Connie Adams grabbed the chest-high length of rusted metal railing and looked down into the hole. The concrete-bottomed window well at St. Patrick's-Alexandra School where the body of her oldest daughter was found. She opened her mouth, then closed it.
"What upset me the most," she said later, "was that drop."
Tanya Brooks was murdered May 10, 2009---both Mother's Day and her daughter Chelsey's 20th birthday. Her body was found the next afternoon by a school staff member. On May 28 Tanya would have turned 37.
Connie looked into the window well a couple more times on that visit December 10, but mostly she stood with her back to the hole, shivering in her navy blue all-weather coat. She was there for a memorial marking seven months since Tanya's death.
She says now she wishes she hadn't gone.
"I say I'm not going to go back, but I guess I have to for the year anniversary. It's not a place I want to be."
"That's a big drop."
Tanya's brother Jason sidled up to his mom at one point during the ceremony and gave her a sideways hug. Connie wept silently and wiped at her nose with a balled-up white tissue while elder Doreen Bernard spoke.
"We ask the Creator to watch over [Tanya's family] and protect them," Bernard said. "And to help them grieve in a good way."
Jason held an abalone shell in his palm to which he intermittently pressed his cigarette lighter, keeping a handful of sweetgrass smouldering.
"Tanya is among many of our women who are missing or have been murdered. And their families are still seeking justice and peace," said Bernard.
She beat a drum four times and began to sing.
Kepmite'tmnej ta'n teli-l'nuulti'kw...
Besides Connie and Jason, the memorial circle comprised two lawyers from Dalhousie Legal Aid and Mi'kmaq elder Billy Lewis, in his distinctive black pin-festooned cap. A tall white man in a black jacket rocked back and forth. A woman in an ankle-length coat and knee-length crocheted scarf sang along loudly. The rest stood in silence. Including Bernard, 12 people in all.
Eia hei yo_Weio hei hai ya...
"I know that Tanya would have wanted to feel the family here," Bernard said, "and for them to support one another. I am asking for the community, Tanya's community, to come together."
Before the ceremony, in the gritty middle of the St. Pat's-A Maitland Street parking lot, Bernard had circulated with a bag of tobacco and asked each person to take a pinch.
The ceremony now closed, Tanya's circle went, in turn, to the window well to make their offerings.
Each person paused at the hole like a mourner over a casket. Except here, there was no body, no coffin, no altar. No warmth, no subtly lit apse. Only the eight-foot drop from the top of the rail to the bottom of the well, which was dotted with the last of autumn's unraked foliage and a crushed coffee cup. The half-teaspoons of tobacco, warm from the mourners' mittened fists, scattered invisibly before the leaves could hit the concrete bottom.
From the well, through the window, came the muffled sounds of children playing.
A red Honda Yaris rumbled to life in the parking lot, next to the offering circle. The sound split the cold, near-windless air. The car backed up and drove away.
One in every four Canadian women will experience violence or abuse at the hands of an intimate partner in her lifetime.But who can trust numbers, even if they are from Statistics Canada?
It's not merely that domestic abuse is so spectacularly under-reported to police. (For every domestic dispute police attend, two more happen without police, or, often, anyone else besides children in the home, ever knowing. In 2008, Halifax Regional Police were present at just under 3,000 domestic disputes---that averages out to eight a day).
No, here's the thing: it's that the abuse people largely talk about---when they rouse themselves to do so, once a year, around December 6, Canada's National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women---and most of the violence people think about, is physical.
But woman abuse goes beyond assault and rape.
There's name-calling, put-downs and blame---blaming the woman for not being a good enough parent, not being a good enough partner, for not being faithful, for causing the abuse.
Another big one is economic abuse: limiting a woman's access to the workforce or her access to money, having her account in great detail for money she spends.
And there's isolation too: cutting a woman off from her friends and family, poisoning her children against her.
Need something simpler to think about for the moment, to get your head around the complexity and the enormity?
Consider this: In Nova Scotia, right now, there is a list of women who are considered at high risk of being killed by their partners. The 2008 list---the most recent available---had 132 names.
That's 132 women on domestic death row.
The list is referred to as the High Risk Case Coordination Protocol. A woman gets added to the list if police, for example, using a risk assessment checklist find there's a probability of "lethality" in her situation. Once she's on it, criminal justice and community agencies share files on the woman with the goal of keeping her safe.
The protocol has been in use since 2003, after a report into the death of Lori Lee Maxwell, of Truro, by her husband Bruce George in 2000. Maxwell's death---a murder-suicide---might have been prevented, according to the report, in part had there been better communication between government and support agencies.
So that's the list.
But for all the other women? No list.
For those women---no one knows how many there are---work daily through violence of other degrees and kinds, caught in a blanket of abuse that's sadly far from patchwork.
Abuse is no more likely to happen to you if you are wealthy or poor, healthy or sick, more or less educated.
That pattern historically has stood still. Transition shelter Bryony House has been open for 32 years. It has 24 beds. In a year, Bryony House serves 450 women and children who are fleeing abuse and answers 4,500 distress calls. Says counsellor Sheila Davis, "It doesn't change much."
Connie Adams isn't sure whether she considers her daughter's unsolved murder part of that pattern of violence; she knows too little about what happened.
The last time Connie spoke to Tanya was the day of her murder, when she called to wish Connie a happy Mother's Day. After a short chat, Tanya said she had to go because she needed to buy minutes for her cell.
"She said, 'I have to go but I'll call you back later. I love you. I gotta get my minutes.'
"I said, 'I love you. You promise you'll call back?'
"She said, 'I just gotta go get minutes.'
"An hour passed and I thought, where did she go, Toronto to get those minutes? I kept calling her, calling her. Nothing. The next day, Monday, I called her. Nothing."
Tanya's body was found at 2:15pm.
Connie has a big family---many of her more than a dozen grandchildren, who range in age from 20 to one, are still in Millbrook, but she lives alone. Before Tanya moved to Halifax, she had the house behind her mom's and used to sometimes cook supper and bring it over to eat with Connie.
Work takes Connie's mind off her sadness, she says. "It's the nights that are difficult."
Lynn Gallant-Blackburn is in a different place than Connie Adams.
"I hate to say it's a no-brainer," Gallant-Blackburn says of making the annual memorial walk for her sister Paula---who was murdered in December 2005 and left in the trunk of her car at Beechville Lakeside Timberlea Elementary School, where she was a much-loved grade three teacher---a part of the Halifax's December 6 events. "But clearly Paula's very senseless and horrific and untimely death was a violent act against a woman."
Paula's murder, which remains unsolved, took place the day after Boxing Day and 10 days before her daughter Anna's first birthday.
"I don't think society clearly understands,and maybe they don't want to even grasp,the magnitude of violence that does exist in our society against women," Gallant-Blackburn says.
The Gallant sisters---Lynn, Lana and Paula---lost their parents young; their dad in 1985 and their mom in 1989 when Lynn, the oldest, was 27 and Paula, the baby, was 19. "I was more than a sister to her," Gallant-Blackburn says. "I raised her for a good part of her life."
Gallant-Blackburn has worked tirelessly in Paula's memory, partly out of frustration over the waves of women who die as a result of violence and who are, first, quickly forgotten as individuals and then, rarely seen in the bigger context of violence and abuse against women in Canada.
At the December 6 memorial last month, Gallant-Blackburn read 13 names. "I took a woman every year, in our area, that had died, right from 2009 back to 1997. I stopped at 1997 because that was the sister of a close friend of mine who had been murdered. She was a teacher in Cole Harbour. As I read the names, I knew there wasn't a lot of familiarity."
Gallant-Blackburn took time, before the event, to learn about the women's lives, not just their violent deaths. And for good reason.
"The first year you are numb," she says. "You don't process. You just robotically go through day by day. And then in year two, you sort of come out of the fog. We were really tired and sad, because every time Paula's name was mentioned, she was the school teacher who was murdered and left in the trunk of her car. And that's a tough thing to swallow when she's your sister and she's much more than that."
That's how paulagallant.com came about.
The site is, in Gallant-Blackburn's words, "like a 3-D view of [Paula's] life." It's a positive place for her former students and friends to go, carving away some of the spotlight on her death and moving it to her life, which was extraordinary. But only in the sense that many lives are extraordinary in their distillation.
"She was just a woman like you or I," Gallant-Blackburn says, "that loved her family, loved her job, loved her community, and whose life was taken at the decision of another human being or human beings in our society who said, OK, you're in my way, it's time to silence your voice. That's the part, that awareness, as a woman---we all need to process that and we all need to come to terms with the fact that she was just like you or I."
Paula liked red wine, walking her dog Coady and baking oatcakes; Tanya Brooks liked to paint and helped her mom plant annuals in her back garden every spring. Plug in the names of other murdered women and adjust the hobbies---the upshot's the same: A woman dead or abused is an everywoman, because no categories of women in our city are automatically safe.
I remember hearing about the death of a woman I knew, Heather Domenie.
Domenie, from Halifax, moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2000 with her fiancee, Ian Campbell. She was a grade one teacher.
In July 2002, Campbell strangled Domenie with a tea towel, a few weeks before they were to be wed. Campbell is serving a life sentence in North Carolina for the crime.
All I could think when I heard was: but Heather was just so normal. Sweet. Quiet. And normal.
"We see women of all cultures and languages and all religious backgrounds," says Bryony House counsellor Sheila Davis. "Abuse is one of those things that does not discriminate based on any of the characteristics that we talk about as forming identity."
That includes sexual orientation, education and---don't kid yourself on this one---income level. Bryony sees women come to the shelter who are in the workforce; others who are not.
Bryony House's "minimum age cut-off is 16 and we don't have an upper age cut-off. We see women who have been in a relationship for a few months or a few weeks and we see women who have been in relationships for 30 or 40 years."
Davis, who has been at Bryony House for 16 years, including four as a volunteer, works partly as a children's counsellor, helping mitigate the impact of witnessing violence or abuse on children, while their moms take the six weeks Bryony lets them stay to work on finding better solutions.
She is still surprised how little people know.
"Compared to 30 years ago, people now identify that emotional abuse and financial abuse and psychological abuse are, if not as physically damaging, emotionally as damaging as other kinds of abuse."
But, she says, "We have some women who come into the shelter who say, 'Well, I don't even know if I should be here because he never hit me.'"
Verona Singer is coordinator of the Victims Services unit of the Halifax Regional Police. She's doing her PhD on the impact on women's lives of the High Risk Case Coordinator Protocol (remember the list?).
"In the interviews I have had with women in my research," says Singer, "many women I spoke to who lived in years of abuse---and increasingly violent abuse, where they were at risk of being killed---did not know of resources, did not know where to go, who to call.
"Many of them had so normalized the violence that they didn't even recognize the seriousness. It wasn't until service providers became involved and said, 'Oh my god, this is what you are experiencing? Oh my god, aren't you afraid? Oh my god, don't you realize how dangerous this is?' And after hearing that, they then went and started to think."
Megan Gray is social work coordinator at Adsum House, a shelter for homeless women and their children.
In the four years she has worked at Adsum, Gray has taken note of the way violence and abuse has fingered its way into the fabric of many of Adsum's clients' lives.
Adsum keeps statistics on the reasons women give for going to the shelter. Some of the issues for 2009 include unsafe current housing, referral from another shelter, discharge from a correctional facility or jail, or discharge from psychiatric treatment. But Gray says those are only the single primary reasons each woman is there. And that doesn't tell the whole picture.
"[I'm guessing] 95 percent of the women we deal with have experienced abuse at some point in their lives," says Gray, leading to lifetimes "of having really difficult relationships with men or significant others."
Gray says she thinks society acknowledges woman abuse is widespread.But people fail to recognize the different kinds of abuse, they fail to see how far it reaches into people's lives and they tend to over-simplify the solution.
"Yeah, there's violence against women: a boyfriend or husband beating up his wife. And she can leave."
"It's way more complicated than that."
Sheila Davis from Bryony House explains how.
Abusive partners are not abusive all the time, she says, which, combined with promises of improved behaviour, makes women feel hopeful things will change. Abusers are usually violent exclusively with their intimate partners, so even when a woman tells those around her, she may not be believed.
Women, Davis says, are socialized to be caregivers---"women will think, if only I can help this person get counselling, if only I can help them to stop drinking, if only I can learn to be a better partner, then the abuse will lessen." They face threats against the safety of their children, or their relationships with their children through lies about custody arrangements or child protection intervention.
Along with all of that, Davis says, "is the erosion of confidence and self-esteem that happens when someone is hearing on a daily basis that she is worth nothing, that she is worth so little that she is worthy of being put down or hurt, or manipulated or isolated or restricted."
Had enough? But those are only the psychological reasons.
There are practical concerns, too.
Primary among them: Often women who try to leave, or whose partners think they are trying to leave, will experience a direct, immediate increase in abuse. But, says Halifax Regional Police Victims Services coordinator Verona Singer, "statistics have shown that police intervention does interrupt the violence."
Calling the cops, then, can act as a stop-gap measure while an abused woman ponders this unenviable choice: violence or poverty?
"As long as there is not adequate housing, childcare, social assistance rates, all of these things," says Davis, "and I am speaking from my own political perspective and what we work with at Bryony House. As long as those things are unavailable then women can't easily leave abusive relationships. And therefore their children are witnessing that. And therefore their children will likely continue the cycle."
Meaning? Girls can grow up to enter abusive relationships and boys can end up as abusers. See, children learn in the home the ways relationships are supposed to work. And when they don't have healthy relationships to learn from, they go with what they know.
Intergenerational violence is something the folks at New Start---a Halifax counselling agency providing services to men who have been violent towards partners---are familiar with.
New Start has been around 22 years. More than 90 percent of the 200 or so men in the program in a given year have been mandated to seek counselling through a probation order. Executive director Wendy Keen says "we probably do have adult children of clients who have come for services here, in our case load."
Keith Lanthier is a men's counsellor at New Start (the organization also provides counselling to the female partners of abusers). "From my experience, and the men that I see," he says, "men will talk about coming from violent homes, or it could be just where they grew up---violence in the community---or perhaps where they have been abused as children. So there are a lot of messages that come with that that are part of what we have to unpack with the men as we go through this process."
Success, Lanthier says, in helping men break the cycle, depends on helping them figure out what they value in relationships, and how they can move in that direction. "A lot of times, men have the same hopes we all have around relationships, whether it's with a partner or with children. And abuse and violence gets in the way."
Lanthier would like to see more men talking about violence against women with other men and for men to challenge abusive behaviours they see around them. It happens, he says, with many men who leave New Start, but he and Keen would like to see the work the agency does make more of an impact in the community, Lanthier says, "before an assault happens."
Back in May, Connie Adams placed a call to Mattatall-Varner Funeral Home on Young Street in Truro, which had been entrusted with the preparation of Tanya's body.
She asked them not to bathe Tanya, or touch her in any other way, before she got there.
"She was in jammies, like," says Connie. "She wasn't in a body bag or nothing."
Connie began to look over her daughter's skin, length by length.
"I checked her all over. I checked for track marks. She was saying she was clean and I wanted to check for any new track marks--- on her legs, arms, forehead, feet, anywhere."
"She was clean. And I was some proud to find that out. She kept saying, 'I'm clean, Mom, I'm clean.' And I said, 'Good. Keep it up.' She used to say that to me all the time before, and I didn't believe her."
It's the one thing, Connie says, that makes her happy.
Tanya's "family and her friends have been left behind to carry the burden of justice," said Doreen Bernard, at Tanya's December memorial at St. Pat's-A.
"And we will continue to do that in any way we can. On May 10 we will be back to do a ceremony at the centre to keep this alive. To keep her spirit alive."
Connie wept with her back to the window well while Bernard spoke.
"She is not forgotten. She was a daughter, a sister, a mother to her children. She was one of us. A woman."
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