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Searching for a solution to end domestic violence in Airdrie

An Airdrie woman who was viciously attacked by her boyfriend sparked an increase in domestic violence calls in the city of 70,000. Intimate partner violence has been steadily increasing in the community for years, but those who want to help say they're facing roadblocks.

Number of cases doubled in 5 years, but resistance to proposed day shelter remains

This house on Main Street in Airdrie, Alta. is being renovated and turned into a day shelter for women experiencing domestic violence. The proposal has sparked disagreement among service providers on how best to provide resources for women. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

This story is part of Stopping Domestic Violence, a CBC News series looking at the crisis of intimate partner violence in Canada and what can be done to end it.   

WARNING: This story contains disturbing and graphic details.


Dawn Warden is being credited for giving other victims of domestic violence the courage and strength to reach out for help. 

Warden was the victim of a horrific sword attack by her boyfriend in June 2019

She lost three fingers in the attack. She was also slashed in the stomach, shoulder, breast, arm, leg and face. Part of her left ear had to be reattached.

She says there's no sensation or feeling in the two fingers that were reattached to her right hand. The fingers on her left hand were also hacked off, but doctors were able to reattach three of them.

Airdrie, a city of 70,000 just north of Calgary, has seen cases of domestic violence double in the past five years.

While the city has acknowledged the problem can be prevented and eliminated, one group says it has faced resistance to a plan that could lead to the city's first emergency shelter for women fleeing abusive partners.

The Airdrie and District Victims Assistance Society opened 2,126 domestic violence case files in 2019. The agency says more resources should be provided to deal with mental health and substance use problems in the community.

But providing resources is proving to be a challenge. 

Crystal Boys, a former victim of domestic violence herself, is planning to open a day shelter for women in the city. Boys started Airdrie POWER five years a ago because she says there's a lack of services that focus exclusively on victims of intimate partner violence.

POWER is an acronym for Protecting Our Women with Emergency Resources. 

But Boys says she's encountered resistance to her plan. The RCMP, which provides policing services in Airdrie, believes women will not be safe at the shelter and will not refer anyone to it. It prefers to send local victims of domestic violence to other communities. 

Crystal Boys is the founder of Airdrie POWER, which is renovating a house on Main Street in Airdrie to serve as a day shelter for female victims of domestic violence. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

"We put the safety of our victims as the No. 1 priority and we're going to do everything we can to protect their safety," said Const. Shelley Strangis, a member of the Airdrie RCMP's domestic violence unit. 

In 2017, Airdrie made headlines as the city recorded four times the number of domestic abuse cases compared to the provincial average. 

Strangis says the numbers were a "misrepresentation" of the problem. She says a wide range of domestic related incidents were counted, everything from verbal arguments to homicide — and that's what led to the higher numbers.

The RCMP says the number of "spousal abuse cases" in Airdrie decreased by 17 per cent between 2017 and 2018. Data for 2019 was not available. A spokesperson could not explain the discrepancy between its numbers and those provided by the Airdrie and District Victims Assistance Society. 

Const. Shelley Strangis is with the Airdrie RCMP's domestic violence unit. She says officers will not be referring women to the proposed day shelter because they feel that women who go there won't be safe. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Since 2017, Airdrie city council put together an "action plan" to address the problem. One of the suggestions was to develop a plan for a crisis shelter and housing options for victims of domestic violence. 

Strangis says it would be the "best situation" for a woman's safety to leave the community on a short-term basis even though that could mean leaving family and friends, other supports and possibly uprooting their children from school or daycare.

Women who flee domestic violence in Airdrie typically turn to emergency shelters in Calgary, but capacity issues sometimes lead to women and children being turned away. 

A CBC News analysis reveals that in November 2019, an average of 620 women and children a day were turned away from domestic violence shelters across Canada.

The true number is likely much higher. CBC asked directors of domestic violence shelters across Canada how many people they had to turn away on an average day in November 2019. We heard back from just over half of them, meaning this figure does not include the number turned away from about 220 shelters.

Strength, courage

Crystal Boys says that after Dawn Warden spoke out about her violent attack, more women called her agency looking for help. She says Warden's strength and courage is shining a light on Airdrie's growing domestic violence problem. 

"It gave hope and strength to other women in the community, saying 'hey, you know what, this isn't OK.'"

"The reality is, it's happening here and it's happening to an extreme where one of our own was almost murdered," she said.

Boys, who was assaulted by her boyfriend more than 20 years ago in Calgary, says her planned day shelter will provide resources for women such as counselling, legal and financial advice, safety planning and connections with other women who are experiencing or have experienced domestic violence.

She says the facility, located on Main Street, will have a robust security system with video surveillance and a secure entry.  

Dawn Warden, who was attacked by her boyfriend in June 2019, shows some of the art projects she has been working on. They feature a message of survival and strength for victims of domestic violence. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

The Alberta Council of Women's Shelters says Airdrie POWER, which is a registered non-profit charity, is an associate member of the council, and is not aware of any concerns related to safety at the facility.

"We would encourage the RCMP to have a constructive dialogue with Airdrie POWER over any concerns they see," said Carlynn McAneeley, a spokesperson for the council of women's shelters. 

Along with questions about safety, others have raised concerns about the qualifications of those who will be providing services at the day shelter.

Boys says a number of professionals, including lawyers and psychologists, have offered to volunteer their services for her clients.

Tim Callaway, who is a local pastor and sits on the board of directors, says he's frustrated by the lack of support from the RCMP and other social agencies in the community.

"One of the things I don't appreciate is [people saying] that we're a bunch of hacks and we don't know what we are doing," said Callaway.

"I don't know if it's a personal thing, I just don't understand it. It is counterproductive to what we want to do and that is protect the women and children of this community," he said.

A spokesperson for the City of Airdrie confirms there hasn't been agreement on how existing agencies will work together to ensure victims "don't fall through the cracks."

Jill Iverson says the community stakeholder group needs to reach a consensus on how services will be provided and who will deliver them. 

"Everyone is trying … but we're not there yet," Iverson said.

Humility, recovery

While navigating her physical and psychological recovery, Dawn Warden recently started to craft pieces of art that feature hummingbirds, which for some symbolize hope, courage and love — along with a message for survivors of domestic violence. It says even though you've been beaten, betrayed and discouraged, you've survived, not as a victim, but as a victor. 

"So that kind of resonates with me," Warden said from her new home in Airdrie, where she says she still lives in fear.

Warden's ex-boyfriend, Collin Dennis Ayorech, is in custody after pleading guilty to aggravated assault, arson and breaching a no-contact order. He was originally charged with attempted murder.

Warden, who spent five weeks recovering in hospital and has since undergone three surgeries, physiotherapy and counselling, says she was surprised to hear her story prompted other women to call for help.

"I'm humbled by it." 

Warden says she let Ayorech back into her life despite a court order that he stay away. She says despite his mental illness and addiction to alcohol and drugs, she was hoping their relationship could get back to where it was when they first met — free from violence. And following the death of her eldest son, she didn't want to lose someone else who was close to her.

"You always think back to how it was in the beginning and so you have those feelings and that time when you're not fighting … you don't want to give up on them," she said.

Ayorech is scheduled for sentencing in April.


If you need help and are in immediate danger, call 911. To find assistance in your area, visit sheltersafe.ca or http://endingviolencecanada.org/getting-help.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bryan Labby

Enterprise reporter

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at bryan.labby@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.

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