Waswanipi shelter offers a safe haven for abused women and children

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They say it takes a community to raise a child but the Cree have learned it takes one to protect women also. Robin’s Nest, a women’s shelter located in Waswanipi, opened its doors on September 25.

Linda L. Shecapio, the president of the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association, said she is happy there are now services and help for abused women and children but is nonetheless sad that it is needed. Shecapio said that violence against women was not part of the traditional way of life for the Cree. She hopes that it won’t be needed beyond a few years, and that healing and help goes beyond just Cree women and extends to men, children and the whole community.

Many of the people who spoke at the grand opening ceremony shared her dream of a time when there would be no need for women’s shelters in Eeyou Istchee.

Daniel St-Amour, Executive Director for the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB), said the Piipiichaau Uchishtuun (Robin’s Nest) Women’s Shelter is a historic milestone.

“The shelter’s name derives from the Cree legend of Ayaashaaow, which speaks of transformation, healing and reconciliation. And this is what we will be striving for with this facility,” he said. “Our objective is to transform the lives of women and children who have suffered from domestic violence, to heal them of their wounds, and, ultimately, to support a process of reconciliation that will strengthen miyupimaatisiiun in our communities and across Eeyou Istchee.”

St-Amour noted that Health Board Chairperson Bella Moses Petawabano had expressed her own sorrow that, for the first time in the thousands of years of Cree history, a shelter was needed to protect women and children from domestic violence.

Many people and entities worked to make the shelter possible, including the Cree Nation Government, Cree Justice Department, the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association, the Cree School Board and the Cree Nation of Waswanipi.

“So you can see that this project, like many others, is one that requires we unite our strengths and knowledge to ensure the health of our people,” said St-Amour. “Robin‘s Nest will support women 24 hours a day, every day. It will offer crisis management, culturally appropriate helping methods, and a network of local services and programs, including professional services from the CBHSSJB. It will also serve a stepping stone that will help women access already-existing services, and it will create lasting links to resources so that when women return to their home communities, their networks of support will be strong and resilient.”

Ungava MNA Jean Boucher observed that asking for help is never easy. “Having to leave your community can be an additional challenge,” Boucher said, “which is why the time has come for the communities to have their own shelters.”

Native Affairs Minister Geoffrey Kelley said resources were needed to address social and economic impacts caused by problems related to family and spousal violence.

“I believe that we all have a duty to work together to come to the assistance of the women of Native communities, by offering them the best possible conditions to overcome the difficulties that they experience and to facilitate their healing,” said Kelley. “Having culturally sensitive services available in Waswanipi and soon in Waskaganish is a big step forward. We hope that it will reduce the number of vulnerable women who leave Eeyou Istchee and find themselves on the street in Montreal or Val-d’Or or other urban settings.”

Grand Chief Abel Bosum said one of the problems with being the last speaker is that most of what he wanted to say had already been said. It got a laugh from the crowd at the inauguration. Bosum thanked many people and organizations for the work that made the shelter a reality.

“Family violence in general, and violence against women in particular are serious issues which are present in Cree communities just as they are present in other communities across Quebec and Canada,” Bosum observed. “This violence has serious human, social and economic consequences both for the women who endure it and for the Cree Nation as a whole.”

Bosum added that the lack of women’s shelters has forced many Cree women to seek protection outside their communities. One result is homelessness and greater exposure to violence and abuse. This must change, he insisted. One way is to address the overcrowding and lack of adequate housing.

“Severely overcrowded housing in the Cree communities create conditions ripe for tension and abuse, and drive too many Crees from our communities. Until this single issue is addressed, violence and abuse toward women will continue,” said Bosum.

Bosum, Shecapio and Kelley then participated in a lacing ceremony. Unlike a ribbon-cutting ceremony, the lacing ceremony ties together the different partners who were needed to make the opening of the women’s shelter possible.

The inland women’s shelter will be able to accommodate 18 women, including their children. On hand will be 19 workers to support women in their time of need. It houses a meditation room, a children’s play area, an entertainment room and a kitchen.

The Cree Nation Government and Quebec shared the $4.6 million cost to build the shelter. A long-term agreement was negotiated with Quebec’s Health and Social Services Ministry to fund its operational budget.

Robin’s Nest has a mission to use Cree traditions and values in healing both women and children who have experienced domestic violence while respecting individual beliefs. There will be various options for reconciliation, rehabilitation and reintegration.

A crisis line is being set up for women to call for assistance and possible admission to the shelter. During the call, the level of support needed both immediately and long-term will be determined. The Nation will publish the number when it becomes available.

A second shelter is being built in Waskaganish and will open in 2018.


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