A women's shelter in Calgary that incorporates Blackfoot-based teachings has been working to fight violence against Indigenous women for the last 25 years.

The shelter is the only one of its kind in Alberta and one of only a handful of Indigenous-based shelters in Canada.

The Awo Taan Healing Lodge Society believes using Indigenous culture can assist victims of violence with the healing process.

Cultural leader and elder Jackie Bromley teaches the women the seven sacred teachings of wisdom, truth, humility, courage, honesty, respect and love. She also smudges and counsels the women while teaching them how to pray.

"Once you get them back into praying it helps because some just are completely lost," said Bromley.

"Our language, the culture and ceremony was suppressed and it was outlawed, and people were shamed into not doing ceremony because it was considered pagan. Here, we give them an introduction so that they can begin to explore their own sense of spirit and who they are, whether they find that through the sacred smudge, whether they find it by having access to the medicines or ceremony, elders."

Sweetgrass and sage grow in a small garden in the backyard of the shelter.

"It's a gift to do this. The medicines give them clearer thinking," said Bromley.

Garden at Awo Taan shelter

Traditional medicines grow in a small garden in the backyard of the Awo Taan shelter. Awo Taan's cultural teachings are available to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women. (Brandi Morin)

'A safe place'

One woman who was in and out of Awo Taan's doors for 25 years has been living independently for almost a year. It was the open doors and Indigenous atmosphere that played a role in her getting on her feet, said Bromley.

The woman suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder after attending residential school and was disconnected from her family.

But Bromley, also a residential school survivor and a member of the Blood Tribe in southern Alberta, began speaking to the woman in her Blackfoot tongue. This opened a door for healing to begin, said Awo Taan executive director Josie Nepinak.

"Because they were able to talk in the language, this was a big deal for her. She knows this is a safe place for her," explained Nepinak.

Programs like those at Awo Taan are greatly needed to help address the high statistics related to violence against Indigenous women, said Nepinak.

"It's so critical because unfortunately, the majority of women who are entering shelters in the province of Alberta are Indigenous women," she said.

A recent report released by Statistics Canada showed that homicide rates toward Aboriginal women in Alberta are the highest among the provinces.

The study revealed that there were 7.17 homicides of Aboriginal females per 100,000 population in Alberta between 2001 and 2015, compared to .97 homicides among non-Aboriginal women. The overall homicide rate in Canada was 4.82 per 100,000 for Aboriginal women and just .82 per 100,000 for non-Aboriginal women.

Nepinak said she's not surprised by the findings.

Josie Nepinak

Awo Taan executive director Josie Nepinak says about 65 per cent of the women who have utilized the shelter's services over the years are Indigenous. (Brandi Morin)

The report states that Aboriginal women account for an increasing proportion of female homicide victims, rising from nine per cent of all female homicide victims in 1980 to 24 per cent in 2015.

"I believe the study is very accurate," said Nepinak.

"Also, the rate of homicide that's been reported by [Statistics] Canada is saying that while the homicide rate for non-Aboriginal women has gone down, it has gone up for Indigenous women. Obviously that speaks to what we still need to do."

Detached from threat of violence

Nepinak has worked at Awo Taan (the name means "shield" in Blackfoot) since it opened in 1992. She said 65 per cent of the women who have utilized its services over the years are Indigenous.

Nepinak said Aboriginal women are more detached to the threat of violence, making them more vulnerable.

An internal study conducted by Awo Taan of 33 Indigenous women, 33 new Canadians and 33 settled Canadians, comparing their experiences with danger, found that Indigenous women barely touched the scale in terms of perception to homicide, she said.

Nepinak believes that by the time Indigenous women come into shelters, they've already had multiple experiences with violence — violence around colonization, oppression, racism, residential schools and within their own homes.

Each time they survive that violence, it becomes almost a normalization, she explained.

"They're already victims of trauma — you have to remember by the time they come in, they've been kicked around a lot. So their perception to homicide risks may not be the same as non-Aboriginal women," said Nepinak.

"Immigrant women were higher on the scale. Canadians were slightly lower than the immigrant women," she added.

"But Indigenous women didn't even register on the scale! So, what contributes to that perception of danger? We know colonization, the Indian Act, residential school, the Sixties Scoop, child welfare, justice system — all contributes to our life and blood memory, genetics et cetera."

More than a shelter

Awo Taan is provincially funded and its cultural teachings are available to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women.  

"Non-Aboriginal women respond very, very well too. The commonality is family violence. Feeling broken, in crisis — their whole world is falling down when they come in," said Nepinak.

"We are a healing lodge. We are much more than just a shelter."

Last year, Awo Taan received 3,410 phone calls from women seeking intervention and/or supports. It served 237 women and 264 children at its 32-bed facility.

Supports also extend beyond the average 21-day stay at the shelter. Women have access to a parent-link day program, sharing circle and elders.

There are 46 women's shelters in Alberta, three of which are located in Calgary. Nepinak noted that Awo Taan receives calls from all over Canada from women requesting to go to Awo Taan because of its Indigenous focus.