During the first month of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ketsia Houde-MacLellan, acting executive director of the Yukon Women’s Transition Home in Whitehorse, Yukon, said the women’s shelter was almost like a ghost town.
“It was very eerie because we had nobody. Usually we’re not always full, but we always have people, and all of a sudden in March we had one woman in the shelter and no kids,” she recalls.
While numbers are back to normal now, Hcoude-MacLellan said the dramatic drop in visitations during the first few months of the pandemic can be attributed to issues surrounding COVID-19.
Houde-MacLellen said that the message around a shelter mostly used by Indigenous women who are fleeing violence was to “stay home” during the first few months of the pandemic which often meant time trapped with an abuser.
“When you live with someone who’s using violence against you, that person may be working, so you’ll have some part of your day that you don’t have any violence because that person is away,” she said. “But all of a sudden he’s there 24/7 or she’s there 24/7. So, there’s no time that you can call the shelter.”
Houde-MacLellan said women with children were – and still are – at an even bigger disadvantage, as she’s heard of instances of partners using the pandemic to keep them from accessing shelters.
“(Their partner) would say ‘well it’s not safe to go to a shelter, where are you going?,’ so the women would have to make a very, very difficult choice of leaving without their children, which is heart wrenching. So, most of them would go back because they don’t want to leave their kids.”
Crickett Wilder, program coordinator for the Dawson Women’s Shelter in Dawson City, Yukon, which also sees a high number of Indigenous women, said she’s likewise heard instances of women reluctant to come to the shelter.
“We’ve had some folks reach out to us curious about a shelter stay and they have dual worries,” said Wilder. “They’re worried about violence increasing at home, they know that they’re isolated, they know that that’s a risk factor, and they’re also worried (that if they come to the) shelter, does that mean ‘I’m gonna get sick?’”
Indigenous women at risk
While both shelters have increased cleaning and screening protocols, Wilder said COVID-19 has negatively impacted an already vulnerable population.
According to a report by Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), Indigenous women are 3.5 times more likely to experience violence compared to non-Indigenous women.
“When you add COVID on top of that, there becomes some really high risk factors – not being able to reach out, not being able to have those social connections,” she said.
Earlier this year, NWAC surveyed more than 250 Indigenous women nation-wide about how COVID-19 was affecting them.
What they found was an increase in the number of violent incidents, usually by an intimate partner, and that one in five women reported they’d been a victim of physical or psychological violence during the first three months of the pandemic.
Wilder said some women using the Dawson Women’s Shelter have reported increased instances of violence from their partners due to added stress caused by the pandemic, like income loss and job insecurity.
“I’ve seen women who are already accessing our space for drop-in services of laundry and showers, telling us more about the abuse, and telling us the abuse got worse because of COVID,” she said.
Systemic change needed
In 2019, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur’s report on violence against women in Canada found only six per cent of shelters for victims of abuse in the country serve women and children in Indigenous communities.
The Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) and Professor Pamela Palmater, chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, said in a report released earlier this year that the lack of Indigenous focused shelters “has created a crisis situation for many Indigenous women and their children, and puts them at greater risk in this pandemic.”
Houde-MacLellan said the Yukon Women’s Transition Home tries to be as culturally sensitive as possible by offering Indigenous based programming and traditional foods.
She said she can see why Indigenous women fleeing violence would be reluctant to turn to a shelter without similar supports.
“There’s systemic racism, even in the shelters. It’s hard to find staff, just even on a general basis,” she said.
The FAFIA report also criticized the federal government’s response package that included $50 million in support for shelters for women facing sexual and other forms of gender-based violence, stating that it’s “woefully inadequate,” and that “given the increased risk of the coronavirus in institutional settings, what is really needed is safe, adequate housing for Indigenous women.”
There’s also been frustration with the delay of the federal government’s long awaited national action plan in response to the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
The action plan, which was to be released in June, will answer the inquiry’s calls to develop and implement a national action plan to address violence against Indigenous women and girls.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the plan has been delayed due to the pandemic. There’s been no word on when it will be released.
Wilder said a federal strategy is desperately needed to end gender based violence, and that social supports like a national child care strategy, basic income and affordable housing could greatly help women fleeing violence.
“We need systemic change, we need systemic buy-in,” she said.
“That strategy looks like a really simple nuts-and-bolts thing that doesn’t seem really snazzy or full of glitter. If you don’t have somewhere safe for your kids, you’re not going to leave.”
More importantly, Wilder said communities need to work together to end gender based violence.
“(It’s recognizing that it’s everybody problem. It’s scary to talk about is cognegience dissidence. It’s othering survivors, (it’s thinking) it happens to those people over there. (We need to see) this as a problem for an entire community, and it’s the entire community’s job to help.”