HALIFAX — Forty days ago, a woman returned to her home on Nova Scotia’s We’koqma’q First Nation to find her 22-year-old daughter, Cassidy Bernard — a new mother of infant twins — dead.
“Her daughter was murdered,” said Paula Marshall, executive director of the Mi’kmaq Legal Support Network.
“Her five-and-a-half month old identical twin girls lay dehydrated in a crib beside her, very seriously ill.”
Marshall described the horrific scene at a funding announcement in Halifax Monday, where federal Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef announced $50 million for programs aimed at gender-based violence.
In the wake of a global reckoning on the widespread nature of sexism, misogyny and gender-based violence, she said more survivors than ever are coming forward to seek support and tell their stories.
Monsef said 60 projects across the country will receive up to $1 million each over five years to address gaps in support for underserved groups, including Indigenous women, LGBTQ communities, gender non-binary people and women in rural and remote areas.
“We know that gender-based violence leaves scars — physical, psychological and emotional scars — and the impact is felt by individuals, their families as well as their communities,” she said.
“The more we understand about the enormous cost of gender-based violence, the greater we are prepared to continue efforts to prevent it and when it does occur, to support survivors, to hold perpetrators accountable and to take measures to break the cycle of violence.”
Marshall pointed out that Indigenous women and girls are three times more likely to experience violence, a statistic illustrated by Bernard’s death.
She said African-Nova Scotian women share many of the same struggles, and are over-represented in the country’s jails.
“Many of the women that are victimized are those women that are marginalized, women that are struggling, maybe living a high-risk lifestyle, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve support and hope,” Marshall said.
She added that she’s hopeful the new funding will help organizations that work with Indigenous and African-Nova Scotian communities provide more support and services in a holistic, meaningful and culturally appropriate way.
In Nova Scotia, three organizations are set to receive funding: The Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Halifax, the Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre and Sexual Assault Services Association and the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women.
The council is also set to receive matching funds of up to $1 million from the provincial government.
Kelly Regan, the minister responsible for Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women, said the province is also working directly with Mi’kmaw and African-Nova Scotian organizations to better support victims and reduce the impact of violence.
She said the province hopes to better support these communities in culturally grounded ways, which she said welcomes women “who typically don’t feel connected to more traditional mainstream ways of offering supports” and leads to better outcomes.
Meanwhile, Lucille Harper, executive director of the Antigonish centre, said one of the biggest challenges rural women face is the cost of transportation to access services.
Another challenge in small communities — where everybody knows everybody — is the lack of anonymity, she said.
Pam Rubin, a feminist therapist with the centre, said the new funding will allow them to address these barriers. She said they will start by consulting people in rural areas to develop a community-led approach to addressing gender-based violence.
“We are not top-down,” she said. ”The community knows what will work in their unique circumstances.”
Jackie Stevens, executive director of Avalon, said the centre has been perennially under-resourced to address demand in the Halifax region — demand that has grown after high-profile cases like the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, the suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons and multiple trials.
“Last year we saw the highest number of people accessing services after a sexual assault that occurred up to five days ago,” Stevens said, adding that it’s unclear whether that reflects an increase in cases or more survivors seeking help.
The centre offers therapeutic counselling services for victims of sexualized violence, which she said now has a wait list of up to 18 months for people with reports of historical or childhood abuse.
Stevens said the funding will enable Avalon to continue addressing violence against women and other forms of gender-based violence, and “push forward societal and systemic change.”
Meanwhile, the RCMP is continuing to investigate Bernard’s death, which they call ”suspicious.”
The We’koqma’q band council is offering a $100,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest and conviction.