A woman who counsels vulnerable Indigenous women in the Parry Sound-Muskoka area said she has seen firsthand how devastating the COVID-19 global pandemic has been for the people she tries her best to help.
Suzanne Smoke said she has seen definite increases in the number of domestic assault incidents and addiction and mental health problems since the pandemic hit a year ago.
Smoke is helping women in her role with Muskoka Parry Sound Sexual Assault Services. She also works in Indigenous outreach programs and is a tireless fighter against the human trafficking of Indigenous females. She is also a proud mother, life-giver and auntie to many.
“Each and every one of us who are Indigenous are vulnerable considering not only the pandemic, but with colonialism that puts us in these precarious positions. When we look at COVID and its impact — a lot of Indigenous women are stuck. There is no affordable housing. There is no escape route for women seeking safety from violence,” Smoke said. “For an Indigenous woman with children who flees from the home, the risk in leaving an abusive partner is the apprehension of her children. It has not been about the needs of vulnerable Indigenous women, but it absolutely should be.”
Smoke said that’s the reason so many domestic abuse cases in Indigenous homes go unreported — women are afraid of losing their children.
She added that Indigenous women have an inherent mistrust of agencies, including police and the health-care system.
“There is a lot of bias and systemic barriers within the health-care system. Canadians can absolve themselves of any wrongdoing or say that it is not prevalent, but we in the Indigenous community deal with it every single day. There are all these barriers already in place and now we have COVID. Our women are falling through the cracks. There are increased stressors due to COVID on sexual assault centres and domestic violence shelters.”
She said there needs to be increased supports for Indigenous women across Canada, and that includes the Parry Sound-Muskoka area, where there is no shelter specifically designated for Indigenous women. There is the Esprit Place Family Resource Centre in Parry Sound, which is available to all vulnerable women, Indigenous and non-Indigenous. Smoke said vulnerable Indigenous women in the area often become nomads as they are forced to travel away from their home communities, and they struggle to find safe havens for themselves and their children.
“We had a young survivor who we took to a shelter, but it was full, so we took her to a different one. But then housing and social services in the first area said you are no longer in our area, so we can’t support you. Even though that’s her homeland, that’s her territory, that’s where she comes from, because she was moved out of the area seeking safety, she no longer qualifies for services,” Smoke said.
How she performs her duties has also changed during the pandemic.
"It’s my obligation to others to mask up, to wear my PPE. If I’m going out feeding Elders. If I’m going out feeding houseless people, how am I doing that work if I’m at risk? What if I’m a carrier and don’t know? It’s our responsibility to make sure we are negative as we look after Elders, as we look after babies,” she said.
Smoke said that even though Indigenous people have been isolated from friends and family during COVID-19, in some ways the virus has helped bring people together spiritually.
“There has been a lot of people looking out for one another. Everybody is caring for each other. Everyone is sistering up. That’s what I see during COVID, Indigenous people helping each other,” Smoke said. “We need to mask up, social distance and continue to help each other stay safe.”
John McFadden is a Local Journalism Reporter with the Parry Sound North Star, MuskokaRegion.com and Simcoe.com. LJI is funded by the Government of Canada
John McFadden, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, muskokaregion.com