Like an iceberg, 1995: “More sad stories”
In early March 1995, even by the middle of the night, the sun was almost up in Iqaluit. Steam rose through the cold half-light and mingled above the townhouse complex that locals called the “white row-housing” because of the white cladding on its exterior. It was minus 35 C.
In a unit, perhaps that one at the end of the first block — with the Canadian flag draped across a window — all the lights were on. The outer door was half-open. Some time in the middle of the night, RCMP members perhaps forced it open, responding to a call reporting a violent domestic dispute inside.
Or maybe there was violence, blows, tears, and no one called to report it.
There, a bruised woman sat, unable to sleep due to her pain, over a cup of lukewarm tea at her kitchen table. She stared out the window, down to the bay where large chunks of ice had been heaved into motionless currents, and, beyond, towards the horizon, where dawn colours rounded the icy mountains with gold …
In the elders’ modern residence down by Frobisher Bay, an elderly woman also woke up with the sun. The large windows of her cozy apartment opened onto the beach. She remembered how Iqaluit looked when she first arrived there in 1957.
“There were no houses then. We wanted to leave, but our dogs died,” she said, speaking through a friend I brought as an interpreter.
This elder said that, when she was younger, she never saw any violence between men and women.
“Life before the settlements was simpler,” she said.
During her early years, she spent her time mastering important skills. Knowing how to sew warm clothes was essential for survival on the land. She said she still visited the sod hut built for elders, to peacefully sew sealskins for boots and mitts.
But warm clothes no longer offered the same guarantee of well-being as they once did.
Many of the battered women in Iqaluit were like L., a 22-year-old woman from northern Baffin Island whom I met. L. had lived here for several years. She and her boyfriend shared a four-bedroom unit with six adults and several children.
“My boyfriend was physically and emotionally abusive,” L. said. “He had a lot of pressure because he had no job. And he began to get really violent every time he got drinking.”
When L. couldn’t stand her boyfriend’s drinking and beating anymore, she reported him to the RCMP. L.’s boyfriend was charged with assault: “it was very hard.”
According to RCMP records, battered women called for help only after 30 to 40 violent incidents. But even so, calls were increasing in frequency.
In a single year in the mid-1990s, reports to the RCMP about domestic violence rose by one-third. Still, in Iqaluit, women were much more likely to seek assistance than in the smaller communities on Baffin Island, although police said the level of domestic violence was probably similar.
A young mother, M., who came from a community in northern Baffin Island, told me how she decided to leave her husband after 10 years of increasingly violent physical and mental abuse.
When M. told him she wanted to end their relationship, she said he kept her in their house and tortured her for two weeks. Finally, M. escaped to the nursing station, where arrangements were made for her to leave her community with her child for the women’s shelter in Iqaluit.
“My husband went on the community radio and cried he needed me. My own family was against me. ‘Stay with him,’ they said.”
Iqaluit’s shelter is called Qimaavik: in Inuktitut, meaning “the place to run to.” Most Inuit women must leave their communities to reach the shelter. Many don’t want to do this.
“I like the idea of shelters, but you can get that support from your community,” said a woman, who was urged by the RCMP to press charges against her husband or else leave herself. “I say, he’s my husband, and I forgive him. It’s just that he was mad at something.”
Lay leaders within the church sometimes encouraged women to forgive abusive spouses, I am told. They said God supportrf the absolution of sin and, when slapped, to “turn the other cheek.”
“We should be more forgiving,” said another woman said. “They don’t counsel them in jail. Anyway, they’re going to be coming back. It could be ruining your life more not to forgive.”
L., who persisted in pressing charges and even saw her violent boyfriend go to jail, said she had now forgiven him, too. When he was serving weekends for her assault, they continued to live together, along with his extended family. “I felt I couldn’t abandon him. I was the only one who could easily understand.”
Inuit women, like L., who are victims of spousal assault, may forgive their abusers, but a healer I meet in Pangnirtung saif women can’t as forget their pain that easily.
“People are like icebergs,” said Meeka Arnakaq.
Inuit women say little about what they feel, she said.
Arnakaq lived near those mountains that appear to melt into the fiord every day, in a dazzling display, but she said many women there hardly slepy because of the pain deep within.
She says women must begin to talk.
“The iceberg needs to be broken. Even if it’s big, it will break. The only way it can get fixed is if you talk. We have to break the iceberg into pieces. Then things will come out. After the iceberg has crumbled, there’s a cleansing of the body. Everything will come out in anger and rage,” said Arnakaq.
“I counsel people and I tell them that if they’re hurting, they have to let everything out.”
But many Inuit women still face a life-long exile if they decide to end their pain by doing more than talk — that is, by leaving their abusive mates.
“I’ll never go back [home],” said M., who decided to divorce her husband, in spite of his pleas and the intense pressure from her community and family.
More than a year after fleeing to the shelter, M. remained in Iqaluit. She regretted having sent her little girl back home. Now, she was fighting for custody in the courts.
“Most of my life I’ve seen drunk and abusing people,” said M. “Now, I feel just about perfect. I used to have a dream to be peaceful and not always worry. Now, I have it all, except my kid.”
Talking to these women about their pain was hard, writing about it was hard.
But hearing from an editor at a large southern daily newspaper, for whom I have already written three drafts of a story about domestic violence in the North, that he wants more even details about the level of violence these women suffered and that I haven’t gotten into the subject deeply enough, gave me shivers: I let the story be killed.
More from “Like an iceberg” on April 22.
Did you miss the first blog posting of “Like an iceberg”? You can read it here.
You can read previous instalments here:
Like an iceberg: on being a journalist in the Arctic
Like an iceberg, 1991…cont.
Like an iceberg, 1991…more
Like an iceberg, 1992, “Shots in the dark”
Like an iceberg, 1992, “Sad stories”
Like an iceberg, 1993, “Learning the language of the snows”
Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Spring”
Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Chesterfield Inlet”
Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., more “Chesterfield Inlet”
Like an iceberg, 1994: “Seals and more”
Like an iceberg, 1994, cont., “No news is good news”
Like an iceberg, 1994 cont., more “No news is good news”