Family violence hurts everyone: children, wives, husbands, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. When it happens in a home, no one is immune or unaffected. Whether a person is the perpetrator, victim or a witness to family violence, it has an impact – it makes people afraid, it affects self-esteem and sometimes becomes behaviour that is passed on from one generation to the next.
This past spring, Chisasibi took action against this problem. On March 27, a gathering was held in Chisasibi to mark the end of a three-year research and education project. This project was undertaken in conjunction with the Cree Board of Health and Social Services (CBHSS) and myself in my role as associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa. The project’s aim is to increase awareness in the community about family violence, and to provide education with an aim towards prevention.
The project began in 2002, when we received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to work with Chisasibi to find solutions to family violence. The first part of the project involved interviewing people from the community who worked with families affected by violence. It was important to recognize how they understood this problem. They worked directly or indirectly with both victims and perpetrators.
These interviews revealed that, while there appeared to be a new awakening in Chisasibi about family violence, it still remained hidden and was made worse by drug and alcohol abuse.
“There is an awakening that’s been going on for some years now. The community’s starting to talk about family violence… it’s starting to come out as something that’s not right. But there’s still a lot of families that endure it, that don’t talk about it…I don’t think a lot of people are aware that they have the right to say no…so they pretty much suffer alone and suffer in silence.” (Interviewee)
What was interesting was many people still recalled the negative impact of moving from the island, from Fort George, and expressed the belief that the move had and continues to have a detrimental effect on the social health of the community, including increased social problems resulting from broken family ties, loss of culture, and increased access to drugs and alcohol.
“The relocation, the residential school, the loss of land, of river, has had a big impact on the community. Our social life had to change, we used to have these fishing gatherings every summer and that was lost and the sharing in those gatherings was lost. The way of sharing and the way of thinking has changed. That was one of our values, to share what we had, to share our resources, but now it’s becoming territorial: ‘This is my fish – if you want to share you have to give something back.’” (Interviewee)
Further, the current “southern” justice system is not viewed as particularly effective in dealing with the problem, and social services are perceived by many in the community as serving to break up families. At the same time, many of the people interviewed believed that the solutions to family violence must come from the community and that future initiatives should include family time spent in the bush, using the wisdom of the Elders and having workshops for families on different topics.
The final phase of the project involved a community gathering that took place March 27. It involved a whole day of events centred on the issue of family violence.
Following a moving introduction by Elder Annie Herodier, those attending the conference heard the results of the initial study. This was followed by viewing a film on restorative justice, A Healing River (a copy of this film was donated to CBHSS).
At lunch, a children’s activity took place in the commercial centre, entitled “Hands are not for hitting.” In order to send a non-violent message to the children of the community, kids were invited to make prints of their hands in paint and sign their names on a large bulletin board. Many children (and adults) in the community took part in this activity.
In the afternoon, some survivors of family violence shared their stories at the conference. It was both heart-breaking and encouraging to hear how others had managed to deal with this problem in their own lives. The second phase of the project involved interviewing people who had experienced violence directly, both victims and perpetrators. These interviews are almost finished and the results will be written up shortly.
The day ended with a traditional feast at the women’s lodge, where many community members shared beaver, moose meat and other traditional foods.
While this project will not necessarily have an immediate impact on how the criminal justice or social service system responds to family violence, it is hoped that the project and the conference will help reinforce the message that family violence is wrong, that there are other ways to deal with anger, aggression, frustration and control, and that the community of Chisasibi does not tolerate such behaviour.
Many people were involved in helping with this project, including: Laura Bearskin, Roger House, Virginia Gilpin, Charlotte Pebabano, Jill Torrie , Luci Salt, and Violet Bates. A special thanks must go to Doris Bobbish who is very committed to this issue and to the community – without her hard work, the gathering would not have been possible.
If anyone is interested in reading a report on this project or for more information, please contact Kathryn Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org.