Jordan: I think it’s become pretty clear to everyone by now that self isolation in this pandemic means dramatically different things for different people. At one end of the spectrum, there are the clueless celebrities making videos about how their mansions feel like jail. At the other end, obviously, are people who don’t have a home to #StayHome in. I’m much closer to one end than the other. I have a house and it has everything I need. I’m fine. But there are people, who, at a glance have the exact same things I do. A house, a yard, a family, enough groceries, but who are in real danger right now. For some people, the home is not a safe place. Even in the best of times, of course, a depressing proportion of women, as well as men, are at risk of abuse or worse from their partners. And that’s at the best of times, when it’s a lot easier to leave a dangerous situation. As you may be aware, these are not the best of times and it’s not easy to leave anyone or to go anywhere. So what options do people who are living in abusive situations now have? What’s being done to help them? How can we find ways to get them out of their homes when nobody is supposed to leave theirs? Our guest today has reported on this issue for a long time, and she will help us explain the crisis that so many Canadians find themselves caught in right now. But first, we have to give you a quick round up of what you need to know about COVID in Canada today and Claire Brassard will do that now.
Claire: The COVID-19 death toll in Canada has now surpassed 1,000. However, there is some cautious optimism from Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr Theresa Tam, who says the spread does appear to be slowing down. She says in late March, cases were doubling every three days, and now they’re doubling every 10 days or so. But as we’ve heard from so many people, Dr Theresa Tam says, we cannot let go of our physical distancing measures just yet. Justin Trudeau has announced that the government is expanding the list of people who are eligible to receive the emergency response benefit.
News Clip: If you earn $1,000 or less a month, you’ll now be able to apply for the CERB. If you were expecting a seasonal job that isn’t coming because of COVID-19, you will now be able to apply. And if you’ve run out of EI since January 1st, you can now apply for the CERB as well.
Claire: Although British Columbia has managed to flatten the curve, the province is extending its state of emergency for another two weeks. It’ll also be releasing more modelling of cases on Friday. And Premier John Horgan has hinted that it’ll show more progress for the province. Ontario is still seeing hundreds of new cases every day, but the chief medical officer says it is possible that the province is past the peak of the outbreak. There were 494 new cases in Ontario on Wednesday and 221 of those have been linked to longterm care homes. In the US president Donald Trump says he is cutting us payments to the World Health Organization during the pandemic. He’s accusing the organization of failing to do enough to stop the virus from spreading when it first surfaced in China. Canada’s international development minister says Canada is disappointed in this move. As of Wednesday evening at 28,379 cases of COVID-19 in Canada with 1,070 deaths.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Sarah Boesveld is a writer and a reporter and a sometimes guest host of this podcast. Hi Sarah.
Sarah: Hello Jordan.
Jordan: How are you?
Sarah: Is that a question you’re asking everybody at the beginning of this podcasts?
Jordan: That’s how we start now.
Sarah: Yeah. Yeah. And I think it used to be a very simple answer. It’s complicated, right? You know, everyone’s healthy in our home and everyone’s safe. So we’re– that is something I’m going to be really grateful for and trying to keep that perspective every day.
Sarah: How about you? How are you doing?
Jordan: I’m doing well. I’m also safe and you know, my home has everything I need. And like I said in the intro, that makes me lucky. So we’re here to talk about people who are not safe in their homes, even though it might look like they have everything. Why don’t you just start, for those of us who are lucky enough to not have dealt with this, in a normal situation when there is no pandemic, how would someone plan to escape an abusive situation?
Sarah: Well, I think at the best of times, people who are in abusive situations, it can sometimes take them a long time to get the, not only the courage, but also just that perspective that, okay, this is really not a situation I am safe in anymore, my family is safe in anymore. A lot of, uh, women in particular, there are men, some men who are abused too. Primarily women, you know, they choose to live with it for a long time. There’s a lot of psychological manipulation that happens. There’s a lot of mind games. You know, often it will be, you know, their actual safety has been threatened in an incident or a few, where they decide that it’s time to try to leave. And what they might do is, you know, make a call while they’re at work on, you know, a phone, like their office line. Or go meet with a trusted friend in a coffee shop. Or physically go seek out resources at a sexual assault centre or a shelter or any of the other resources that we have in our communities. As we know now, there are a lot of options that are not available to these women now, since this COVID-19 pandemic.
Jordan: How does any of that work now? I mean, are some measures of these things still available for people who need help?
Sarah: Well, yes. The shelter systems, thank God, are considered essential services. So they are open. They are helping women who are in abusive situations. And also, and I think about this just in my own life, thank goodness too, that technology is as advanced as it is. Because we do have, you know, video chat, we do have text, we do have email, we do have social media. We have lots of ways that we can check in and help one another. And certainly these organizations that are trained and equipped to help these women, have those resources as well. Now, the dark side of technology is availability all the time, is that, you know, there is some monitoring that goes on by, you know, abusers will read women’s texts, listen in on phone calls or Skype calls or something. So that’s a danger as well. And I mean, we could talk about the dangers, Jordan that are amplified when you’re at home all the time with an abuser. Cause I just described, you know, you can make that safe phone call at work. You can like go meet up with a friend in person so that you’re not being monitored maybe, or you don’t have like a paper trail of things that this, you know, abuser could get, you know, his hands on. You know, and then–
Jordan: Sure, you have a reason to leave the house.
Sarah: Exactly. And I mean, now we’re only supposed to be leaving the house when we are getting exercise, and maybe you end up on a family walk, right? And you’re not alone. You know, and it can be really, really difficult. Because also like that is a hallmark of abuse too is isolation, right? Like, so abused women are already experiencing isolation before we’ve all been asked as a public service, a public health act to collectively stay home and isolate ourselves. Like even that term is used now in common parlance, in talking about COVID. But yeah, like it’s an isolating experience to be abused. And there’s a lot of barriers now that are set up from, you know, for women to actually get help.
Jordan: So we’ve been at this, some of us for a month, some of us for longer. Do we have any idea how dangerous this lockdown has been for women in abusive situations in Canada?
Sarah: Yeah, we do have a sense of that. And you know, I’ve been heartened to see a decent amount of media coverage about the increase in domestic violence. You know, Statistics Canada did a survey recently, just sort of taking the temperature of people’s feelings, you know, around the impact of COVID on their lives. And one in 10 women specifically reported that they are concerned about violence in the home. And I believe, you know, the wording was a bit vague. It didn’t say, are you, you know, concerned about violence in your own home specifically. So we don’t really have a great picture from that, but what we do know is that the fear is real. And I’ve been talking with some shelter staff and administrators this week, and they’ve told me that the cases that they are seeing at shelters are more severe. There are some really urgent cases. There are some situations in which a COVID-19 is actually been kind of played as a chip or a card, you know, you can’t go anywhere because it’s not safe out there. And so there’s– I’ve had it characterized to me by these experts in the fields. As women being caught between two pandemics, there is the pandemic of gender based violence. It is very real. It has been real and urgent for a very long time. And we had this pandemic now of COVID-19, and certainly there is a choice. There is a crux there. They have to say, well, what is the greater danger to me and my family? And I wanted to tell you, Jordan too, that one administrator I talked to in Manitoba said that there are actually some shelters that are empty, and are under capacity. Which is really not the situation in Ontario. They’re mostly full here and in some other more populated parts of the country. But they believe that women are heeding the public health advice to stay home, even if home is not the safe place for them to be. And so I know that they’re really trying to get the message out that if you are in danger, you know, you need to get out, like that is actually a higher priority than, you know, you doing your public service of staying home to protect, you know, keep this– flatten the curve and all of these things that we’re supposed to be doing, you know. And the demand for shelters is a lot greater now. There’s a great website called sheltersafe.ca that is actually seeing double the traffic on it since last, you know, compared to last March, which was, you know, by all intents and purposes, a normal month. You know, so, the demand is higher in most places. People are looking into this issue. They are seeing more severe cases. And we’ve seen some murders since COVID-19 hit as well.
Jordan: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. Two things about when you say that they’re seeing more severe cases. First of all, I guess that means that less severe cases are choosing, as you say, to kind of stay home and live with it.
Sarah: Maybe. Yeah.
Jordan: But on the other side of that, I feel like, at least in the media reports and the work that you’ve done, there’s been a number of deaths recently.
Sarah: Yeah. I think there were two on a single day, March 31st, um, which was about a couple of weeks in to COVID-19’s stay home order. There was one in Brockville, Ontario, a woman named Audrey Hopkinson, who was actually pregnant with her third child. She was shot by her partner and her 13 months old son was actually in the home at the time, and she had an another older child who was not in the home at the time. That was a murder suicide and that one really got to me. I grew up around Brockville. I know that area. I know that house that this happened in. That really shook me. And then, you know, I saw sort of a news report as well, the same day near Sundre, Alberta, a 41-year-old woman was murdered by a man that also lived there, and he was also found dead. It was a murder-suicide too. And then we have one in Nova Scotia a few days after that, a woman named Tracy McKenzie’s body was found. And a man, his name is Steven Alexander Beckett, who he’s been charged with first degree murder in her death. And so they’re, the police are a bit cagey about if that’s a murder suicide or, sorry, a domestic incident. They wouldn’t confirm to local media there, but all the signs point to it being that kind of thing. And again, I think like we can– we don’t know the specifics of these women’s lives and these relationships. But we do know that tensions are ratcheted up when people cannot leave their homes. Maybe there’s been a job loss. You know, having children in the home is known to flame some stress as well. And these are things that we can kind of stand back and talk about. But we know experts in this field have been– were warning about an increase in domestic violence before this had all happened, when this was kind of on our doorsteps rather than like in our homes. And so, yeah, those murders, we don’t usually see so many kind of clustered like that. And we have seen that, so. And nationally, right? There’s Ontario, Alberta, Nova Scotia represented there. You know, and I’m sure there are others that we haven’t even heard about in the news media because news media is limited to right now in some ways.
Jordan: So what are the people that you talk to, at shelters or advocates, doing to, to change what they usually do to adapt to this?
Sarah: Yeah, so we know that shelter capacity is– has been an issue, and I described that some of the shelters in the rare places are under capacity. That is not the main story though. What they’re finding is they’re having to space people out quite a bit more. They’re having to make, you know, shared rooms, single rooms for families, so that they don’t, you know, end up touching the same things or each other or anything like that. They’re rotating sort of time in family communal spaces, and then they’re going in after every family has used it and cleaning everything. People are eating their meals in their rooms. One heartbreaking detail to me was that shelter staff who are often, you know, obviously they’re trained, they know these dynamics, they have relationships with some of these women too. They’re trying to really help them, you know, during this time of crisis. They can’t even hug these women. You know, we can’t hug our loved ones, you know, who don’t live with us. So imagine being in a crisis situation where you’ve been physically harmed, emotionally, mentally harmed. You’ve had to extract your children from that case, and you can’t, you know, that is not an avenue of compassion that is accessible to you. You know? So that’s really wearing down on a lot of staff too, their inability to kind of connect on that level. And certainly they’re trying their best. They’re having to actually, you know, they’re really hoping that people like landlords and motels and hotels can, you know, with vacancies, can step up and offer their services to shelters and say, look, I have some spare rooms here. I have, you know, a space that is not being rented right now. Why don’t you come in? Particularly if they’re furnished in an apartment situation, like why don’t you use this for now? Because remember, Jordan, like a shelter is meant to be an emergency solution, right? Like, you’re not supposed to stay at a shelter for a long time. The women’s shelters of Canada report from last May, which is sort of a national snapshot of shelters across Canada, found that 74% of shelters let women stay longer than the province wants them to because they don’t have anywhere else to go. So that, like highlights an affordable housing problem that we have. So, I mean, if landlords can step up and hotels can offer some space, maybe they can transition out. But the fact is they’re going to end up staying there for a lot longer than they should. Which actually prevents other women in their families from accessing this help too. So capacity’s massive problems. Staff burnout is a problem too. You know, they’re not necessarily getting access to the personal protective equipment we’ve been hearing so much about for healthcare workers. And these are frontline workers too, right? And maybe they’re not frontline actively trying to battle COVID, but they’re frontline dealing with a serious problem in our society, the way that police officers are frontline, or the way that firefighters are frontline, you know? And so they need masks, they need gloves, they need cleaning supplies, you know, like all of that is a great need for them.
Jordan: That was my next question is, has anybody in government acknowledged this issue, proposed any help? Like a lot of the stuff you described sounds like, you know, a matter of logistics and resources.
Sarah: Yes, absolutely. So yes, there has been some help that is just federal help actually. So the federal government, under Justin Trudeau, did earmark some money for shelters and sexual assault centres in early April. They said that they could give $26 million to up to 575 shelters across Canada, and then $4 million to sexual assault centres. And so that money is filtering out quickly. Right? And I was heartened to hear that. I was skeptical because I know that shelters often have a really tough time getting their hands on money that they need. And it sounds like the registration process for this money is very smooth. They have e-transfer set up, which like, you know, should have been set up for most things a long time ago, they just have to go through the, you know, obvious security measures. But they are getting the money, and I asked Women’s Shelters, Canada, who’s distributing the money, what they are asking for, like what these shelters are really need. And the main thing is staff, to pay their staff to protect their staff. The second thing is helping to facilitate those, you know, apartment spaces, those extra spaces that they need so they can spread out, and maybe motel rooms, and then also cleaning supplies. Because a lot of these shelters too, they all look very different, right? Like one of them might just look like a normal house on your street, with the couple bathrooms. And so families are sharing that and they have to go in and clean that bathroom all the time. You know, they have to clean the toys. They have to clean the bedding and the kitchen if it’s a communal one. And, and like, or some, you know, maybe more downtown are like public washrooms, right? So like, you have to like, designate one stall to one family and one woman, you know, but how are you going to keep like some other family’s kid from going in and using that stall too? Like, there’s just so many balls in the air and so many risks in that scenario while they are set up as an essential service. Most provinces, there are some provinces you haven’t ponied up, but there is some money coming from the provinces too, to help some shelters. But it’s quite limited. They still need, like shelters have to hustle for donations all the time. Like their fundraisers are cancelled, like every other sector. They, you know, are dealing with a public that has, you know, a lot of job loss. They’re really worried about survival. And so to me, as someone who’s covered this issue and talk to these folks for awhile now, I was sort of seeing the pandemic like really exacerbating super existing problems, like the staffing burnout and underpaid status, like the idea of, you know, there not being a real proper affordable housing structure that follows shelter situations. And I think, like, it’s really on us to remember that this is not a, you know, between two people, private matter issue. Domestic violence is like affecting all of us in so many ways that we really don’t recognize.
Jordan: So if someone’s listening to this and is, you know, appropriately horrified, I guess, and they want to help is money the easiest thing, is money the best thing. What do they do?
Sarah: Yeah, it is. It actually is.
Jordan: Fair enough.
Sarah: But there are some creative ways, because I know not everybody has the money to spare. I’m sure if you call– like I’ve heard some folks talk to me this week and tell me if you call it the shelter and say, how can I help? They’re not going to hang up on you, you know, or say like go away. They’re going to probably have some thoughts. They’re going to say, huh, you know, maybe you can– or you offer this yourself. Like maybe could the shelter women and families, would they enjoy like, you know, five pizzas sent for Friday night? I’ll cover the bill on that. I’ll order them up. Make sure that they’re safely delivered. Like what about some independent bookstores in your neighborhood that are– have children’s books for example, or some novels for women to pass the time with. Cause that’s the challenge, they don’t have– you know, they can’t go outside like the rest of us so much. They can’t, you know, all cram into that communal living space and watch the same thing on TV. Like maybe you want to offer to pay for a streaming service, you know, that they can add to their TV package. Or like, there’s a lot of creative ways and I think like in our own lives, we’ve been finding creative ways to bring a smile and to feel more connected and yes, it costs money to do these things as well. But like, send a card to your local shelter and just say, look, you’re not alone. You know, we’re thinking about you. I know that with my friends, every Christmas we do the shoe box project, which is putting together a package of gifts for, for women who are in shelter situations or in transitional housing. That’s not something they’re gonna want right now. Like they don’t really want stuff delivered from individual homes. But we always include a card that says like, Hey, you got this. You know, and maybe that’s a cliche and we don’t know the details of their life, but the spirit behind it is like, look, we see you. We know that you’re stronger than you think. And we’re not gonna stand for violence being carried out and perpetuated in our neighbourhoods. We’re not about that.
Jordan: Thank you for helping us see this today, Sarah.
Sarah: Thank you so much for talking about it. I appreciate that.
Jordan: Sarah Boesveld has written about this issue right now at chatelaine.com. She’s also covered many things for many publications. And of course she hosts this podcast from time to time, hopefully again soon so I can take a break. That was The Big Story podcast. If you need more, you know where to get them at thebigstorypodcast.ca. I can’t believe I have to say that every time. You can also talk to us on Twitter. We like to hear from you. We are at @thebigstoryFPN. And if you want to really like actually talk to us, you can record a voice memo on your phone or just record a video. We’ll only ever use the audio because that’s all we do, and you can send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll occasionally play some of your feedback after the credits, but not today. We’re waiting to hear from you. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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