Their mission statement is to “provide a safe and supportive environment that strengthens cultural identity, self-esteem and independence for aboriginal women and their children.” The Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal was founded in 1987 after a needs assessment determined that troubled native women living in Montreal needed a place to go. They were experiencing higher rates of trouble with the law, and experiencing difficulties in the shelters that existed due to cultural and language differences. Some shelters in Montreal accept only women, no children, while others have a limited stay of anywhere between three days to a maximum of two weeks. Many shelters lack the funds to provide programming and sometimes do not accept women who have issues like alcoholism.
Initially the Native Women’s Shelter only provided beds for women to get them off the streets, no programs. Today they provide 16 beds for women seeking a safe place from abusive situations, who need to get off the streets, who can’t get the help they need in their home communities. The women can stay anywhere between six to 10 weeks with their children. After that, they will not be thrown out into the streets without housing and support. It also provides culturally relevant programming.
Women’s shelters across the province recently engaged in a work slowdown in hopes of getting more money from the Quebec government. The minister responsible agreed to rethink the matter as a result but came back and said there was no more money. The Native Women’s Shelter did not participate in the work slowdown although they do receive their operational funding from the Quebec government. They receive their program funding from the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.
Set up to address the needs of residential school fallout, the AHF is funding the “Moving towards to 7th fire generation” project. The programming under this project is targeted to provide help and healing from sexual abuse, all forms of violence, addictions, as well as provide parenting skills and art therapy.
The healing process is long and hard for the women who pass through the shelter’s doors. Says Thelma Nelson, Interim Executive Director for the shelter, “because of the residential schools, not only did people lose their native identity, but they didn’t even learn how to be children. It’s so hard to heal if you have 30-40 years of pain to heal from.” The programming offers two workshops a day and includes art therapy, anger management, and workshops on parenting, family violence, sexual abuse and life skills. The women sign a contract upon admittance stating they will attend three workshops a week. When a series of workshops are held, the women receive a certificate if they attend all of them.
The facilitators who run the workshops are native and non-native, women and men. They are highly educated, trained and qualified people in their disciplines or they are traditional healers. Dolores La Pratt, the Program Director at the shelter, looks for a good fit with the women and facilitator and says, “Gentle, nurturing works best.”
She also says “it does make a difference when the facilitator is native. Many of us have been effected by the same issues: alcoholism, physical abuse, sexual abuse, the residential school system.” However the women do very well with the non-native ones as well. The fact that there are male facilitators is another somewhat calculated move. The women get the opportunity to see that there are safe men, they see a different kind of life from the one that they have always lived.
The workshops are geared towards helping the women heal but sometimes it’s about fun. There are skating outings, trips to the Biodome and movie nights. Which helps the women to step outside their pain for a time.
Healing takes its toll on the body and mind, so sometimes it’s nice to step away from that and just nurture oneself. Says Nelson, “I’ve seen women who come in and they can’t even speak because they are so scared, they’re stiff and rigid even. Then they release, start to heal and they become different women”.
Gauging success is different for each woman and each situation. Success can be that someone stops drinking, that one gets their children back from youth protection, when one goes back to school, when one starts taking care of themselves and or seeks medical attention or gives back to the shelter or another in some way. Success is also either leaving the partner who abuses or learning the tools to live with an abusive partner, such as recognizing potential blowups and getting out of the situation before it happens.
The Outreach Program helps clients who are not staying at the shelter but are still in need of help. It helps them to pay their rent, provides referrals to food banks, lawyers, and educational opportunities. The Outreach Worker also accompanies women to medical appointments. There are workshops held weekly on topics that range from nutrition to anger management, yoga and cooking. There are 78 clients to date.
Many women say they don’t know what they would do or where they would go if the shelter wasn’t there. It’s not only the culturally specific programming that is a plus, it’s also just being in a place where there are other native people. The women encourage each other and help each other through the little things. Which in the end is a big thing.
Nelson feels that something is working because there are more women working on themselves, actively trying to heal and make changes in themselves. Much work still remains to be done though.
“We’ll always need a second stage housing, where the women can go for more long term periods,” says Nelson. “It’s something we need to look at.” She also mentions something that is often overlooked when thinking about women’s shelters, the men. “Eventually someone has to help the men. There are little or no services for men. And there are men who do want help.”
She adds wistfully that it would be nice to have a retreat. “A healing place with sweat lodges, healing circles, talking circles, sharing circles, sunrise ceremonies and other ceremonies, get people praying again.”
She also wishes that there were more native people involved in the city, “sometimes to heal ourselves we have to go out and help other people,” and she mentions the ripple effect that helping has in a community. “We need more people involved,” she flatly states.
For now the shelter does what it can, trying to provide the safety and stability to allow the women to grow and heal. “If we get the women strong enough, then there will be changes in the community.