January 14, 2005

Counselling dents domestic violence in Rankin Inlet

“If the community is involved from the grassroots, it’s more likely to succeed”


James Howard, a counsellor in Rankin Inlet, helps men and women who are victims of domestic violence.

An increasing number of men and women in Rankin Inlet have stopped abusing their loved ones, thanks to a unique duo of local counsellors.

However, Nunavut’s only community-level spousal abuse counselling program could end this spring, when it faces a funding review by the federal government.

Emiline Kowmuk, coordinator and head counsellor for the program, expects the program will continue, as it has a proven track record.

They’ve seen 31 men and women since she joined the program last year. And instead of waiting for a judge to order them to get counselling, people in the community are now requesting help.

Kowmuk said the program’s success comes partly from relying on elders who use Inuit traditional knowledge.

“I think it’s important for Inuit people to be involved with Inuit,” she said. “They understand where they’re coming from.”

This work is a rarity in Nunavut, which suffers the country’s worst rate of domestic violence.

In 2001, a group of activists wanting to end violence in their community teamed up with the Pulaarvik Kablu Friendship Centre. Together, they received $250,000 in funding from Justice Canada and other federal departments to start a pilot project devoted to reducing violence between couples.

The government of Nunavut chipped in $50,000, and supported the initiative to allow judges to give conditional sentences in cases of domestic violence.

That means a judge can instruct a man or woman charged with assaulting their spouse to attend the program, instead of sending them to prison. Then, the offender will also avoid a criminal record.

James Howard, a counsellor for victims of violence, said that he found most participants felt alone in their problems, before starting counselling.

People usually avoid talking about domestic violence because they believe that it should be kept private, but contact with other offenders, or other victims, help them understand that violence affects everyone.

“It can happen to the most outstanding individual in the community,” Howard said.

However, Howard noted there were some trends among the troubled households. He said the situation is sometimes aggravated by stress from the housing crisis, fetal alcohol syndrome, and past sexual abuse.

He said alcohol and drug addiction are not the source of violence between loved ones, but scapegoats for hidden problems.

Emiline Kowmuk, coordinator for Rankin Inlet’s spousal abuse counselling program, says overcrowding in houses and poverty create some of the tensions in troubled relationships.

“Those are basically the band-aids for the deeper issues,” he said.

At first, people attending the program are evaluated one-on-one, to make sure they don’t have a long or recent history of physical violence. Some are sent back to the courts. The remaining participants start a series of 36 sessions, twice a week, in groups and alone. Both offenders and victims learn communication skills and anger management.

Victims are also taught how to protect themselves by avoiding potentially violent situations with their spouse.

Police and activists in Iqaluit are so impressed by the Rankin Inlet program that they want to start a similar program of their own.

Joyce Aylward, executive director of the Qulliit Nunavut Status of Women Council, met with members of the RCMP last month to discuss ways of curbing violence in Nunavut’s capital.

Aylward said she admires the Rankin Inlet initiative because it came from community members who tailor-made a program based on local needs.

“If the community is involved from the grassroots, it’s more likely to succeed,” she said. “It’s very easy to dismiss something if you’re not involved in he creation of it.”

Counsellors hope the program will eventually expand to other communities in the Kivalliq, using locally hired program coordinators.

For more information, phone the friendship centre at (867) 645-2600.