Judge destroys family violence myths

By Brigitte D. Parker

Reprinted with permission from
Saskatchewan Sage - December 1998 - pg. 6

When Native leader Bobbi Smith hears mainstream society talk about building bridges of understanding and working together with First Nation people, she gets very frustrated. As an Aboriginal woman, she says she has often compromised and crossed the bridge but now wonders when others are going to do the same.

"When are you going to cross the bridge?" she asks. "When are you going to meet me half-way or come all the way over to my side of it? That's what has to happen. That is the traditional law of relationships and we have to be equal in that sense."

Smith shared her thoughts and opinions with a group of 150 women and men gathered to discuss human rights issues. The evening which included a presentation by Saskatchewan judge, was part of the Freedom from Violence symposium held last November in Whitehorse, Yukon to mark Woman Assault Prevention Month. Smith was part of a six-woman panel providing a Yukon perspective on the issues of domestic violence and women's rights.

The Native leader spoke openly and directly about her daily experiences working within the Kwanlin Dun First Nation community. She also questioned whether Canadian society truly acts on the basic principles that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and in rights.

"I work in a community where violence is the name of the game every day, almost every hour," said Smith. "We get reports from the RCMP daily regarding the extreme violence that happens in the community. And Kwanlin Dun is right in the community of Whitehorse."

The advocate added that people need to return to the basic traditional laws of caring and sharing.

"No amount of programming is going to fix what is happening to us today. You can do a hundred and one programs and you will still need more," she said. "We have to look at the root cause of violence and that begins with the child. If they are not properly parented and they don't have the proper support system as they go through life, then the violence will continue."

Smith's strong declarations were met with lengthy and thunderous applause, as was Judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond's presentation. As the evening's keynote speaker, Turpel-Lafond spoke candidly to the Whitehorse audience.

Since her appointment 10 months ago, the Aboriginal judge said she sometimes finds herself experiencing real physical and emotional reactions as she listens to cases involving domestic violence. The evidence and testimonies resonate with her as she remembers her own childhood experiences. Raised in a family where her father abused her mother, she lived in fear, uncertain of when the next violent episode would occur. Yet she says her personal connection to domestic violence has helped her understand the conflict inside families. She also encourages public discussion on the matter.

"I think it is very important that leaders in any context of our nations . . . come out and talk about experiences of violence and that we discuss it publicly," said Turpel-Lafond.

As the first Aboriginal woman to be appointed to the Saskatchewan bench, Turpel-Lafond is of Cree/Scottish ancestry and a member of the Muskeg Lake First Nation. In the past, she served as legal counsel and consultant to the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and the Assembly of First Nations. She also served on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People and the Native Women's Association of Canada.

Although her presentation celebrated the significant achievements of Canadian women in defending human rights, Turpel-Lafond said eliminating domestic violence against women remains Canada's greatest challenge. Citing reliable national studies, she said at least 65 per cent of women experience some form of violence from a partner at a certain stage in their lives. A 1984 survey she administered for the Ontario Native Women's Association also revealed that all 600 Native women consulted had experienced or witnessed violence in the home.

"Violence in the family is a fundamental human rights issues for women and children," she said. "It is far too prevalent. It is very misunderstood. And freedom from violence must be a fundamental part of what we understand as the rights of women in our country."

She then focused on deconstructing the existing myths surrounding family violence. The 10 myths are based on a 20-year study. By observing over 200 couples in abusive relationships, psychologists dismissed the beliefs that both men and women batter. They also rejected the notions that battering is never caused by drugs or alcohol; that women provoke men into beating them; that women who stay in abusive relationships are crazy; that battering stops on its own and that women could stop the battering by changing their behaviors.

By contextualizing each myth with her experiences, Turpel-Lafond offered new insight into understanding the dynamics of violent relationships. She explained that not all batterers are alike and presented two basic types of behaviors identified in men which lead to battering.

One profile illustrates batterers as selfish manipulators who are anti-social, have a violent history, may be alcohol or drug abusers and tend to be fearless. Researchers say this minority group represents 20 per cent of men with battering characters.

The second profile are those who confine violence against their spouses to the home. These batterers are less likely to have criminal or violent records, fear abandonment, are immensely jealous, paranoid and controlling and often isolate their partners from families and friends.

The Saskatchewan judge also rejected the prevalent myth that batterers cannot control their anger.

"Battering involves a choice, just like drinking involves a choice," she said. "They choose to strike their partners. Men may use the out of control myth as an excuse to minimize their behaviors or refuse to accept responsibility."

The kind of counseling and treatment batterers receive is also critical. Turpel-Lafond warned that psychotherapies or cognitive therapies may not be preferable alternatives to incarceration. Instead, she stressed that any healing program which does not firmly put accountability and responsibility at the foot of the batterers, is an ineffective treatment for battering.

The judge ended by saying that there is no single answer to explain why men batter women, although racism and poverty are important contributing factors.

"The important achievement, I think, as we look at the 50 years of progress with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, is to see that there has become a very vibrant human rights movement for women in Canada and around the world," said Turpel-Lafond. "And while we have many successes, I think we have many challenges. We may never eradicate violence. It may be an ideal. But I think it is a very important ideal that we work collectively on in all our communities."

Turpel-Lafond's presentation on the rights of women was part of a national series discussing human rights. Her lecture was the fourth organized by Vision TV to mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by addressing current human rights issues important to Canadians.

The 10 cross-Canada lectures include topics on the rights of children, First Nations and persons with disabilities. Culminating in Montreal on Dec. 10, Human Rights Day, the Voices of Vision series will also be televised on Vision TV in March 1999.

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