known collectively as

the “aboriginal circle,” is now preparing its interim report. As well as documenting the problem of spousal abuse, the report, Maclean’s has learned, will offer evidence of ritual abuse and even sacrificial murders by cults across the country.

It will also document the problem of battering in native communities and widespread abuse within lesbian relationships. Much of the testimony shocked some of the panelists—most of whom are veteran workers in the field of violence against women. It will likely shock other Canadians as well when the interim report is released at the end of June. Said the panel’s co-leader, Pat Marshall, executive director of Metro Toronto’s Action Committee on Public Violence Against Women and Children: “This goes on right across the country—behind the shutters and the picket fences on the streets where Canadians live.” The report will do more than simply bring the problem into the open. It will also offer interim recommendations. Topping the list will be a call for measures in schools, the justice system and the health-care network to heighten awareness of the violence. Some critics—including social workers who assist battered women—have questioned the value of the $ 10-million inquiry. They say that its recommendations (a final report is not expected until the end of the year) may well be ignored by Ottawa. They also criticize the panel for closing its hearings to the public and question whether its findings will include any new material. But Marshall rejects those complaints. “No matter what wonderful work was being done in the community, there was nothing that was looking at all the forms of violence,” she said in an interview. She added: “It is time for us to look at the size of this problem. It’s huge—and it’s not a pretty picture.”

Just how ugly that picture can be was brought home to many Canadians on Dec. 6, 1989, when Marc Lépine shot and killed 14 women at the University of Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique. Statistics further underscore the grim reality: according to government statistics, by 1990 reports of sexual assault had doubled to 27,000 in just six years—and 90 per cent of the victims were women. Last August, Mary Collins, the minister responsible for the status of women, responded by formally establishing the panel. Declared Collins at the time: “Zero tolerance must be our goal.”

But even those panelists who had some awareness of the extent of the problem clearly found the testimony unnerving when the inquiry began its hearings in January. Mobina Jaffer, for one, a 42-year-old Vancouver lawyer, has been involved with women’s issues for 15 years and led last year’s B.C. task force on family

violence. In that capacity, she says, she had been alarmed to learn of ritual abuse of women—and children—by members of cults. But as a member of the panel, she says, she discovered that “this existed right across the country.” Some of the cult-related abuse, she added, was “beyond comprehension.” Jaffer told Maclean ’5 that individuals and transition-home workers across the country gave evidence that some transient women were captured and “used as breeders,” with their children later being sacrificed “under a full moon.”

In one particularly brutal case, a B.C. woman told the panel of being forced to take part in a graveyard cult ceremony in which she was stripped naked, whitewashed and sexually abused. Members of the cult even stuffed her mouth with mice—presumably a satanist response to a biblical exhortation not to eat mice.

Jaffer says that Canadians have not heard such stories before because “these women are frightened. They have been told that if they talk they will be punished—there will be a price to pay.” Declared Jaffer: “In the beginning, I didn’t believe what I was hearing. But we were hearing the same stories across the country—and these were people who were not talking to each other.” Another category of violence against women that some panelists found surprising in its scope involved abuse within lesbian relationships. Said Peter Jaffe, a London, Ont., psychologist who is the panel’s only male member: “We got testimony of this in every

CANADA WATCH

Attempting to satisfy provincial— and particularly Quebec’s—demands for more power, federal negotiators agreed in principle to relinquish Ottawa’s jurisdiction in a wide range of areas, including culture, job training, housing and tourism. Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark hailed the agreement as a major step in resolving Canada’s unity crisis, adding that it was necessary to strike a balance between keeping the country strong and keeping it united. In other developments: • Clark said that he expects Ottawa, the nine English-speaking provinces and four major native groups to reach a tentative agreement on constitutional reform by May 31. The agreement would then be referred to a first ministers’ meeting in June for possible ratification. • Federal officials vowed to include modest controls on spending in proposed legislation permitting a national vote on constitutional reforms. QUOTE OF THE WEEK “It makes no sense. It is ridiculous and we treat it w♂ith contempt.” —A French diplomat, who requested anonymity, on reports that Canada and France are locked in a bitter espionage battle in the run-up to the fall’s planned Quebec referendum

province.” He added that the problem is not widely discussed because many lesbians feel themselves isolated within society. Declared Jaffe: “Women don’t feel safe to disclose this because they feel they’re going to be victims of homophobia when they talk about their relationships in the first place.”

But other women are also isolated, both socially and physically, and find it equally difficult to ask for help. Many are natives—according to panel members, four of five women living on reserves are abused. Claudette DumontSmith, an Algonquin health-care specialist from Hull, Que., who travelled with the panel as part of its aboriginal circle, said that many factors contribute to that high rate of abuse. Among them: the lack of police and shelter services on or near native communities, and the psychological damage suffered by male abusers as a result of prior sexual and physical abuse in the residential school system. Said Dumont-Smith: “Many women said we have to speak now—we have to break the silence. I’m hoping the panel will open their eyes and that something will be done to address the social issues of our people.”

In addition, the panel heard from many women living in rural isolation. “These are the forgotten women of Canada,” says Jaffer. In one community, a woman testified that her male partner had forced her to remain naked in a darkened house; she never knew, she said, when she would be beaten or raped. In many cases, abused rural women are without means of communication or transportation to get help. According to Marshall, a prevailing impression left by the testimony of battered rural women “is of men leaving homes in the morning with the telephone in one hand and the distributor cap in the other.”

Still, some professionals working with battered women claim that collecting case histories of injuries and abuse does not help to solve the problem. Says Eunadie Johnson, executive director of the Thompson Crisis Centre in Thompson, Man.: “I don’t want to negate the experience of women who are isolated. But how many horror stories do you have to hear to

know that this is happening? This has been staring us in the face for years.” Adds Wendy Chappell, director of a transition house for battered women in Truro, N.S.: “This has already been task-forced, panelled and researched to death.”

Many of those critics say that the time has come for action—not further documentation. And they clearly fear that the government will

ignore the panel’s final report. Said Mary De Wolfe, the executive director of a transition house in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley: “We will be really devastated if there aren’t direct and solid results.” But those involved with the panel say that the coast-to-coast ventilation of cases of abuse was both timely and necessary. Said Jaffe: “This is not an exercise in futility.” The sheer weight of evidence may also underscore the need for action. Much of the testimony dealt with the apparent failure of the justice and health-care systems, as well as social agencies and religious institutions, to address the needs of battered women. Noted Jaffe: “You can’t imagine the number of women . we’ve met who say that they went to the church for help and were told, ‘Well, you married for better or for worse.’ ” Added Dumont-Smith: “This is the report of the women of Canada—more than half our population. I don’t think this will sit on anyone’s shelf.”

Although the panel's recommendations may eventually help to alleviate the problem of violence against women, it is clear that too z many of them will continue to suffer. The 35« year-old woman who appeared before the panel 1 in Fredericton, for one, is now preparing to ~ leave New Brunswick for a new life on the West Coast. She says that on May 10, her estranged husband began driving back and forth in front of her home. “I always live with other people now—I always have roommates,” she adds. “But there’s not a lot I can do now except put distance between us. I guess women in this situation can expect to be harassed forever.” It is a grim prognosis—one that perhaps even positive action may not change.

GLEN ALLEN in Ottawa

‘NO MEANS NO' DRAWS ATTACKS

CANADA

It has become known as the “no means no” legislation, but last week, Bill C-49’s critics gave a firm thumbs-down to the proposed law. Tabled in December by Justice Minister Kim Campbell after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the country’s socalled rape-shield law, C-49 was intended to ensure women received fair treatment in sexual-assault trials. Much like the previous legislation, C-49 would severely limit defence lawyers in questioning womens’ past sexual histones. But the current bill goes much further, setting out a strict, farreaching definition of what constitutes consent in sexual relations. To the alarm of civil libertarians, the bill also restricts the ability of defendants to argue that they honestly believed a woman had agreed to have sex, requiring that men take “all reasonable steps” to obtain consent before any sexual contact. Declared Alan Borovoy, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, in

an appearance before the Commons justice committee: “Everything from the brutal rape to the good-night kiss—the bill stigmatizes all of that conduct equally.”

Others had similar reservations. Robert Wakefield of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, an organization representing 1,000 Ontario lawyers, argued that the proposed new law is misdirected, adding that the government should aim to change men’s attitudes towards sexual relations by launching public education programs instead of instituting “stiff punitive measures.” And Gwendolyn Landolt, vice-president of REAL Women, a conservative women’s organization, noted that many sexual relations consist of an “intuitive, mutual escalation of actions and responses difficult to appreciate in the cold light of a courtroom.” Added Landolt: “Under this bill, it is possible that men will be committing crimes when they have no idea they are committing crimes.”

But a representative of the Women’s Legal

Education and Action Fund, a Torontobased group that campaigns for women’s rights, y mi-

sogynist.” Said the organization in a brief to the committee: “The law should refuse to exculp that if

she agrees to intercourse, or if she agrees to intercourse while at dinner, she has forfeited ga right to chan during

the drive home.” But despite its detractors, C-49 is supported by the two opposition parties. Still, challenges remain: a small group of hard-line Tories may rebel against the bill when the final vote takes place :ier or

fall. And legal experts say that if it passes into law, the contentious legislation, like its precursor, is certain to face another battle—in the courts.

G. A. in Ottawa