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For abused women, a long road to recovery

This is the final instalment in a four-part series examining the effects of Nunavut's high crime rate. The name of the victim in this story has been withheld.

Chris Windeyer
Northern News Services

Iqaluit (Dec 18/06) - Napatchie McRae believes in the phrase "if looks could kill."

The executive director of Iqaluit's Qimaavik transition house has seen it countless times, withering glares from across a courtroom, where women are supposed to feel safe.

McRae knows many women who are scared to file charges against abusive partners and for whom those dirty courtroom looks are a promise of more violence to come.

A Statistics Canada study released last month showed seven of 10 crimes went unreported in Nunavut and McRae suspects a large number of those are acts of domestic violence. She says staff at Qimaavik are encouraging women to go to the police.

"If we have repeat clients we sometimes try to tell them charges need to be pending for us to be able to help you out," McRae said.

She estimated 20 per cent of the centre's clients come back at least once.

"If it's a repeat that means they're not healing and they're not seeking help as much as they could."

One woman faced abuse at the hands of her now ex-husband for 20 years before coming to work for the shelter. Now, she uses her own experience to help women arriving from all over Nunavut at Qimaavik. The decision to leave even an abusive partner is never easy, the victim said, but it can be done.

"If you really want to separate (from) your partner it's kind of tough and it's stressful to try and get away from him, but I'm over him now," she said.

The woman's divorce became final last month and yet she's still not completely free: she heard her ex-husband is coming to town again. She's worried he'll stalk her like she said he did when he was in town two years ago.

She asked police for a peace bond and got one, which she says wasn't hard because of her partner's lengthy criminal record.

But there are men seeking help too. McRae says when that happens, it increases the odds of turing abusive situations around. When women leave their partners for a shelter it sometimes has the effect of waking up the abuser to his behaviour too.

Those men don't blame their partners for leaving and McRae tries to offer them encouragement.

"I have men crying to me sometimes," she said. "It's so sad."

Despite the demand, the availability of services for abused women in Nunavut largely remains piecemeal.

The number of women's shelters in Canada has ballooned from just 18 in 1975 - when abuse was still considered a "family matter" - to 543 in 2004, according to a Statistics Canada report on domestic violence issued this fall. There are only two in Nunavut, and Qimaavik teetered on the edge of bankruptcy in October.

Two national women's groups stepped in with offers of help and saved the shelter, which has 21 beds and is nearly always full.

A 52-year-old woman staying at Qimaavik at the time said the shelter saves lives.

"If there was no shelter up here there would be a lot of ladies dying from being physically and mentally abused."

-with files from NNSL archives