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‘When my head hit the wall, that was the final straw.’ How would you respond?

Yellowknife, NWT – How would you respond if you saw someone being abused?

Family Violence Awareness Week, which begins today, asks people in the Northwest Territories to think about how they, and their communities, respond when they see or hear violence taking place.

Yellowknife resident Mira Hall has faced violence herself and witnessed violence being inflicted on others.

Here, she tells Moose FM what happened to her, how people responded, and what she believes about how to handle a similar situation as a bystander.

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If you are affected by family violence and need help or more information, there’s a list of numbers you can call here

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1. ‘When my head hit that wall, that was the final straw’

Mira Hall: When I was very young, I was living with somebody who showed the potential to be abusive – but I was 16, and in love.

In Yellowknife, I had a lot of social supports and a lot of people telling me, ‘Maybe that guy is not great.’ For whatever reason, I ignored it and we moved together to Manitoba, where I found myself in a very strange place. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know the resources, and I had no money for a phone or the ability to make long-distance phone calls.

We were living with two of his friends, and the situation got worse and worse.

Mira Hall.

The only people who witnessed what was happening were the room-mates I was living with – who were his friends. I felt really alone.

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The room-mates didn’t really talk to me about what was happening, but obviously they could hear it, and they could see it. I didn’t feel comfortable talking to them about it, and they didn’t feel comfortable talking to me about it.

I had no idea what their response was – until one of my room-mates came home with a plane ticket, to send me home.

We weren’t close, so I didn’t know how he ended up with that plane ticket, but – when my friend picked me up at the airport in Yellowknife – she said that he had phoned her one night after hearing my head hit the wall of our adjoining rooms.

When he phoned her, collect, he described a feeling of absolute helplessness and not knowing what to do. He had been listening to it, and seeing it happen, for the time that we had been living there, and didn’t know what to say or do.

When my head hit that wall, that was the final straw. He needed to call somebody that he felt might know what to do.

I had no idea, living with him, that it was affecting him that deeply. I was in a strange place with my abuser’s friends and I felt very alone, and had no idea that he was responding to the violence in a very practical and helpful way.

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2. ‘A room full of people failed to intervene in any way’

Mira Hall: I had broken up with a boyfriend and had gone to work. He showed up at my workplace and started screaming at me, in a restaurant that was more than half-full of people, in my home town.

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I worked at a coffee shop and I was very familiar with the customer base. They are all sitting there, and a man comes in and starts screaming in my face. People avoided eye contact, they stared down at their tables, they whispered about what was happening.

When he had cornered me against a wall, and punched the wall directly beside my head, I ran to the kitchen and he chased me. I was bracing the door closed by holding my feet against the stove and my back against the door, and he was repeatedly charging at the door while screaming.

Eventually he got tired and left, and the adrenaline was pumping through my veins – I was shaking, I was crying, I was embarrassed.

And a room full of people who had witnessed what was happening had failed to intervene in any way. Had failed to acknowledge what was happening. Had no response at all.

I was more alone in that instance, in a room full of people in a public space that also happened to be my workplace, than I was in a completely unfamiliar community.

I’d like to say I was angry at them for not responding but, in that moment, the biggest emotion I felt was embarrassment. A lot of people that I see every day had witnessed something horrible happen to me and I was embarrassed that they saw it. I asked my co-worker if I could finish my shift in the kitchen so that nobody would have to see me.

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3. ‘Every time you witness violence, what you can do will be different’

Mira Hall: A lot of people might think it would be easier for me to address violence that I see, because I lived through it, so I know how it feels. But I can tell you that I feel just as lost, helpless and afraid of dealing with things that I see happening.

When I was pregnant and living in an apartment for the first time, I could hear something happening in my neighbours’ apartment. I was alone, pregnant and very young.

I heard her head hit the wall and the first thing that I thought was, ‘That probably wasn’t her head. They’re just arguing.’

Then I remembered back to living through it, and I thought, ‘What if it is her head? They are arguing, I can hear it, I don’t want to listen to it any more, so what can I do?’

If I go over there, it might make it worse. But if I don’t go over, she’s going to continue to live with it, and I’m going to continue to hear it.

Every single time you witness violence, what you can do about it is going to be different. My answer was to phone the RCMP, report it, and then I went over there and knocked on the door.

When she answered the door I could see him standing behind the door, so I said: ‘I want to let you know that I phoned the RCMP and they’re on their way. If you want to wait at my house until they come, you can do that. But I want you both to know that every time I hear something like this happening, I will be phoning the RCMP.’

The reason I said that was just to let them know that, if I ever heard anything again, that would be my reaction.

That might make it worse – it might make him put a pillow over her head – but that way, they’re both aware that what’s happening has been noticed, and somebody is going to try to do something about it. What they’re going to do about that is their choice.

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4. ‘We are all responsible for doing something’

Mira Hall: It’s really hard, when you see something horrible happening to another human being, to intervene. The easier route is always to ignore it, to believe that it’s somebody else’s responsibility, or to think that it’s none of your business.

I don’t think anybody goes to those responses because they are mean, or heartless, or don’t care. I think they go to those responses because they have no idea what to do when they see these things happening.

In the case of my room-mate, he had a similar response until it became intolerable. It got to the point where he couldn’t ignore it any more.

I believe that in the Northwest Territories, the rates of violence we are seeing are intolerable.

We, the community of Yellowknife, and the community of the NWT, have to recognise that it’s intolerable, move way from avoiding it and start trying to figure out what to do about it.

We all carry ideas of who experiences it, no matter how many times that we hear it happens across demographics, whether socio-economic, or ethnic.

When you see evidence of violence and you’re trying to dismiss it because that person has a good job, or because that person seems very confident, or that person ‘wouldn’t put up with that kind of behaviour’ in their partner, it’s just an avoidance. We can’t continue to avoid.

You would be hard-pressed to find somebody in the Northwest Territories who has not experienced violence themselves, or known somebody personally who has experienced it.

If you are one of the lucky few who has not had an experience like that, chances are your mother did, your brother did, your cousin did, your schoolmates do.

It’s not realistic to think that it’s somebody else’s problem. It’s everybody who lives here’s problem, and we are all responsible for doing something.

Because when violence happens, it’s rarely going to happen in front of a police officer. It’s not going to happen at the family violence crisis shelter. It’s going to happen in front of neighbours, co-workers and family members.

The responsibility for that first reaction to violence lies not with professionals in the field, it lies with the people in relationships, it lies with people on the street, with every single member of our communities.

I think it’s absolutely reasonable to think that we could live in a place where no-one experienced family violence.

It’s just a matter of figuring out how we get there, how we address it when it happens, and how we grow into a society that refrains from thinking violence is an acceptable way to respond.

CJCD Moose FM News

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