Imagine breaking a bone and hearing you’ll be waiting for two years for an ambulance to come.
The team at WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre knows it sounds ridiculous. But it’s an analogy they use to describe what it’s like to wait for counselling at the downtown Vancouver sexual violence support centre.
“For women not to have essential services after they’ve been sexually assaulted is just mind-boggling. It feels like torture,” says Irene Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer, WAVAW’s Executive Director, who calls access to anti-violence counselling “a basic human right for women.”
Across B.C., wait times for those in need of support range from two weeks to two years. Why? A chronic lack of funding. Not only this past political term, but for decades. It’s a story about budget cuts, bureaucratic systems and wait lists. It’s a story about what those challenges mean for survivors with untreated trauma and exhausted front line workers. The problems seem clear, but what can be done about them?
I spoke with eight women tackling gender-based violence in their own lives and work. These women have solutions to share, solutions many of them have been shouting on deaf ears for decades. From reinstating core funding for women’s centres to mandatory early education about transgender people and increased support for men who commit violence. They’re working amidst systemic challenges, healing themselves and each other.
While it’s still unclear who will be the next leader of the province — so we don’t know how the incoming government will support the province’s most vulnerable women — survivors of violence and front line workers share their thoughts on how we can make things better. No matter what government comes into power in B.C.
Residential School Survivor and Elder at the Fire Pit Cultural Drop-In Centre.
What she’s tackling: Violence against women, especially relationship violence, in her hometown of Prince George.
Seventy-two-year-old Violet Bozoki works as an advisor at the Fire Pit Cultural Drop-In Centre in downtown Prince George. “If there’s a fight here I get right in the middle of it,” says Bozoki. “There’s a lot of gender violence down here.”
How can we fix it? To end violence against women, Bozoki feels society needs a big shift. Women need to see that they’re valuable, she feels — too valuable to endure violence. While her upbringing was steeped in family violence, Bozoki works to break the cycle she says began with residential schools.
Bozoki says she was recently driving home when she saw a young woman walking in the pouring rain. “Her boyfriend beat her. And I tell her, you don’t have to take that shit from anybody. I told her, you’re better than that,” she says.
Chair of the University of Northern British Columbia’s School of Social Work and member of the leadership team at Northern FIRE, UNBC’s centre for research around northern women’s health and experiences.
What she’s tackling: Improving education, prevention and service access for survivors of gender-based violence in northern B.C.
“It’s really, really a challenge for people, in terms of being able to get access to services,” she says. Hemingway feels like the lack of services is made worse by stigma and “whether or not people feel able to ask for help.”
For Hemingway, gender-based violence is deeply connected to other issues in northern B.C. In Prince George and surrounding areas, she attributes the lack of services to an unequal distribution of the wealth that comes from the region’s resource-based economy. She feels communities like Prince George have very little say about the projects that come to the city. When they do come, she says, the profits very rarely serve the city’s most vulnerable or the services those people use.
“It’s so interconnected, with the question of poverty, with the question of housing, with the question of employment — just being able to actually know that you can live and survive and create a life for yourself and your family.”
How can we fix it? “We have to work together, as a society, to create an atmosphere in which people feel able to come forward,” says Hemingway.
She knows this is a long term goal: “Concretely, we need to redirect the wealth that’s created such that it actually allows us to have the services that people need. That is not just crisis intervention, that is long-term life skills, supports, people being able to contribute to the betterment of society.” Bottom line, when big projects are agreed on, money should be invested.
Prince George resident and domestic violence survivor.
What she’s tackling: Personal healing.
After experiencing brutal domestic violence that led to a miscarriage, Bolton feels she faced waves of trauma, grief and recovery with little support. She feels that a lack of outreach, counselling and emotional support slowed her ability to heal and brought her closer to rock bottom.
“I had a drug issue. I was drinking. It spiralled,” she says of the first few years after leaving her abusive partner. “I started meeting people in the street and I figured, ‘Whatever.’”
“I almost did myself in before it got into my head that, ‘No, Lisa, you’ve got to do something different. You can’t be doing this.’”
How can we fix it? “I don’t know what it was inside me but from that point on, I reached out. I phoned people, I talked to people, I said, ‘I need help.’ I ended up in a Native shelter for women in Surrey, and there I got lots of help,” Bolton says. “They helped get me settled in another spot, gave me the tools I needed to deal with what the situation was.”
But Lisa wishes that support had found its way to her much sooner. Maybe then, she says, she wouldn’t have felt so alone. After women experience violence, Bolton believes it’s essential that they know someone is there.
“If I would have had that earlier, it might not have turned out as bad as it did for a while,” she says. “I think if I would have had that extra support right there — like, ‘Somebody’s here to help you through this’ — I don’t think I would have had that issue with drugs and alcohol.”
Highway of Tears Coordinator, Carrier Sekani Family Services, Prince George
What she’s tackling: Systemic violence against Indigenous women.
Wilson, who is Gitxsan, is continually facing the heartbreak of her sister’s 1994 murder, which remains unsolved today. Now, she supports and advocates for the families of the more than 30 women who’ve gone missing or have been murdered in the communities along Highway 16, also called the Highway of Tears. Wilson advocates for better services and infrastructure to Highway 16, the route connecting Prince Rupert and Prince George, while also supporting families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls who are taking part in Canada’s national inquiry into MMIWG.
Wilson’s major challenge is finding the money to do her work. She only gets paid when small project funds come through from B.C.’s Civil Forfeiture office or the Justice Ministry. “Always struggling to find dollars for the Highway of Tears Initiative has been disheartening,” she says. “When the funding is there, the work is easier to do, and we are able to reach more people.”
How can we fix it? Wilson feels the funding challenge is, in part, due to a disconnect between those running the Inquiry and those whose family members and loved ones are missing or murdered.
“The commissioners of the public enquiry really need to meet with the families and understand what the issues are, the funding and all these different supports that they need,” says Wilson.
In the meantime, she’s prepared to do what she needs to to ensure Indigenous voices are heard: “I think that the government needs to recognize northern British Columbia, and not to forget that we are a part of Canada,” she says. “They cannot leave us out any longer. We’re going to keep raising our voices to let them know that we’re here and we exist.”
Executive Director, WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre, Vancouver
What she’s tackling: Chronic underfunding of women’s and anti-violence centres. WAVAW, like other sexual assault centres in the province, experienced major cutbacks after provincial budget cuts in 2001. Ever since, the centre has been challenged to fundraise and serve clients. Today, WAVAW’s one-to-one counselling program faces a two year waiting list.
“We’ve seen in Canada, in the last decade and a half, 15 years or so, the very deliberate pulling the rug out from under women,” says Tsepnoloulos-Elhaimer, describing the implications for sexual assault workers as “absolute exhaustion, but determination, to ensure that the services are there for women.”
How can we fix it? “The political will, I think, is to ensure that the gains that we had 15 years ago, that we make that up,” says Tsepnoloulos-Elhaimer.
“We need money to be able to attend to women’s realities on the ground, and that means ensuring funding for anti-violence organizations,” she says. “Because we do education, we do outreach, we agitate, we do so much. And so if you do not attend to women’s needs around violence, then you will not, as a society, get anywhere.”
“I really look forward to seeing young women make strides, where I feel like this lost generation, this last 15 years. I hope that we can move forward with young women stepping up, and young men too.”
Indigenous transgender woman from Prince George.
What she’s tackling: Personal experiences with systemic violence against transgender people.
Her sister, also an Indigenous, transgender woman, was murdered in Prince George in 2002. Loyie herself has faced violence based on her gender for her entire life.
Knowing how vulnerable transgender women are to violence, Loyie says, has caused her to live in constant fear for many years.
“My dad made a little balaklava out of a little black rubber hose, and put little gunshot pellets in it, wired it shut on both ends. It hurt and it was heavy,” she says. “And he said, ‘I want you to carry this with you everywhere so you’re safe, and if you have to you use this.’ My family had to resort to that, for fear of what might happen.”
Now, Loyie refers to herself as a “shaman,” a spiritual leader for young people living on the streets in Prince George. She strives to make them protected and supported, she says.
How can we fix it? “Break it down in school, to understand that there are trans people in school as they’re growing up. Because kids are the solution, you know,” says Loyie.
What should kids grow up understanding? “They should understand the way we are, the way we feel, our differences yet our likenesses, our hurts. I mean, our fears,” she says. “We have fear of being murdered, fear of being disliked.”
“We’re human beings first and foremost.”
Executive Director, Ending Violence Association (EVA) B.C.
What she’s tackling: Persistent rates of gender-based violence in the province, despite long-term underfunding for programs that support survivors.
“We have some big questions,” Porteous says, about government’s support for community-based victim services programs, including sexual assault centres.
“If we live in a province that we value safety and security and liberty, and we basically say that women and children shouldn’t live in fear of violence, or have violence in their lives, why aren’t we doing more?”
How do we fix it? “Core, ongoing, stabilized funding, so that agencies have the ability to respond to the demand that they’re facing and that any woman and child in a community who is facing violence has access to support immediately and they’re not put on a waitlist,” says Porteous.
“First of all, there are many communities that don’t have any support. Then communities that do have a support service, their caseloads are so high they don’t have the time to advertise or do outreach to let everybody in the community know that they exist.”
Manager of strategic planning at Phoenix Transition House, Prince George.
What she’s tackling: Hurd has spent the last 22 years working at Phoenix, and has spent decades before that involved with other organizations to support vulnerable women.
“I’ve been really involved, and I have evolved,” she reflects. “I’m a survivor. I’ve had some terrible experiences at the hands of men.”
Hurd feels like many women get involved in anti-violence work because they are survivors themselves. “There’s so many of us now, I realize, that are drawn to this work because of our own experience, but we don’t know it at the time. We’re just going in to help people. We don’t know we’re helping ourselves,” she says.
Despite her hard work, Hurd feels she hasn’t made a dent in ending violence in Prince George. She still sees the same issues she did twenty years ago, and in fact, feels rates of violence have gone up in the region: “I get paid because women are getting beaten up. I haven’t stopped anything, I haven’t changed anything. I’ve worked all these years in trying to stop violence, and instead, somehow or other, we’ve gone off the rails.”
How can we fix it? Hurd feels that to truly address violence against women, men who perpetrate violence need rehabilitation.
“Maybe if we started working with the offender and providing services to him, who is a trauma survivor, who is a sexual abuse survivor, maybe we could help him to heal,” she says, aware that this suggestion can be highly controversial.
“We would like to have a transition house for men. And we would like, when there’s a domestic [abuse], we would like men to be removed from the house and taken to a Phoenix, where he will stay and get help,” says Hurd.
She notes that there are programs available for women and children who experience violence, but feels there are less for men who perpetrate it: “What is there for men?” she asks. “How do we just work with one side of the problem?”