In March 2021 I had the opportunity to interview Tanya Henck and James Foster about the work they are both doing in support of women on Cortes Island. This article presents some highlights from that interview. (For a more complete story, listen to the radio version.)
Tanya is the founder and coordinator of the Cortes Island Women’s Resource Centre; readers/listeners may remember her from a previous interview in April of 2020. At that time, official acknowledgement of the Covid-19 pandemic was just ramping up. Almost a year later — and what a year! — I asked Tanya how her work had been affected by the pandemic. Did the Centre have to shut down?
‘Being used every day …’
“The Women’s Centre is still being used every day,” she said. “There’s a couple of people in there almost every day… obviously we can’t host gatherings like we used to, but we were able to get a Zoom account so that has helped a lot, we’ve been offering groups like a Coffee Club on Wednesday mornings. And then every other Tuesday our Outreach Worker from Campbell River hosts a group chat, like a relationship workshop. We actually received a Covid Crisis Grant from the Canadian Women’s Foundation that is really going to help us through into the Fall. It will pay for extra cleaning supplies and kids’ masks that we can make available to anyone who needs them. And they helped us to buy a tent that we can put up outside, for outdoor events, so if people want to gather outdoors when that is appropriate, we can have some rain shelter. And we even got a table heater to keep everyone a little warmer.”
‘Three or four times the amount of calls …’
Has the pandemic led to an escalation of domestic violence on Cortes as it has in many other places? Yes, confirms Tanya, it has. “We were already noticing it back in last May. I’d say it’s pretty consistent that there’s now three to four times the amount of calls we were getting before. And aside from relationship crisis we are also getting people trying to deal with mental health issues, Covid stress.”
Has it been harder to find shelter housing for women needing a refuge from domestic violence? “Well it kind of depends on the situation, like how separate that shelter was from the rest of the provider’s house. But there’s a lot of discussion now, that the safe home programme is not the most ideal response. We find that about 98 percent of women end up going back to their homes because, after that couple of days of respite, what are you going to do? And the other thing of course is the housing crisis. Where else is there to go?”
Jim concurs. “I’m sure Tanya has seen it and I know I have. People sleeping on couches and in sketchy trailers. Nowhere to go.” I ask Tanya what impact the housing crisis on Cortes has on her work at the Centre.
‘Our calls would drop by 80%’ if …
“It’s our top problem,” she responds. “It is absolutely our top problem. If there was ample housing, honestly I’m sure our calls would drop by 80 percent. OK, it wouldn’t end domestic abuse on Cortes Island — but if people could get out of unhealthy relationships more easily, they’d be all around in a better space in life. So we have a shortage of crisis housing, and we don’t have short-term housing, and we don’t have any long-term housing. That is absolutely one of our top priorities to tackle right now. And it isn’t just here on Cortes. It’s all down the island and in Vancouver. And more people are going to come here, I mean we are no longer the Hidden Gem.”
But newcomers are not the only ones affected, says Tanya: “A lot of the people looking for housing right now, they didn’t show up on the island last week, you know? A lot of them are people who have been living here a good long time, five years or ten or fifteen. I’ve been talking with the housing committee and with BC Housing, Transition Housing, Remote Communities initiatives. And then our bylaws haven’t been looked at or updated for well over ten years, so that’s another piece of the puzzle…” In our interview, we go into the housing problem in some depth — including some creative possible solutions.
The Cortes Island Crisis Response Team
Jim came to Cortes from Philadelphia and has been here about three and a half years. I ask him how he became a passionate advocate for women’s rights and an activist in the cause of domestic violence reduction and men’s consciousness-raising. “I discovered when living here that domestic violence is a serious problem, it’s pretty hush-hush, but it exists and there are profound structural deficiencies for people experiencing domestic violence or abuse. It’s a remote community and the fact is, if there is an incident, police are unable to respond in a timely fashion. These situations can get really volatile and if people are feeling unsafe they should have some assistance in leaving. “
This realisation led Jim to propose a new kind of community service effort. “So Tanya and I talked a lot over last summer about all the issues with crisis response on the island. And one thing I came up with was the Cortes Island Crisis Response Team, which is essentially a mobile community resource for assisting people with that, with leaving an unsafe situation. And it’s pretty simple. It’s entirely about de-escalation and non-violent, non-confrontational dynamics, but offering that support and help that really isn’t available through government services here. And then also the follow-up of returning to an unsafe location to retrieve personal belongings and the like.” Jim was able to recruit twelve community volunteers, mostly existing Emergency Services personnel.
I ask Jim for clarity: so these volunteers are serving essentially as bodyguards, escorts and witnesses for victims of domestic violence who just want to leave (or come back and get their clothes)? Yes, he says, “I think it also serves to de-escalate, because it’s involving members of our own community. Nobody wants any trouble. Let’s just separate and calm down and then we can pursue either transition to a safe house or counseling or just having a dialogue about unhealthy dynamics in a relationship.” Jim says that the arrival of heavily-armed uniformed strangers doesn’t necessarily relieve anyone’s stress or fear: “But we’re not here to haul anyone off to jail, we’re not gonna shoot the dog. We just want everyone to feel safe.”
Is this just a theoretical programme, or are interventions of this kind already happening? “I have done five,” says Jim. “It’s pretty informal at this stage, but I’m trying to make sure that there’s one person with medical training on site for every call, and we want to pursue formal training in non-violence and de-escalation. We had a plan for training and then Covid pretty much interrupted that.” The team so far is all-male, which Jim thinks is a good thing. “It’s a fact that misogyny accompanies abuse. And the presence of males can help to de-escalate, but also part of my logic was that in a large way, the onus is on men to hold men accountable for instances of violence and aggression. And since the nature of this project involves putting ourselves at some risk, it just felt more appropriate to have men stepping up to help.”
‘Great to have men allies …’
Tanya is delighted with the additional support. “It is so great to have men allies who want to work with us, because that’s where we can start seeing real change. The fact that there are twelve men who are willing to participate in this, that means there’s this group of men that hopefully other men may feel comfortable talking to. It’s not about intimidation. And I think even for women it gives some level of comfort, when stuck in a violent situation with a man, to have another man or two from the community to be there. Walking away maybe you don’t feel so scared of men in general, or less scared in your own situation because you have support and witness. And that’s another key. Because by the time the police show up they always say, it’s a He-said-She-said thing, but the RCMP really encouraged us to find that middle ground, before they can ever get here, and part of that is to be witnesses. Unfortunately that means a lot more, afterwards, than just a woman’s bruises do. Too often, we really need that witness and it makes us all feel safer.”
‘Just listen and talk with them …’
Tanya emphasises that community crisis support doesn’t begin and end with domestic violence. “It’s also about people who are struggling with mental health, if they have a crisis. Because that’s another case where it’s just not the best place for an armed police intervention. Especially not as the first step. Other communities have founded crisis teams where the first response is two volunteers and they show up with, maybe, a thermos of hot chocolate and some muffins. And you show up casually dressed, and you might sit with that person for six hours, just listen and talk with them. Sometimes it’s necessary to ride out that crisis, and you can help them feel more secure. And being taken in to hospital — not that there isn’t a time and a place for that — but in general, it doesn’t really work. These people end up being really alone for twenty-four hours and they kind of get watched, and then they get released and now how do they get back home? There’s this big hole between the hospital and getting back to the island. So of the situations I personally have seen, with a mental health crisis, going to the hospital hasn’t made them feel better.”
Jim agrees that sometimes just being heard is crucial. “Most of the situations I’ve been involved with so far, I was listening to someone drunkenly complaining about their partner for like five hours on end. And then, you know, that kind of quells the whole situation. It never really had to go past that.” He feels toxic masculinity has much to do with men’s stress level. “One of the hallmarks of toxic masculinity is an overvaluation of stoicism, this ability to repress or suppress negative feelings, not be a complainer, tough it out. And what we see time and again is those feelings inevitably do come out, often in very harmful ways. In communities where men are able to express themselves and explore their feelings in a more healthy way, we see positive effects.”
Language that demeans women
Jim also emphasises the reach of toxic masculinity into everyday behaviour. “I’m a blue-collar guy, I’m often on construction sites, and sexist jokes are a thing in that culture. And in all-male circles. And you know, not all men who are part of the group making this kind of joke are comfortable with it, but it’s kind of a guy-talk culture. Fortunately this is dipping off a bit in recent years, but we need to encourage men to speak out and call out other men on casual misogyny — or explicit misogyny — or any other sort of bigoted language — like racism, or targeting sexual orientation. We need to get comfortable saying Hey man, that’s really inappropriate. And yeah, people could say it’s overdramatic… but using language that demeans women, reduces them to object form… this has a subconscious effect on how we perceive the people in our lives. And how we treat them. I’m really passionate about speaking out and I think that’s one of the key things we can do as men to be allies, is to use our voice and offer support. Because silence is complacency and that’s tacit endorsement of whatever bigotry is happening in our presence.”
Contacting Tanya or Jim
How can people get in touch — either to help, or if in need of help? Jim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tanya also emphasises that the Women’s Centre phone number (935-6501) can be used to reach her or Jim. But most of her incoming calls, she says, these days come by way of facebook messages. More than walk-ins or phone calls, people are using text messages and facebook private messages to make contact and request help.
How secure is the Women’s Centre right now, in terms of funding? “We’re pretty solid until the Fall,” says Tanya confidently. “The Covid grant we got really helped, it gives us a bit of time to do more fund-raising. I mean, we look at it every three to six months.”
Jim marvels, “Every three months is pretty precarious for most institutions! I learned from your previous interview, how direly aid is needed for the Women’s Centre, how important it is that people continue to offer some financial support.”
Number of women helped
Tanya responds, “The majority of our help comes from donations.” I ask how many women have been helped this last year, by a combination of grants and donations. “I think our lowest call rate was three, we had one month where there were only three calls — but most months, it’s more like six.”
So with a weekly average around 4 or 5, that’s between 40 and 50 instances in a calendar year where someone actually needed immediate help. “I’m talking about people calling in crisis, whether that’s mental health crisis, domestic abuse, even child abuse — we had a couple of calls during this Covid time about that as well. We have kind of noticed we’re being acknowledged more as a resource, you know, more people are reaching out when they need help. What’s great about the Centre is we can use it as a base for doing advocacy. If you’re an organisation, not just the average Joe, you get more done. Letterhead matters, you know what I mean?”
The Centre’s membership has more than doubled in the last year.
Supporting the Women’s Centre
Readers who wish to support the Women’s Centre can donate to North Island Transition Society by way of the CanadaHelps web site. “It’s online and it’s easy, and you automatically get a tax receipt by email.” However, Tanya notes, it’s important to mention in the comment or note that you want your donation to go to the Cortes Island Women’s Resource Centre. “Otherwise it would just go into their main fund, and they don’t have a special fund for us — we have to do our own fund raising. But if you write on your cheque or in your online donation that it is for us, then they take a small percentage but they pass the rest on to us.”
What about people who want to support what Jim is doing? He welcomes volunteers, but notes that they have to be “in good standing with the women of the island” in order to be accepted onto the crisis response team. As far as monetary support, he says, “Support the Women’s Centre. Because it’s so crucial for us. We need that follow-up support. We need a women’s centre for women to feel safe and supported. And at the most basic level, do have those difficult conversations with your peers. Because the stuff we are trying to address, could be addressed simply by not permitting our peers to use that misogynistic language, to objectify women, to uphold these patriarchal norms. First and foremost for me that is key, and this project came about in pursuit of accountability for predatory behaviour and harassment and abuse.”
Tanya adds, “If anyone wants to offer financial support specifically for what Jim is doing, they can do it through the Centre with the same kind of idea, just mention that you want to help pay for the nonviolence training programme that we still want to offer, or whatever else is needed, just write it on the cheque or cover letter or whatever and we can make sure the money gets used for that project.”
The Cortes Crisis Response Team concept is defined in a founding document that Jim has shared with several groups and agencies. He gave permission for Currents to publish it here.
More From Tanya and Jim
The 40 minute radio interview covers all these topics and far more. Over 20 minutes of additional material are found in the accompanying “Extras” podcast (linked below), which is formatted in several “chapters” by topic.
|Jim and De discuss accountability, traditional permissiveness of Cortes culture, strategies||0:00|
|Jim and Tanya discuss nonviolence and de-escalation training, aspiring to make it available to all||5:18|
|Role of the Women’s Centre in validating women’s experiences; the new Scottish “coercive control” law||7:43|
|Useful technology that could be donated: cell phones, tablets, web cams||13:03|
|Volunteer opportunities: the new Women’s Centre garden plot, Zoom workshops, ways to participate||16:12|
|The Housing Issue: Habitat For Humanity, work bees, community housing efforts||18:40|
Links of interest:
- Cortes Island Women’s Resource Centre website
- (Cortes Women’s Centre) Crisis Response Founding Document
- (Cortes Currents) Cortes Women’s Resource Centre
- Campbell River & North Island Transition Society website
- (Cortes Currents) articles about violence against women
[Top photo credit: National Rural Crime Network (UK), as featured in the Staffordshire Commissioner, July 2019]