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Indigenous men dealing with violence want more resources in Quebec

03/10/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 05/09/2015 05:59 EDT
Martin Hervieux, an Innu man from Pessamit, Quebec, wishes resources would have had existed for his father decades ago when his violent behaviour dominated their family life.

“I would have liked it if a house for men had been accessible to my father when I was young. He was beating my mom,” said Hervieux, 59. “Also, I could have used help later in my life.”

Hervieux is now part of the Napeuat (men’s) Committee and is among a small but growing number of men involved in efforts to address family violence in Quebec’s aboriginal communities.

When the Napeuat Committee decided three years ago it was time to build an indigenous men’s shelter, to provide a haven and support for violent men, they turned to the Women’s Shelter Network for guidance.

During their initial encounters, Hervieux admits, “we were scared.”

The Napeuat Committee members were outnumbered by “14 women, including, I believe, four radical feminists,” he said. “We told our personal stories and explained our project. Then, the most radical of them asked us to be part of their network.”

“We said ‘yes’ right away.”

Hervieux lived violence, discrimination and racism 

“We did not go to residential school but nuns in the village taught us we were bad. I was not even 10 years old,” he remembers.

“There was always alcohol in the village coming on the river or through the woods. I started drinking at 13, got arrested and beaten by the RCMP officers. All the family was drinking...One day, I had really too much to drink. I woke up in the morning and my father was dead. I do not remember anything. I was sentenced to seven years in the penitentiary.”  

When he was released, Hervieux had nowhere to go. He wound up in Montreal, homeless.

“I was an alcoholic, and a cocaine junkie. I had just my shoes and the clothes on my back. But I had one thing. I had the heart to stop.”

Now sober for the past 22 years, Martin Hervieux is one of few men to be involved in the aboriginal women’s movement.  “It is worth it. I learn a lot from them.”

Punitive system for aboriginal men

But Quebec has the dubious distinction of lagging far behind other provinces and territories, in terms of providing services to aboriginal men; this, according to criminologist and professor Renée Brassard from Laval University. “We are in a punitive system," she says, "no crime, no services for men.”

Brassard will publish a new study in spring 2015. She and her research team met with several First Nations and Inuit men of Quebec in prison.

“We found that many men were intoxicated during the crime and often their spouse was also extremely violent and under the influence of different substances. Also, many do not know who started the fight and mentioned that they were often victims of jealousy and violence from their partner.”

If there’s a shortage of resources for aboriginal men involved in domestic abuse, there’s also a lack of hard data.Under the supervision of Brassard, Lisa Ellington published a Master’s thesis in the sociology department of Université Laval. It demonstrates that most of our statistics on violence are collected with and about women.

“We do not know much about how aboriginal men perceive violence, how they react, etc,” says Brassard.

Through her research Ellington points out that domestic violence is financially and socially expensive.  Over the last 10 years, it has been the most common problem shared by First Peoples in all regions.  

Sheila Swasson is a founding member of the National Aboriginal Circle Against Family Violence and a long time advocate of the Mi’gmaq community of Listiguj. She is not surprised by the results.

“Men have learned to be strong,” she says, ”but they need to learn not to be ashamed to get help.” She points to the consequences of assimilation and the inter-generational effects of residential schools in Canada.

“They were often abused at a young age. Sometimes our people normalize violence.”

Inviting men to be part of movement

Early in their involvement, aboriginal women were the first to ask the feminist organizations of Quebec to invite men in activities to stop family violence, remembers Michelle Audette, president of Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC).  

“When the Federation des femmes du Québec (Quebec Women’s Federation) asked us to be part of their walk for International Women’s Day in 2000 we said 'yes' but only if men were involved.”

At first, the Quebec women’s movement refused but they changed their minds, Audette explains.

Sheila Swasson, who’s also in charge of Listiguj women’s shelter, Haven House, is modifying services to be more holistic and include men and youth centres.

But more needs to be done. In Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, there is the Tungasuvvik women's shelter. Annie Olivier is a psychoeducator and was a consultant for the shelter.

“There’s a shortage of housing in Nunavik and with children involved, after their treatment, women go back with their male partner. We need a men’s shelter,” she said.

Hervieux has seen cuts to social services made by the current liberal government of Quebec.

He hopes that his initiatives like the White Ribbon campaign, to get men involved in healthy relationships, might bring awareness to people making decisions.

“When I share my story, even today, it helps me heal.”

For Hervieux the fight to get a shelter and services is not finished.

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