Member of the Northwest Territories' legislative assembly Michael Nadli has been convicted twice for assaulting his wife. In 2015, an election year, he pleaded guilty to an assault that broke his spouse's wrist.
In most parts of Canada, this would spell the end of a political career, but the Northwest Territories is not like the rest of the country. In the legislative assembly this week, Nadli himself acknowledged that the rate of police-reported family violence in the territory is nine times the national average, surpassed only by Nunavut.
Nadli served only eight days of a 45-day jail sentence, and was released just in time to file his papers to seek re-election. He won back his Deh Cho seat last November, despite calls from women's advocates to step out of the race. If he had remained in jail for the full sentence, Nadli wouldn't have been eligible to run.
No matter which way you look at it, the fact that Nadli still has a job in politics says a lot about the region's attitudes and response to family abuse. Only six months separated his crime and election win. "I wish I was shocked, but I think that's very representative of the attitude that the Northwest Territories has towards domestic violence and inter-partner violence," youth and women's outreach worker Nancy MacNeil told VICE at the time.
But what was widely seen as a local shame a year ago is now being used as an argument for "culturally appropriate" counselling for abusers. In Yellowknife this week, Nadli introduced a motion to extend government funding for a pilot program he was forced to enrol in following his jail sentence. Called A New Day, the project aims to stop domestic violence at its roots by addressing abusers' own trauma. In the North, that often means digging into the painful legacy of residential schools.
A New Day is expected to wind down by December 31, unless the justice minister approves new funding.
Wednesday wasn't the first time Nadli opened up about his abuse history and healing process in public, but for the first time he had 11 members standing behind him. Nadli connected the New Day project to the territory's commitments to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and to acting on missing and murdered Indigenous women. After a culture that excuses violence eased his return to power, Nadli is now being held up by his community as an unlikely hero for change.
"Mr. Speaker, I'm living proof that the New Day program can help us come to terms with our past and move beyond the use of violence as a way of coping with the things we all struggle with," he told the assembly. "Let's not eliminate one of the few programs that is available and working."
Among Nadli's supporters was former YWCA community director Julie Green, who seconded the motion, and said she was moved by Nadli's progress. She acknowledged that at the heart of the project is a fundamental shift in how to deal with family abuse.
"The Coalition against Family Violence and the Department of Justice spent more than two years looking at programs that would help men stop using violence," she told the assembly. "What they came up with was not an off-the-shelf program, but one which is culturally appropriate and community based."
Instead of sending away abusers, the New Day program pushes them to take responsibility for their actions, and aims to reintegrate them into their families and communities whenever possible. Through individual and group therapy, they explore what triggers violence and feelings of anger and powerlessness—for many, it's memories of abuse in residential schools—and work on resolving that trauma.
Nadli is himself a residential school survivor, and acknowledged his mistake in front of his peers. "I made a wrong choice and sought help to understand myself and how abuse affects our families and our communities," he said.
In the assembly, MLAs quibbled with Justice Minister Louis Sebert about how many had accessed the restorative program. Only 16 had completed all the sessions, said Sebert, but about 350 have accessed some of the services, argued MLAs. At a cost of nearly $1 million over three years, the ministry is still holding out on a decision about whether the pilot will continue. A third-party evaluation is expected to be released in the coming days.
Counsellors that facilitate the program acknowledge that treating abusers and victims together is controversial. Before any group sessions can happen, A New Day staff first make sure women know there are shelters and victims' resources available, and inform them that participation in the program doesn't guarantee safety. In many cases women say they don't want the relationship to end, they just want the violence to stop.
As an outsider, it's hard not to take the rallying behind Nadli as further pardoning of terrible behaviour. It goes against "zero tolerance" rules that the assembly has aimed to uphold in the past. Yet it also marks a shift in conversation, one that values the restorative approach many victims request, over punishments imposed from outside.
MLAs like Green urged the minister to act soon, arguing an interruption in services could reverse some of the healing work that's already in progress. "I have no quarrel with evaluating the pilot," she told the assembly. "That is the right thing to do, but the prospect of shutting the program down before coming up with a replacement is completely unacceptable."
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