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At 24, Fort St. John resident Sheri Ashdown realized she needed to make a choice—she could either continue her relationship with her abusive partner of eight years, or she could survive.
When she began the relationship at 16, she said she believed she was “full of answers and knew it all.”
“So when I fell in love — or so I thought — I figured I knew it all, too. I was going to stay and help him until he was better because, as he said over and over, no one would ever love someone like me anyway, and he had to be right,” she recalled.
“Whether I had a gun to my head, or I was black and blue, I loved him, and I was going to change him. The warning signs were all there. Everyone told me to run, but I wouldn’t give up on him. I wanted him to know I loved him.”
Unfortunately, experiences like Ashdown’s occur frequently in our society.
Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a wide-reaching issue across the world, with both women and men experiencing and committing acts of abuse.
IPV, also commonly referred to as spousal or domestic violence, is a form of gender-based violence that encompasses multiple forms of harm caused by a current or former spouse or intimate partner.
It can affect people of all ages, genders, socioeconomic, racial, educational, ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds, according to the government of Canada.
Forms of IPV include physical abuse, stalking, sexual violence, emotional or psychological abuse, financial abuse, spiritual abuse, coercive control and technology-facilitated violence—also referred to as cyber-violence.
The government of Canada features in-depth definitions for each form of IPV on its website.
In a 2021 release, Statistics Canada said that according to data collected in 2018, 44 per cent of women and 36 per cent of men in Canada who have been in intimate relationships reported experiencing psychological, physical or sexual violence by a partner in their lifetime.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated these situations of abuse, with the executive director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, calling the global rise in calls to domestic violence helplines and shelters a “shadow pandemic.”
Multiple studies have shown that those living in rural, remote and northern areas in Canada are at a higher risk of experiencing violence and abuse committed by their partners.
Indigenous people, those identifying as LGBTQ2A+, and disabled people are also more likely to experience IPV in their lives, according to the data collected by Stats Canada.
After hearing anecdotes from community members about how IPV is a significant issue in the community, Energeticcity decided to investigate.
One case that was brought up by nearly everyone we spoke to was the recent murder of Amanda Black. While IPV hasn’t been officially confirmed in this case, The City of Fort St. John has been lighting the Centennial Park Stage purple in her memory annually since her death in 2021 to raise awareness of domestic violence in the community.
There is also a statue that sits at Fish Creek, which was done by local carver, John Lambert, in Black’s memory.
This month, we examine how those living in Fort St. John have experienced intimate partner violence and explain why rates of IPV in the community have increased since the onset of the pandemic.
Hope on the horizon
While writing this story, multiple Fort St. John residents—men and women—reached out to Energeticcity to share their experiences with IPV, many choosing to remain anonymous.
The survivors reported experiencing a range of abuse—physical, psychological and sexual—but almost all said that their abusive partner slowly isolated them from their friends and family. Once this happened, they said the abuse continued to escalate.
They each described the challenges of getting out of their abusive relationships, many leaving their partners multiple times before being able to escape the abuse.
However, once survivors could leave the relationship, they said that their quality of life increased significantly.
Over two decades after leaving her abusive partner, Sheri Ashdown said that she’s been able to raise her daughter, graduate college and find love.
“I’ve learned to tell my story and am extremely honest in this life. It took years of self-help, but I am even in a happy, healthy, loving relationship with a man I once only believed existed in stories. I’m not perfect but I am constantly working on being better every day and am thankful I left when I did or I might not be alive,” she said.
“As much as people told me he would never change, I didn’t listen to anyone. I wanted to be the one to prove them wrong. I spent eight years of my life getting cheated on, beat and told I was worthless to the point I believed it,” she continued.
Ashdown said that those experiencing IPV shouldn’t have to stay in an abusive relationship and encouraged them to take the difficult and often scary step to leave.
“Sometimes it is hard to navigate loss and change, especially when you question your choices. Know your soul is resilient and you will find your way through with the right support,” she said.
“Take the step and leave and one day soon you’ll find yourself in a new tomorrow that feels much more like a happy home.”
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on IPV
Many health and government leaders advised the public to stay home to keep themselves safe and reduce the spread of the virus during the pandemic. However, some people weren’t as safe in their homes as others.
In an infographic, Women and Gender Equality Canada said domestic violence helplines and shelters across the world reported rising calls for help during the pandemic.
The Battered Women’s Support Services hotline in British Columbia said there was a 400 per cent increase in calls between April and May 2020. Out of the increased number of calls, 40 per cent were reportedly from women who were isolating with their abuser.
The Fort St. John Women’s Resource Society (FSJWRS), also saw a significant jump in residents using its programs during the pandemic, including its Family Law services.
Family Law advocate with the FSJWRS Telitha Nielsen, told Energeticcity she’s noticed a considerable increase in clients over the past few years, going from 319 people in 2019 to 438 in 2022.
Fort St. John Women’s Resource Society Family Law Cases 2019-2022
Nielsen’s department saw a 10.8 per cent increase in clients in 2022 compared to the previous year.
In 2022, the society put 22 women, 27 children and an assortment of pets into hotels to get them away from their abusers.
“These cases all involved domestic violence, and this was after we’d exhausted all other options with the client, meaning they needed to try to get into first-stage transition houses first,” Nielsen stated.
While not everyone accessing family law services is experiencing intimate partner violence, Nielsen estimated that approximately half of her clients are.
“I can confidently say every second person who comes into my office is experiencing some kind of abuse,” she stated.
“It’s not always physical. It might be emotional, sexual, or financial.”
She recalled seeing a rise in cases when the pandemic began, with nearly all of her clients reporting that they were being abused by their partner.
“We were in lockdown and the number of clients I had—almost every single one of them—were saying they were experiencing abuse from their partner,” said Nielsen, adding that it wasn’t just women who reported the abuse.
“I actually experienced some men saying the same thing.”
According to statistics collected by Fort St. John RCMP in 2021, local police responded to 18 instances of “spousal abuse” — double the amount of calls the detachment received in 2020, but four more than the number of calls in 2019.
According to Chad Neustaeter with the Fort St. John RCMP detachment, when there is an allegation of ongoing mental and physical abuse, RCMP classifies the case as spousal abuse.
The department also responded to 159 cases of spousal assault and 233 instances of verbal spousal disputes in 2022.
According to definitions provided by Neustaeter, spousal disputes don’t include assault, while spousal assault includes any kind ranging from a grab or slap to punching, choking or even broken bones.
FSJ RCMP IPV Stats 2017-2022
Statistics from both Fort St. John RCMP and the Women’s Resource Society show an increase in reports of IPV since the onset of the pandemic.
IPV in Canada
According to data collected in 2018 by Statistics Canada, over four in 10 women and just over one-third of men in Canada have reported experiencing intimate partner violence.
The data also found that women in Canada are six times more likely to be sexually assaulted by an intimate partner in their lifetime than men.
Stats Canada said the risk of IPV varies across certain populations, with those identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual or another sexual orientation that is not heterosexual, much more likely to experience all forms of IPV.
According to the results of the 2018 survey, two-thirds, or 67 per cent of “sexual minority women,” reported experiencing at least one type of IPV since the age of 15.
The survey also found that six in 10, or 61 per cent, of Indigenous women have experienced a form of IPV in their lives. When asked in 2018 about the previous 12 months, 17 per cent of Indigenous women reported experiencing at least one form of IPV—psychological, physical or sexual— compared to 12 per cent of non-Indigenous women.
Statistics Canada said psychological abuse was the most common form of IPV experienced by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous women, however, it found that 60 per cent of Indigenous respondents reported experiencing this abuse in their lives compared to 42 per cent of non-Indigenous women.
About 57 per cent of First Nations women and 63 per cent of Metis women reported experiencing psychological IPV in their lives.
Inuit women reportedly experienced similar proportions of psychological IPV to non-Indigenous women. Stats Canada said that this finding was consistent with previous research on intergenerational trauma.
It added that historical instances of systemic violence and trauma—including police brutality, emotional and sexual abuse in residential schools and by people in positions of authority, and forced displacement and assimilation—have caused a strained relationship with both police and the criminal justice system.
“The inability of systems of justice to protect Inuit women and failed responses by programs of protection may contribute to the hesitation among Inuit women to report violent behaviours,” according to the Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada.
The government of Canada said that the history of violence that came from colonization and cultural suppression may have led to a normalization of violence among Inuit women, referring to findings in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ 2019 report Reclaiming Power and Place.
“This normalization in experiences of violence may result in Inuit women not acknowledging some behaviours as forms of abuse as the constant threat of violence is perceived as acceptable and a normal part of life,” the government said.
Those living in rural communities have also been found to disproportionately experience IPV.
Ninu Kang, executive director of the Ending Violence Association of BC, said there are a few factors that may explain why.
“To me, there are several factors. One is in smaller, rural communities people know each other,” Kang explained.
“Those being abused are more likely to run into the person who’s causing the harm, and it’ll be harder to get away from that person. So people will stay in those relationships longer.”
Kang said that there are also fewer resources available in these communities compared to urban centers.
“Sometimes the nearest hospital or community-based victim service program, police or even the courts are not accessible if a victim doesn’t have a car and there’s no transportation available,” Kang said.
The third factor Kang mentioned may contribute to higher levels of IPV in rural communities was poverty.
“If there are additional stressors in a relationship, whether it’s finances or if a man is getting bullied at work, he’s more likely to bring that back home and be abusive towards his partner and children.”
“We know that when there are other stressors to a certain population, then domestic violence tends to go up,” Kang added.
After working with survivors and perpetrators of domestic violence for over two decades, Kang said she believes that when perpetrated by men, domestic violence finds its roots in patriarchy.
“When I talk about men that come into my room for counselling, they’re actually really pissed off because someone actually called out their violence. So by the time the justice system gets involved, it sends these men into another tailspin,” Kang told Energeticcity.
“Through their values and beliefs and what they learned as a man, their partners were never supposed to challenge them. But now they’re challenging them to such a point where their partner has put them in jail for it.”
However, men also experience abuse from their female partners
Men & Women experience IPV differently
While most data available on intimate partner violence focuses on female survivors, men also experience IPV.
According to Shana Conroy with Stats Canada, one out of five calls to police about IPV are from men.
Associate professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University, Alexandra Lysova, has been studying IPV for the past two decades, with a focus on male survivors. She recently co-authored a report titled Similar But Different: Intimate Partner Violence Experienced by Women and Men, which compared survivor experiences in Canada.
“This is a selective sample we have, so it’s not representative of all of Canada. We had about 100 women and 145 men. But still, this is very consistent with all the other studies that I’m doing on male victimization on intimate partner violence,” Lysova explained.
The study found that male and female survivors of IPV have similar healthcare needs and difficulty accessing formal support. Men and women also reported experiencing similar types of IPV and encountering gender bias within the justice system.
Men involved in the study reported that they have difficulty finding IPV services for male survivors and were less satisfied than women with the response of the justice system.
Lysova believes this is due to intimate partner violence being historically considered a “women’s issue.”
“So it was believed that only women become victims of abuse and men are perpetrators. Right. Feminist advocates and researchers in the last century started to discuss this issue and conceptualized it as a gender-based issue that affects women,” Lysova told Energeticcity.
She said that since society labelled IPV as solely a women’s issue, it’s been difficult to break this resistance and see the other victims of abuse.
“Right now we see that there are many men who are actually abused in relationships with women and with other men. Their experiences are very much similar to women’s experiences.”
Lysova said through her findings, she believes men experience more prevalent levels of psychological abuse than women do.
“When we ask men what do you experience as abuse in the relationship? They primarily start talking about psychological and verbal aggression—humiliation, name calling and controlling behaviours from their female partners.”
She said these controlling behaviours include the female partner wanting to know where the man is and checking their emails or social media to see who they’ve been contacting.
“So they try to control the male’s relationships with their relatives and friends,” Lysova explained.
Lysova said that men also appear to be disproportionately affected by a form of IPV just coming onto officials’ radar—legal and administrative abuse.
This form of abuse occurs when one partner in a relationship threatens to or actually uses the criminal justice system or any legal resources against the other partner.
“False accusations are one example of this type of abuse and men report that. They say that the system was set up for women to help women and women know that. So it appears that in some relationships, women actively use this as a threat,” Lysova told Energeticcity.
She said this form of abuse was present in the recent trial of Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard.
“We’re concerned about what happened with Amber Heard just because it’s a betrayal of the trust to the actual victims of abuse because then the next thing people will say, maybe it’s a false accusation or maybe it’s not true,” Lysova said.
“It’s not a good treatment of all other female victims of domestic violence,” she added.
During this investigation, Energeticcity was in contact with a male IPV survivor from Fort St. John, who asked to remain anonymous. He said his ex-wife had previously threatened to make a false report against him.
He also pointed out that many men experiencing IPV may not even know they’re being abused by their partners.
“As a man, I was told that you never touch a woman. But nobody ever really told me that women can’t touch you,” he said.
“I remember as far back as high school, getting just socked by a girl who didn’t like something I said. I was always proud of the restraint I had because I had friends who would say, ‘oh man, I would hit her.’ It made me feel like I was a bigger person than I was,” he recalled.
The individual also said while going through the justice system, he realized the system wasn’t designed to support male survivors of IPV.
“I didn’t feel emotional until they went through the victim impact statement because it was the first time I ever felt humanized as a man, that my experience was validated and what was done to me was wrong.”
“You’re just so used to stuffing it down and thinking, this is my manly role, my duty. And then it feels like I had to endure what I did because I don’t have the privilege of being heard, understood, or humanized as a person who doesn’t deserve abuse.”
He said he now realizes he is a survivor of abuse and encourages men experiencing IPV to reach out for help.
What to do if you’re experiencing IPV
Executive director Ninu Kang said the most dangerous time for survivors is when they confront their abuser and try to leave.
“They’re at the highest risk of being further abused or, or even killed. If something in the relationship changes, like behaviour that isn’t normal, that’s another risk factor that women should know,” Kang said.
She said that those experiencing IPV should start by reaching out to someone they trust and look into community resources.
Kang adds that if the level or form of violence seems to escalate, survivors should have a safety plan in place.
Those experiencing IPV in Fort St. John can access resources and IPV programs at the Fort St. John Women’s Resource Society by calling 250-787-1121 or contacting Community Bridge at 250-785-6021.
Residents can also get more information about IPV and support by calling Victim Link BC at 1-800-563-0808.
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger from domestic abuse or violence, call 911 or your local emergency number.
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