In case you weren't aware, it has been 22 years since the province of Alberta has had a new women's shelter built. Last year, the Alberta Council of Women's Shelters (ACWS) confirmed more than 23,000 women and children were turned down from accessing women's shelters, simply because the space didn't exist. Twenty-three thousand women and children, fleeing their homes in search of safety.
In most cases, when they get turned down at shelters, they have few other choices and end up going back to their existing households – households full of danger. The latest report from ACWS shows Alberta is one of the most dangerous provinces in Canada for domestic violence.
Thankfully, not everyone is simply sitting back and letting this happen. Residents of Morinville are working hard to open that town's first women's shelter, Jessie's House, in memory of Jessica Ryan Martel.
Martel was murdered on April 29, 2009, by her common-law husband James Urbaniak. As he grew more abusive, Martel's family contacted safe houses only to find there was a six- to eight-week wait to get into one. Eventually, they made a plan for her to leave Urbaniak. On the day Martel planned to leave, Urbaniak beat and strangled her to death.
The Morinville shelter will honour her memory, and you can learn more at jessicamartelmemorialfoundation.com. The shelter has been a long time in the making because the Jessica Martel Memorial Foundation has raised the money to finance it from scratch. In December, the province gave the foundation $75,000 to help cover operational costs, but still had not committed to long-term support.
Two issues are of concern to me:
1. St. Albert, a city far larger than Morinville, has no women's shelters, and I haven't seen any activity from anyone to begin fixing this dilemma.
2. Although the issue of supporting a women's shelter has not come up at city council, our councillors have been quick to embrace another capital project – a new recreation centre. The centre, proposed to be on the west end of the city, would supply additional ice space for local hockey and skating teams.
Despite the lives ruined by a lack of shelters, our city has yet to take the lead in proposing we build a women's shelter for St. Albert's families in need. Fighting for such fundamental safety supports should take priority over nice-to-haves, but sadly the conversation around what to build has been dominated by recreation needs. While there has been some opportunity for public comment on the recreation centre's location, the fact we're getting another recreation centre appears to be a done deal without anyone asking whether that money could better go toward helping these women and children in peril.
For years, I have believed in the "promise of democracy", a system whereby voters elect individuals to represent them int he halls of government. This concept is based on the assumption that the voter is the "boss" and elected officials serve only as long as voters accept them in these positions. It's time to make it unacceptable for local leaders not to address domestic violence. The demand is real, the dangers are real, yet the lack of support and attention from levels of government is also real.
Brian McLeod is a St. Albert resident.