Lives in transition:

🕔Apr 07, 2009

Brave people have always come forward to help those fleeing danger and injustice: American slaves escaping into Canada, resistance fighters in WW II. In the sixties, women across Canada began to provide refuge to women fleeing a danger we didn’t want to acknowledge: the violence that women and children suffer inside their own homes.

The early houses operated informally. In the early ’60s, when Emily (her name and others have been changed) was nine, she spent two nights in a safe house. “I grew up in a violent home,” she says, “and it wasn’t uncommon to witness abuse.”

One morning, she came home from her aunt’s to find the front window broken and her mother’s things flung all over the lawn. “We were hurried off to school in the clothes we’d been wearing. My uncle picked us up before lunch and took us all to this house. We were definitely in hiding from my father.”

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, women organized to have the services for women like Emily’s mother properly funded. Transition houses appeared, staffed by lay support workers—often women who had themselves escaped violent relationships. Phoenix House opened in Prince George in 1974, ’Ksan House in Terrace in 1980, and others have followed across the north. Passage House in Smithers opened its doors in 1989. They all provide shelter and create a place for transformation.

“If we can make a difference in women’s lives for even one day or night, it gives them the hope, strength, and courage to make changes,” says Linda Slanina, executive director of Tamitik Status of Women Society which runs Dunmore Place in Kitimat.

Each house has its own character and tries to be welcoming. Each house also has security systems complete with locks and alarms. No house advertises its physical location. Its workers keep a low profile. While they want the women who need their services to know about them, it’s better if angry husbands, boyfriends and fathers don’t. Why? Because it’s very dangerous for women to leave abusive relationships. Each year in BC, women are killed by husbands, boyfriends, fathers. Every community in the north has mourned its own.

Escalating violence
Fear for her own life and that of her children brought Francine to Passage House in Smithers. She came from a well-off family and was raised to be “a little lady.” Her father was a policeman. It all looked great from the outside, she said, but physical assaults were common. “When I got married, I knew right away it wasn’t good. But I thought that was normal.”

When she first moved north, she thought her marriage might improve. But she was even more isolated. “I never went anywhere. I knew no one. I was allowed out for two hours once a week to buy groceries. If I had a bit of extra time I’d stop and talk to a young woman in a shop at the mall. She was the only person I knew in that town.”

As the violence escalated, so did Francine’s fear. One day she parked herself and her three children in that woman’s driveway. She had, she said, no idea what to do. The woman convinced her to try the transition house. At first she resisted, thinking it wasn’t the kind of place she wanted her kids to be. But the warmth and patience the workers showed made her give it a try.

“The ladies who work there are wonderful. They give you room to figure things out for yourself and the tools you need to help yourself and your children.”

For many women, coming to a transition house is the first time anyone has believed their story, Slanina says. “There is so much power in this one thing, for someone to be able to assure them they are not alone and that others have walked a similar path.”
While most transition houses are funded to provide refuge for women like Francine, each community’s program has informal relationships with social service and health agencies to provide other services that help keep vulnerable women safe.

Nikky was in a ten-year relationship. “I was all ready to go to school, had the funding in place, was accepted, and he told me that I wasn’t allowed to go. I didn’t want my baby to grow up in a relationship like that.” Staying in the transition house gives her time to plan her next steps.

One girl stayed for two years in Passage House occupying a bed provided for teenage girls who are hard to place in foster care. She learned a lot from the women who work there. “I got the impression they’d all had some sort of struggle in their own lives that made them want to turn around and help others. I’d like to do that kind of work.”

Helping people change
Among its other programs, Dunmore Place provides an informal program for women who need a place to go for a couple of hours, who maybe need someone to talk to. “You’re always connected to the house after you leave—it draws you back,” Francine says. “You can call anytime—they are very gracious and welcoming.”

The agencies that operate transition houses all provide a mix of other services: long-term counseling for women leaving abusive relationships, support for those testifying in assault cases, and counseling for children who have witnessed abuse.

“I went to counseling, and I still go,” says Francine, who is now in a new and healthy relationship. “You need to let the stuff out and it’s not fair to put it on your partner.”

Some agencies, like the Northern Society for Domestic Peace (NSDP) in Smithers, also provide programs for men. “We believe that men can choose to stop their violent behaviour and we want to help them do that. Their partners want us to provide this service,” says Carol Seychuk, NSDP’s executive director. “We want to stop the violence and we need to involve men in that change. But our first priority is to keep women and their children safe.”

Most transition houses have donors who support that priority, often families who have suffered their own losses. One buys groceries every week to be sure the children have good food. Another redecorates a bedroom. Businesses donate materials, community organizations do fundraisers. People bring clothing and toys. These personal touches are often the things the children remember.

“I was about five and we stayed there during Christmas,” one girl says. “They gave us Christmas presents. It was a good place.”

“I was about two and my dad used to beat up my mom a lot,” says another girl. “The transition house has a big yard; I remember playing there. And they have good food.”

Even Emily has strong memories from her two days in that safe house over forty years ago. “We never did go back to our house and everything we had was there. The women brought in a box and said we could take anything we wanted. I found a beautiful green dress with a crinoline and embroidery on the top. I chose that dress, and all I had to wear with it were rubber boots,” she says, laughing.

April 18-25 is Prevention of Violence Against Women Week in BC; its theme is Hidden Heroes—Women Survivors of Violence. Passage House in Smithers is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a show at the Smithers Art Gallery (March 31 to April 25) to honour and celebrate the women who find the courage to leave violent homes and the women who support their struggle to stop the violence. It is work every community should be proud of.