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Rural distress

As Jane’s story shows, spousal abuse is a stubborn fact of life for many country women

She was a rodeo queen with a wide circle of friends that included both men and women. And she still loves horses, although she’s had to put her equestrian activities on the back burner until she recovers financially.

I catch her on the phone one evening after work. She is calm and thoughtful, pausing as she answers my questions. I wonder if she learned that carefulness by testifying in court.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll call her Jane Smith. That’s not her real name, but publishing her true identity, or even identifying which rural community she calls home could put her at risk. Because although Jane Smith might not fit the stereotype, she is a domestic abuse survivor. And it took her over seven years to walk.

What does Jane wish that people in rural communities would learn about domestic violence?

“People should know it probably happens more often than they think,” she says.

Jo-Anne Dusel is all too aware of how prevalent domestic violence can be in farm country. Dusel worked at a shelter in Moose Jaw for 20 years before taking the helm of the Provincial Association of Transition Houses and Services of Saskatchewan (PATHS). Saskatchewan currently tops the provinces for per-capita rates of domestic violence, Dusel points out.

“We have some work to do here,” she says.

Part of that work is making sure everyone — including employers, colleagues, friends, and neighbours — recognizes the signs of an abusive relationship. Marks and bruises are red flags. Calling in sick frequently is another, says Dusel.

And an abuser’s tendency to isolate the victim is a big flashing neon sign. If someone stops coming to town, or answering the phone, or if her partner takes over the phone conversation, speaking for her, “those are warning signs that are especially dangerous in a rural area,” says Dusel.

Jane’s ex (Larry Jones — also not his real name) started cutting her off from her friends shortly after they got together.

“If I was friends with any ex-boyfriends, he would just tell me straight out that he did not want me to talk to them at all,” she says. Jones’ rationale was that it would be healthier for their relationship, she adds.

But it didn’t end there. He started in on her other male friends, so she felt she had no choice but to end those friendships too. “Shortly after the male friends left my life, then he would start on the female friends.” He listened to her phone conversations and talked into them. He combed through her phone records, questioning her about them. “And the questions would turn into fights.”

“Work was a little bit of a reprieve because I had support. They could see what was happening,” Jane says. But Jones would call her on her cell and work phone, sometimes 50 times a day, she says. If she was out meeting a client, he would drive down Main Street, find her, and come into the client’s place. Or phone the client. It was the same story when she met a client at her office.

“The front desk would tell him that I was with a client. And then he’d walk through the front door, and sit in my office and wait for me until I was done.” He kept showing up at her office even after he was told he wasn’t welcome, she says.

The stalking and control left her feeling naked, “like there was not a stitch of me left or anything personal or anything private left. He really had taken away everything, mentally and physically.”

Employers need to make sure employees can talk about abuse without feeling ashamed or worrying about being fired, says Dr. Wendee Kubik, an associate professor of women’s and gender studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.

Considering that Kubik grew up in Esterhazy and taught for years at the University of Regina, it’s apt that much of her research focuses on farm women.

Kubik also advises that it’s important to be understanding if an abused employee doesn’t come to work on a particular day. And employers can connect employees with resources, keeping in mind it’s the employee’s decision to leave or seek help.

Dusel encourages employers to keep an eye out for signs of abuse as well. They should ask if the employee is okay, rather than making assumptions, she says. And both Dusel and Kubik say workplaces should have a safety plan to protect the abused employee and others in the workplace.

For example, if the abused employee is at the front desk, it may be best to move her elsewhere until the situation is resolved, says Dusel. Or if she is working in the back, the receptionist needs to know about the situation, as well as any protection orders, and be sure not to give out information about the abused employee’s schedule or whereabouts.

The receptionist should also be prepared if the abuser storms in and demands to speak to his current or former partner. “There’s a certain way of responding that’s calm and rational and respectful to the person, because you don’t want to increase their agitation,” says Dusel. “But it really, really helps to think those things out in advance.”

Workplaces can get training to help them deal with domestic violence. PATHS is offering free seminars on preventing and responding to domestic violence at work, Dusel says, and will also do in-house training for workplaces.

It’s also vital that employers and co-workers know that the most dangerous phase is while a victim is leaving, and after she’s left.

Jane Smith knows this all too well. “It wasn’t physical until the very, very end.” As his control unravelled, he became very unpredictable, she says.

As her relationship neared its end, Jane researched where she could find help from her office. But Jones discovered who she’d called and emailed, and confronted her about it. To this day, Jane doesn’t know how he found out.

They changed the locks and installed a security system at her office. “The girls at work were scared that he’d be outside when they left.”

When it comes to domestic violence, many people ask why the victim didn’t leave, or why she didn’t leave earlier. But leaving is easier said than done, especially in rural areas. For one thing, more people have access to guns, heightening the danger. “And that prevents women from leaving. And sometimes it is safer to stay,” says Dusel.

People in remote areas also have less access to resources such as counsellors and emergency shelters, says Dusel. There are shelters in some smaller and mid-sized communities, she says. “But the location is less likely to be hidden. More people will know where it is. You’re more likely to run into people you know in that community. So there’s less of that sense of confidentiality.”

A couple of years ago Kubik ran a focus group at Kamsack, Sask., focused on domestic violence. Social workers, RCMP officers, and others on the front lines of the issue comprised the group. The area includes First Nations reserves, and lack of access to a car, or not having a driver’s licence, were problems. Other barriers included lack of affordable housing, not enough resources to treat addictions, victims not having access to a phone, lack of mental health services, and programs that don’t work well together. The general area includes many different cultures, and the focus group said racism was also a problem, Kubik adds.

The victim may also fear that the abuser will either harm or neglect pets and livestock, Dusel and Kubik say. Jane experienced that fear first hand. “There were threats made towards the animals,” she says. Her friends and family contacted the RCMP because they were worried about her. But she didn’t want to endanger herself or her animals by talking to police while she was still living with him.

Things get even harder if there are children involved. In rural areas, leaving an abusive relationship often means leaving town. Kids are cut off from friends, cousins, and the rest of their support network as the family moves to an urban emergency shelter or another town. It’s not like changing schools in the city, Kubik says.

If a farm is on the line, splitting up those assets is going to be complex and take time. It’s also very visceral, Dusel says, especially if the farm has been in the family for generations. The emotion involved in breaking up that legacy adds to the risk of leaving. And an asset-rich farm family may be cash poor, Dusel adds, making it harder for the person leaving to survive financially.

Women who marry farmers usually move onto their husbands’ farms, Kubik says. That means moving into his community, where people already see him a particular way, and see the wife as a kind of outsider. That can lead to victim blaming, she adds.

Support systems vital

Anyone who’s lived in a rural community has probably attended a fundraising dance for a family that lost their home to a fire, faced a health emergency, or suffered an unexpected tragedy. So why can’t tight-knit communities be an asset for domestic abuse victims, too?

Kubik hasn’t seen that happen personally, but says it’s possible. “If both of them are from the same community, she’s likely to have some supports.”

Neighbours can play an important role, especially if a victim is isolated on a farm. “Let the person know, at a safe time, when they’re alone, that you’ve recognized that something’s going on, you care about them, and you’re willing to support them no matter what they do,” says Dusel. But that talk needs to be kept confidential. It’s especially dangerous if the abuser hears his partner is about to leave, she adds.

And it’s not just adult victims who benefit from community support. Research has established that children who grow up witnessing domestic violence are more likely to become either perpetrators or victims, Dusel says, as they repeat what they’ve learned.

But some of those kids do break the abuse cycle as they step into adulthood. “It’s often linked to having at least one really good support person in their lives who shows them there’s a different way,” says Dusel.

That person could be the other parent, an aunt or uncle, a teacher, a coach, or any number of other adults who interact with children. Often these kids consciously choose not to repeat the abuse in order to spare their future families from the trauma they suffered as children, Dusel adds.

Jane knows how important it is to have people in your corner. Unless you have an incredibly strong support system, it can seem impossible to get out of that relationship, she says. Her partner became so controlling that even keeping a diary proved dangerous because he read it. A new, unhealthy, normal had taken over her life, she says.

“It is really tough to be able to come out of that cloud and see the whole picture,” says Jane.

The realization that she had to leave wasn’t like a “slap in the face.” But little things started to nudge her out of the cloud. If she was home alone, her heart would race with fear when he pulled into the driveway and his truck’s headlights illuminated the yard. As time went on, he kept breaking his promises to get help, and she got fed up. She felt like she’d given him an honest shot at changing, she says.

One day, while still in the relationship, she went to the local RCMP detachment after work. She parked her vehicle at a different business and walked to the detachment so Jones wouldn’t see her vehicle there. Shaking in fear, she rang the buzzer. No one answered, so she left. Later she realized the RCMP’s office closed at 5 p.m.

But while she was leaving Jones, there was an altercation, she says, and the RCMP got involved. “And at that point, I didn’t have a choice but to give a statement.”

Jane says she wasn’t thinking about fixing the relationship or having charges laid as she gave her statement. It was an emotional process, but a relief to let the truth out, she says. Then the prosecutor decided to lay charges.

“And what followed was really disappointing. Really, really disappointing.”

Smith says no one prepped her to testify. A victim’s services worker told her someone would be in court to support her, but she wasn’t told what the defense was likely to ask or how they would make her feel. “They basically said just go in there and tell your story.”

In court, the defense painted her as emotionally unstable, or someone who was “straight-out lying,” she says, to sow reasonable doubt. It had been about a year since she left, she says, and she’d regained some of her confidence. But she thinks that confidence went against her, as she didn’t look like a stereotypical victim.

“Domestic violence is so complicated and the people in it change when they’re out. And it’s so hard to prove unless you have a bruise on your face.”

Her ex and his defence presented the judge with their own story. “And there was my story and there was his story, and there was no proof.” The Crown did call other witnesses to back up her story. “And the defense tore them apart.”

Asked whether legal options have improved for victims of domestic abuse, Dusel says it’s a work in progress. “It’s not ideal. I think people are trying.”

In 2003, Ontario set up a domestic homicide death review committee, which looks for risk factors, patterns, and common themes in domestic homicides. The committee also looks for who knew about the abuse and could have intervened. That process has spawned targeted programs, such as Make It Our Business.

Saskatchewan recently started reviewing domestic homicides as well. The province also has domestic violence courts in Saskatoon, Regina, and North Battleford. Eligible abusers can plead guilty and go through treatment rather than the regular court system. A reduced sentence is contingent on meeting treatment requirements.

Dusel thinks those courts could change the attitudes that ultimately lead to domestic violence and homicide. She says there’s growing recognition that to prevent future abuse, abusers need help.

As for Jane, she’s been out of that relationship for three years now. She’s still dealing with him in the courts, and she says he’s still trying to manipulate her life as much as he can.

“But it’s a hundred times better being away from him.”

What if an employee is abused on the farm, or at home

What is a farmer’s legal responsibility if one of their employees is suffering abuse? Or what if a family member is abused, or is an abuser?

Domestic violence can threaten the safety of the abused employee as well as others in the workplace.

All employers need to provide a safe working space, says Dr. Wendee Kubik. If, for example, an employee reports sexual harassment from someone else in the workplace, the business owner must take steps to make the workplace safe, she says. “And if they don’t do that, they are liable.”

Provincial codes vary, but in Saskatchewan, for instance, all employers must develop a harassment policy to protect workers from harassment. That includes harassment from other employees, supervisors, customers, and patients. And it also includes harassment outside of regular working hours, such as at conferences or work socials.

Employers can find information about how to respond to domestic violence, training opportunities, and prevention plans at

If an employer, or any other adult, knows or suspects a child is being abused or neglected, they are also legally obligated to report to police or a child welfare agency.

How should farmers or other employers deal with a worker they know to be abusive? Assuming none of the situations above apply, they could look to the Canadian Football League (CFL) for inspiration. The CFL worked with the Ending Violence Association of Canada to develop a domestic violence policy. That policy covers players, coaches, and other employees.

The league doesn’t act as criminal investigators, but instead allows experts to intervene. It offers counselling to abusers when it’s deemed helpful, and provides referrals and support to victims. If there is a clear and documented case of violence or violation of a protection order, the CFL will impose sanctions. But the policy’s focus isn’t on being punitive — instead it aims to assess and reduce risk, mitigate harm, and promote positive change.

For more information, visit

The culture of violence

It’s a very fine line between what society finds acceptable and what’s inappropriate in a relationship, says Jane Smith. She cites the romance novel 50 Shades of Grey as an example of the hairline dividing the sexy and romantic, and the controlling and inappropriate.

At first, her relationship with Larry Jones straddled that line, she says. Was he acting out of love and concern, she wondered. Her previous relationships had been unsuccessful, so perhaps he was right — perhaps this was a better way to do things, she thought. Then the lines became blurred, and she didn’t immediately realize that the relationship was unhealthy, she says.

Both Wendee Kubik and Jo-Anne Dusel see a need for a culture shift to address domestic violence. Kubik says young boys need to be educated on how to treat girls and women, but she thinks this has improved in the last few years, with media and Internet campaigns.

Tolerance of other forms of abuse, from sexual harassment to stalking, feed the problem, says Dusel. The bottom line is that it’s an attitude that says women are less than men. And so-called “locker room talk” about groping women is no laughing matter, Dusel says.

“We do recognize the vast majority of men aren’t abusive. But they don’t know how to interrupt or stop or even respond to the men who are abusive,” says Dusel.

Jackson Katz is an author and lecturer who focuses on gender, race, and violence. During a 2012 Ted Talk, he argued that violence against women is not a “woman’s issue” or “battle of the sexes.”

“What about all the young men and boys who have been traumatized by adult men’s violence?” asks Katz.

Katz sees this as a leadership issue. The responsibility to take a stand shouldn’t fall on boys or young men. It should fall to adult men with power, he says.

You can view Katz’s Ted Talk at


Looking for more information and resources to deal with abuse in your community or workplace?

Ontario’s Neighbours, Friends and Family program has information on everything from safety planning to talking to both victims and abusers (see Business owners can learn how to recognize and deal with domestic violence in the workplace at Saskatchewan employers interested in Make it Our Business training can contact Jo-Anne Dusel of PATHS at [email protected] or 306-522-3515.

Resources are available in every province. In Saskatchewan, visit for a listing of legal resources, FAQs, and more. A map of, and contact information for, shelters across Canada is available at

Some animal shelters are now working with social service agencies to keep pets safe when their owners leave abusive relationships. Check with your local animal shelters or provincial SPCA for more information.

Dr. Wendee Kubik and Jo-Anne Dusel were part of a research team looking at domestic violence in rural and northern regions of the Prairies and the North West Territories. For more information visit

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is a field editor for Country Guide.

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