Silence might be golden, but not when it comes to domestic violence.

Too often, Cree families and community members are reluctant to talk about spousal abuse and to support battered women, because they find the situation embarrassing.

That’s the consensus of Cree health workers and police, who say attitudes to spousal abuse are slowly getting better, but a lot more needs to be done.

Just as bad as the silence, they said, is a severe lack of resources to help battered women or teach violent men to stop.

The nearest women’s shelters are in Val d’Or, Amos and Chibougamau, where many Cree women don’t feel comfortable because of the language barrier.

As for the men, the only counseling available is at a non-Native treatment centre in Montreal. This centre sometimes has a hard time speaking to Native and Inuit men because of cultural differences.

It adds up to a grim picture for battered women, health workers and police trying to cope with the abuse.

They say battered women are often discouraged from leaving the man or pressing charges. The women are often told that once two people are married, they should never separate, even if her husband is hurting her.

In one community, a father recently went on the radio to tell his daughter to go back to her husband, even though the husband had been beating her.

The daughter had moved into her parents’ house, but the father wanted her to go back. He said marriage is for life.

Last month, a Cree woman was so badly beaten by her husband she was taken to a hospital, but she didn’t want to press charges. It wasn’t the first time police had responded to a domestic-violence call at the couple’s home.

“There is silence around violence – silence and fear of having all these people know,” said Doris A. Bobbish, a community worker in Chisasibi for the Cree Health Board.

“Parents are afraid to get involved (because of) the belief we have in our communities that once you are married, you should not separate. That’s a very strong influence which they (battered women) have to face.

“It’s very scary for women to be in that relationship. They feel they have no other choice,” she said.

Bobbish said more health personnel are needed to cope with the heavy caseload. She also noted that Chisasibi used to have a women’s shelter, but the funding was cut because not enough women were going there.

“It was quite difficult for a woman to go there,” she said. The woman’s family and her husband’s would encourage her to go back home. There were also safety concerns. The abusive man would often go to the shelter looking for the woman.

Samuel House, chief of police in Chisasibi, said many women are too embarrassed to use the resources that are available – social services, women’s shelters, talking to Elders.

“They say if they go there, everything is going to be out in the open,” he said.

“It’s more open now than in the past. It’s just that I think there are a lot of people who are in denial – who don’t want to talk about their problems,” said House.

Jane Blacksmith, public-health officer at the Mistissini First Nation, agreed that things have improved in the past 10 years.

“At one point, men and the woman’s family thought if a woman got beat up she deserved it, so let’s not interfere. That’s changing, slowly,” she said. “We are learning that nobody should have to go through that for the sake of someone else.”

But family violence is still quite hidden as a problem, she said. “We have a lot of people asking for help, but these are people who don’t want a file opened on them. Mostly, they still love this person who’s abusing them. They want to get help without having to go to court. They want someone who’s there to listen.”

Blacksmith said the communities need more resources on the issue, and more research is needed on family violence in Iyiyuuschii. The Cree Health Board’s mental-health department also has to get involved in the issue at a regional level, she said: “They’re the ones who should be doing something on family violence.” Women’s associations should also get involved in fighting domestic violence, she said: “They would be in the best position to speak on behalf of women and educate the community.”

Dr. Robert Harris, who works at the Chisasibi Hospital, has seen a long list of injuries due to domestic violence – stabbings, broken thumbs, black eyes, bruises, broken arms. “Some guys try to hit in places where it’s not so visible, like the bum or stomach,” he added.

Most battered women don’t lay charges and many of the ones who do, drop them, he said. The reason — abusive men tend to be very apologetic and kind after a violent episode. This is sometimes called the “honeymoon phase.”

But unless the abuser realizes he has a problem and tries to change, he’ll probably go back to his old ways.

Harris agreed that more resources are needed, including help for violent men: “If we don’t do much for the women, we do even less for the men.” He also said a survey would also be useful to find out how bad the problem really is.