Today, the Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA) and women’s shelter Beendigen announced the expansion of its 24/7 helpline for indigenous women, Talk4Healing, beyond northern Ontario communities into the rest of the province. Ahead of the announcement, we spoke with Dr Dawn Lavell Harvard, President of the ONWA Board, about the service and how it helps support women and families in Ontario, which is home to the largest population of indigenous women in Canada.
What kind of support and help does Talk4Healing provide?
It’s a culturally safe, culturally sensitive helpline with talk, text and chat capabilities for indigenous women, run by indigenous women. It’s now available in 14 different indigenous languages and is run as a partnership between the Ontario Native Women’s Association and Beendigen which is a local indigenous women’s organization.
What are some of the ways Talk4Healing has helped indigenous women since it was launched in 2012?
Talk4Healing was envisioned because of a lack of services particularly in remote communities. Indigenous women may not reach out for services in their own community because of privacy issues—because half the people who work in the health centre may know you. This offers women a way that is safe, discreet, private. You’re not running the risk of being targeted by an abusive partner and/or by child welfare services, which is a really big concern for a number of indigenous women, the fear that if they’re reaching out for support, the CAS is going to come and apprehend their children if there are concerns about violence in the home. So this allows women an opportunity to reach out and potentially exit from a violent situation to get the support they need. We all know that when a woman has decided to leave her abusive partner, that’s the point when she’s most in danger.
What are some of the other issues indigenous women face, and most commonly call in regarding?
Because of that legacy of residential schools, the legacy of the Sixties Scoop, the legacy of the deliberate attempts of government to break down community, we’re now seeing the coping mechanisms of that trauma in the family—the addictions, the alcoholism, struggles with mental health concerns. So all of those areas where there’s a need for mental health support are directly linked back to an environment with high rates of domestic violence, which is directly linked back to residential schools and that legacy of abuse and oppression of indigenous people.
What kind of demographic do you see reaching out to Talk4Healing the most?
We have women calling in of all ages, from early teens who are just getting into relationships all the way to elder abuse situations, women who are especially vulnerable because they’re elderly and therefore even more dependent. So our services do cover that entire spectrum. For us one of the most critical populations that we find we’re working with is young mothers and single mothers because it makes the situation that much more complicated when you have potential child welfare involvement, when you have potential child custody issues. It makes the safety plan that much more complex and that much more important to make sure that if a woman is trying to flee an abusive situation, the children aren’t used as a pawn in order to hold on to the woman, or used as sort of retribution.
How exactly does the 24/7 helpline work?
We have trained, certified people working on this helpline. It’s not required for somebody to physically be sitting in a building waiting for a phone call because with technology we can have people on call 24/7 and they just have to have the ability to be able to answer the phone and of course speak the language. It allows us to be more creative in our responses and provide a wider range of services because we’re not constrained to a physical location.
What prompted the expansion of Talk4Healing beyond northern Ontario communities?
Originally it was a pilot project for northern Ontario that was an attempt to address the lack of services in extreme remote communities, and obviously there’s no efficient way to provide services to each remote community especially when you combine that with privacy issues. We had to expand our process and offer this across the province because if women who had been using the service when they were in their remote community but have been removed from the community to perhaps go to a safe house or a shelter in the city, you’ve been this really important lifeline that they’ve been relying on and being cut off from that is a real problem. We recognized that that service needs to be accessible to women whether they’re in those remote communities or whether they’ve come into an urban area so we can provide seamless support.