Fireweed, rocks, scruffy trees and safe haven greeted the future MLA for Lethbridge-East and her two young daughters when they arrived in Yellowknife on July 24, 1981.
Sixty-two hours by bus removed from her husband and tormentor back in Cincinnati, Maria Fitzpatrick could finally start divorce proceedings against him unafraid of another injury to herself or death threats against any three of them when the paperwork arrived at his door. By law, he would have been served almost immediately. It took her three tries to leave; she was forced to return both times because the shelters she brought her family to had two- and three-week limits, respectively, “not even a Band-Aid” in terms of resetting a life.
Now with her sister she could start over, but she didn’t stop looking over her shoulder until 1992, when she learned he had died.
“When I left my ex my sister was living in Yellowknife so she had opened her home for me to come up there with the girls,” she said. “It was far away and it was safe. When I got there, the fireweed was blooming all over the place and I kept saying to my sister ‘Oh my gosh, it’s just like home.’ I’m from Newfoundland originally, so lots of fireweed, lots of rocks, lots of short, scruffy trees and lots of water.”
Fitzpatrick, who prefers to be called Maria, brought her fellow MLAs to their feet when she shared her story while speaking in support of Bill 204, which makes it easier for a person to leave an abusive relationship by allowing a lease to be broken early without penalty. Proof of domestic violence can be presented to a landlord in several forms, including a statement from a social worker, nurse, physician, psychologist or police officer, or a court-issued emergency protection or restraining order.
Several MLAs, men and women, commended Fitzpatrick for bravely sharing the details of her abusive nine-year marriage. All of them voted in favour of the bill, which was tabled by Independent MLA Deborah Drever. Fitzpatrick is a New Democrat.
New Democrat MLA Shaye Anderson said the RCMP estimate they will respond to 427 domestic violence calls in Leduc this year, but that incidents are underreported by as much as 80 per cent, meaning there could be more than 2,000 such calls in the town.
“Families in Leduc-Beaumont can go to the closest women’s shelter, which is the Camrose Women’s Shelter, but they need the ability to break a lease without penalty in order to move on,” he said.
Calgary-Mountain View MLA and Liberal Leader Dr. David Swann reached back to 1996 to groundbreaking legislation, the Victims of Domestic Violence Act, which made it possible for a victim to obtain an emergency protection order granting exclusive occupation of his or her residence for a specified period. An EPO is one of the documents that could be used to break a lease early under Bill 204.
“Importantly, (former Edmonton MLA Alice) Hanson’s private member’s bill acknowledged that perhaps the greatest barrier victims face to escaping an abusive spouse or partner is not wanting to be on the street, such a basic, basic protection and disincentive,” Swann said.
A tiny, huge piece of the puzzle
Fitzpatrick has shared her story before with other women and women’s groups she was involved with but not publicly.
“I talked to my daughters because I thought it would end up on Facebook, but I really didn’t think it was going to go viral. Yesterday morning I received an email from a friend of mine who is in Africa, and he had seen it.”
She told her colleagues in the legislature her children were scarred for life and she would have been “horrified” if a single one voted against the bill, which passed unanimously. She told the Journal it is a “little, tiny piece” of the approach to ending family violence that would be “huge” for someone trying to escape an abusive home, and would make an impact in small and remote communities where social services are sparse.
“I was familiar with lots of women in the North who either didn’t leave because they had nowhere to go or they left and they were kinda tracked down,” she said. “If you were in a community like Cambridge Bay, you’re not driving out of there. You’re there and everybody in the community may know about it and people would take sides. You could still be at great risk.”
Fitzpatrick has spoken to Drever about the next piece of legislation that should be drafted and presented as early as the next sitting in February.
“Ideally, we should reach a point where we don’t have to have … shelters for anybody that’s being abused,” she said. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen in my lifetime. My abuse ended in 1981 and here we are, 30 years later and it’s still an issue. In fact, we have way more women’s shelters in Alberta than we did at that time. The shelters in Edmonton last year got 50,000 calls. You can’t even wrap your head around that.”