In remote parts of Quebec, some victims of domestic abuse drive 100s of kilometres to escape violence

Women fleeing domestic abuse in Quebec's regions sometimes have to drive for hours to find a safe place to go. Shelters say despite recent government initiatives, they're still underfunded and running at full capacity.

Women's shelters few and far between — and running at full capacity

Louise Riendeau, the spokesperson for the Regroupement des maisons pour femmes victimes de violence conjugale, says the group intends to keep pressure on the Quebec government to increase funding for women's shelters. (Submitted by Louise Riendeau)

Women fleeing domestic abuse in Quebec's more remote regions sometimes have to drive for hours to find a safe place to go.

Women's shelters across the province say despite recent investments by the provincial government to counter sexual abuse, when it comes to fighting domestic violence, there are still dire needs.

"The first obstacle is even to get to the shelter," said Manon Monastesse, the head of Quebec's Federation of Women's Shelters, which counts 36 establishments across Quebec.

The Maison d'hébergement l'Aquarelle in Chibougamau  — one of the only resources available to women in northern Quebec — fields calls from women as far away as Whapmagoostui, a Cree village on Hudson Bay accessible only by plane, and a three-hour flight away.

"I'm not in a position where I can pay for transport," said Marie-Ève Guay, the executive director of the shelter whose catchment area covers more than half the province. 

Women sometimes turn to their band councils for help, Guay said, but others never make the trip.
The Pipiichaau Uchishtuun Women's Shelter in Waswanipi opened its doors in September 2017. (Lachlan Madill)

Guay said another shelter opened in September in Waswanipi, a Cree community a 90-minute drive east of Chibougamau. But even so, l'Aquarelle continues to run at 100 per cent capacity, as it has for several years.

"We always have to do more with less," she said, adding that's only possible because of the dedication of her staff to provide the help the women are seeking.

Quebec invests $6.4M  

Monastesse said it's unacceptable that many Quebec shelters have to ask women to wait their turn when they call looking for a safe place to stay.

"They are in a critical situation when they reach out for help," she said. "We need to be able to answer right away."

The minister responsible for the status of women, Hélène David, left, and Public Health Minister Lucie Charlebois announced on Wednesday a new investment of $6.4 million to fight domestic violence. (Radio-Canada)
The Minister responsible for the status of women, Hélène David, announced on Wednesday a $6.4-million investment for the fight against domestic violence.

However, Monastesse said the province would need to invest nearly $50 millionto meet demand.

Of the new money announced Wednesday, $3.2 million is geared toward second-stage shelters — residences where women can live for months, even years, as they rebuild their lives.

Another $3 million will help emergency shelters adapt to meet the needs of newly arrived immigrants.

As well, $200,000 is being allocated to counselling for violent offenders, including those from the immigrant community.

Not enough beds, not enough counsellors

Another association of women's shelters, the Regroupement des maisons pour femmes victimes de violence conjugale, agrees there must be a more substantial investment to fight domestic violence. But Louise Riendeau, who speaks for the group, said the money announced this week was badly needed.

"It is very good news for these shelters," she said. 

Riendeau said the increasing demand from the immigrant population had put added pressure on shelters in Quebec's major urban centres, Quebec City and Montreal.

Shelter administrators sometimes have to hire interpreters or additional resources to accompany women and their children, she said.

Riendeau said talks are underway with the province to ensure more substantial, recurrent funding for all her association's 42 members.  

Riendeau said many shelter directors have told her they aren't able to hire enough staff to provide the services they are supposed to.
This is a room at the women's shelter Alternatives pour elles, in Rouyn-Noranda, Que. (Submitted by Louise Riendeau)

For example, in Matane, in the Gaspé region, counsellors have to drive three hours to the nearest courthouse in Rimouski to accompany women who are fighting a custody battle or have laid assault charges against their spouse. 

"This means mobilizing a social worker for an entire day," leaving only one other counsellor at the shelter, Riendeau said.

​Social workers pack groceries to raise money

In Baie-Comeau, not only do social workers have to drive women to appointments, they sometimes have to do fundraising to pay for their own salaries.

The city's only women's shelter organizes a charity drive every year at the local grocery store, packing bags.

The annual campaign allows the Maison des femmes de Baie-Comeau to do outreach work, but co-ordinator Hélène Millier said her employees already have a lot on their plates and could make better use of their time.

Already, she says, counsellors must sometimes hold a therapy session with two women at the same time, instead of meeting them one-on-one, which is the norm. 

"It's not ideal," Millier said.

Women's shelters do what they can to make children comfortable when they arrive. (Submitted by Louise Riendeau)
The shelter has 18 beds available for women, but Millier said she only receives funding for 10. She said this means women have a place to stay but don't get all the support they need.

Millier said she has been asking for years for added funding to be able to hire at least one more person.

$13.1M to tackle sexual abuse

On Wednesday, David also explained how the government was distributing a $13.1-million envelope announced in December to counter sexual abuse.

The bulk of the amount, $9 million, will go to front-line organizations that support victims of sexual abuse (CALACS). 

Another $900,000 will be allocated to improving how hospitals and emergency workers respond to victims of sexual assault.

In addition, $2 million will be used for prevention and awareness campaigns, and $1.2 million will go toward improving the treatment for sexual offenders.