The subject of domestic violence was addressed in Chisasibi from November 16-18 at the Family Violence Symposium with the hopes that in years to come, policies and programs will exist to curb violence in the Cree communities.

For some it seems violence has become a way of life in the Cree communities. Before colonization it would have been unthinkable for Crees to beat their spouse or child. The struggle for survival took precedence over everything else, and harmony amongst the Cree was essential.

But then the white man arrived and after centuries of genocide and various sinister attempts of assimilating the Cree through government-sanctioned efforts, such the residential school system, that harmony was destroyed.

Today there is a legacy of abuse that Crees cyclically inflict upon each other for whatever reason and that was why the Cree Justice Department decided to team up with the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association (CWEIA) along with other entities so that a new phase can begin – one will attempt to restore the harmony that once was.

According to Justice Director Donald Nicholls, interpersonal violence is the priority for the Cree justice system because it accounts for 40% of all crime in the region.

With that it became important to create an event for those involved in programming development, such as the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB), the Cree School Board, the communities, and the religious leadership, to examine programs that had worked in similar areas and hear from experts in the field. As many of the Cree entities are currently involved in developing programs to combat issues like bullying, domestic violence, Elder abuse and child abuse, it was important to bring together all them.

Nicholls said that when planning the event it was important to select speakers and workshop facilitators who were not only experts in their fields but had worked in these fields for several decades and/or had worked specifically with Aboriginal communities.

The objective of the symposium was not only to identify where the problems were or to present statistics on the issues, but to address the roots of the problem, discuss means of intervention and look at programs and services that could remedy the hurts that have existed for decades.

“For us it was very important to bring in people who were making a difference. We wanted people who could reach out and touch others because to make a difference, each individual needs to be able to wake up and want to make a difference. People think this is such a big issue, but it’s really a personal issue, and individual one. We want change whether it’s just one person at a time or one home or one classroom or one work place or one community. We want to make a difference and have an impact, so we will do it one day at a time and start wherever we can,” said Nicholls.

According to Doris Bobbish, President of the CWEIA, the project has been in the works for many years and to finally hold the symposium was a “reality come true”. Even before the CWEIA incorporated in 2009, women in Eeyou Istchee had been discussing the issue for years.

“We wanted to have a variety of approaches in looking at family violence, especially violence against women, and we had several presenters who did focus their presentations on that. Then there were other issues presented, that we all look at ourselves as an individual with four elements: the physical, the mental, the emotional and the spiritual. We wanted to cover as many areas as we could. There are some people who only understand or know one particular area and that is usually just the physical or when the abuse begins as something physical,” said Bobbish.

In order to address the issue as a whole, the event featured speakers from academic, administrative, political and spiritual backgrounds as well as those who have set up shelters, participated in women’s organizations, or worked in law enforcement. The CWEIA’s fitness instructor, Theresa Ducharme, was there to get the delegates to work up a little sweat through a brief aerobic workout twice a day to ease the stress of the event.

Bobbish said the event was a good way to break the silence about the issue and make it clear that enough is enough when it came to violence. It was also a good way to get the information that they had accumulated through these experts to the public in order to be considered for upcoming public policy.

“We’re not at that stage yet where we can fully say this is what we want or need. But at least the information is there for those who would like to do something about it or to act upon it. There are resources out there that we can connect to,” said Bobbish.

While Ducharme was on hand to get the delegates blood pumping through exercise, she also ran a workshop with a former colleague from her days of working at the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

In their workshop, Ducharme and Pauline Huppie-Parsons addressed violence against women in terms of the alarming number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada and the kinds of things women can do to prevent becoming a statistic.

“I gave tips but I also put the faces to the stats. Everybody hears about the stats but I actually told stories of certain family members and also just again that prevention. A lot of our young women and older women from the north who come to the bigger cities don’t have any resources or know where to go,” said Ducharme.

In light of this, Ducharme and Huppie-Parsons said they presented their participants with scenarios so that they can prepare a plan should something occur, they likened it to having a plan for when a fire breaks out or any other emergency.

“It’s about listening to your gut instinct. If it doesn’t feel right, listen to your gut. It’s about making those conscious decisions. If you’re at a party and there are 20 guys and you and your friend are the only women, maybe it’s not a good idea to hang out there. It is about thinking about those decisions and acting on them, getting out of there or phoning a friend or knowing what to do as opposed to not knowing what to do and ending up in a vulnerable position,” said Huppie-Parsons

Outgoing Quebec Native Women Incorporated President, Ellen Gabriel did a special presentation on how violence was not part of the ancestral history of Aboriginals but a negative impact of colonization and the residential school system.

“In order for us to be able to stop this cycle of violence, we need to discuss in the way that we are doing at this symposium. It is a wonderful initiative and we need to understand the historical roots to the violence in the communities. Understanding that is one of the first steps but being able to talk about it and to break that silence is another,” said Gabriel.

Montana-based psychologist Eduardo Duran spoke to the delegates about the minds and souls of the abused and abusers. Addressing the spiritual culture of Indigenous peoples, he put abuse its spiritual context.

“The reason I use that comparison to sorcery or witchcraft is because the intent of the perpetrator usually goes into the victim and because of that it is a spiritual act and any spiritual act is either a holy act or it is a negative, demonic act.

“When a perpetrator hurts someone it is not holy so therefore it has to be the other one. There is only two choices,” said Duran.

Duran spoke of how common it was for him to see individuals who had already been to five or six therapists but who still were in pain as they had never addressed the sort of spiritual “infection” that was caused by the abuse they suffered.

Duran said that when western therapists are not available or not working, there are other resources within the traditional Cree community such as Elders or traditional healers who could be utilized. He suggested that western therapists work in conjunction with traditional healers and this should not be a conflict to the religious community.

“I have made references to the Christian faith because if you go with natural law then Christianity is also based on that. In terms of Christ and the traditionalists, if Christ was here in Cree country he would be very comfortable working with the traditional people because Christ himself was one of the original shaman. Christ embodied the medicine man because it was through his own body that we are healed right?” said Duran.

Dr. Douglas McNaughthon, a Chisasibi-based minister, ran a workshop that focused on the tensions between the different faiths within the communities.

“We talked about specific things that are still going on within the communities. One community is more Pentecostal in parts than others and so the others all say that it’s mandoweemhow or believing in bad spirits and that is spiritual abuse. To say that another person’s relationship with God is wrong or evil is abusive. This kind of thing goes on a lot,” said McNaughthon.

At the heart of it, he said this behaviour is not necessary but a choice.

Pastor Gordon Petawabano, of Mistissini, spoke about what he was taking in and how it will help him in his own career since he does a great deal of counseling.

“This is the first time I am at this kind of conference as usually the kind of conference I go to (relates) more to me being a pastor. This one is a lot more open and I like it because I can hear the other perspectives on belief. The main thing here is not to push anybody away, especially in what they believe as what I believe is that it is through Jesus Christ that we can be healed,” Petawabano said.

Petawabano said in the future he will have a better understanding of people of different faiths after attending the symposium.

Over from Sault-St-Marie, Ontario, Brenda Combs came to the symposium to present a number of issues after having dedicated her life to running a family-crisis shelter and has worked in various capacities to help other Native groups from across Canada and the US to offer family-crisis services to their communities.

Delivering a keynote address on domestic violence and best practices in Aboriginal communities with and without shelters, Combs said that what she likes to do is go into a community and help them to set up services that are culturally appropriate based on what the community wants and do it with little resources if necessary.

One way she suggested that it is possible to set up services without financial resources is to incorporate volunteers and then do fundraising. She suggested using the local bingo as a means of raising funds. She suggested that those who need healing go to their Elders and go back to traditional ceremonies and rituals because they are powerful and can be very healing.

“For some of the communities, they already have the healing there but they don’t know how to get it restarted. This is what I work with within the communities: work with what you have,” said Combs.

Lisa Petagumskum was at the conference to listen to the many speakers and presenters on behalf of the Cree Health Board, which is in the process of developing new services and programs. As the symposium was being aired directly on regional radio, Petagumskum said it was a great opportunity for the Cree to take in the information in the comfort of their own homes as next year the CBHSSJB will be touring the communities to ask Crees how they want to address the issue of family violence.

“We will be doing a needs assessment because we need to develop a regional orientation on the issue of domestic violence and so there is development of programs, policies, procedures and protocols on this issue. What this comes down to is that we don’t want this to just be a formality process on what people want to do with their communities and whether they agree or disagree,” said Petagumskum.

While a lot of information was shared and presented, with it came an outpouring of emotion as many opened themselves up to the issues and their long-time hurt. While its impacts may not be felt widespread for some time to come, many a seed was planted in the hopes that peace can one day be restored.