“You’re a wonderful challenge.”
This is how Rina Arseneault’s mother described her 13th child, the only one in her brood of 14 that harrumphed about picking up after her brothers, having an earlier curfew than the boys and being told by her father that she didn’t need more than a Grade 10 education (not for a future of changing diapers).
Ms. Arseneault’s solution to that was to negotiate a deal with an elderly neighbour in her northern New Brunswick hometown who would allow her to exchange care and housework for room and board – and to continue past Grade 10 in her studies.
“I was difficult,” Ms. Arseneault said with an unapologetic grin during a reflective interview. “But I was able to go to school during the day and come home at night and just do the cleaning and the meals and all that,” she said, adding: “My passion … has always been equality. It is such an unequal world.”
It may be slightly less so for the 25 years of work Ms. Arseneault has put into it. After dropping out of university (which she paid for herself) for the lure of a stable paying job as a psychiatric attendant, Ms. Arseneault went on to finish several degrees and became a social worker.
She is known now in New Brunswick as one of the province’s most authoritative voices on family and intimate partner violence and was honoured in December with a Governor-General’s award commemorating the Persons case, a 1929 court battle won by five women who launched a bid to be recognized as persons (and thus eligible for Senate appointments).
The award is given to those who have made exceptional contributions to women’s equality. For Ms. Arseneault, who also holds the Order of Canada, it would make a lovely bookend to a career. It just happens that Ms. Arseneault is not quite finished hers yet.
Officially, Ms. Arseneault will retire in December from her position as the associate director of the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.
But she is not nearly through with trying to improve the lives of women.
“I have all these women in my head that have shared with me the most awful things,” she said. They are women who recounted being raped by family members and disowned for becoming pregnant, women who are haunted by childhood memories of tucking younger siblings behind a furnace nightly to hide them from an angry father’s rage and abuse. They are women who cut their own bodies in an effort to reveal their pain because, Ms. Arseneault said, they could hardly manage to speak it.
All of them – and hundreds more – trusted their stories to Ms. Arseneault.
“Those voices have always propelled me forward. I’m the shyest person you’ve ever met. But I’ve always pushed myself … to speak out.”
In the early 1990s, that meant establishing a link between the ivory towers of academia and grassroots community workers. Ms. Arseneault thought both groups could advance domestic-violence research if they worked together – a fringe concept at the time.
“When Rina started this work in the early nineties, it was considered a radical approach to include non-academics as equal partners in the research process,” said Cathy Holtmann, director of UNB’s family violence centre. “She was really at the forefront of doing community-based research which, today, is normal.”
Ms. Arseneault went on to participate in action-oriented studies (those that led to policy and other change) as well as training first responders on how to be effective with victims of domestic violence. She often teaches them to remember that trauma tends be stored in the brain in a woman’s mother tongue; if her memory of experiencing abuse is in French or Mi’kmaw, for example, interviewing her in English will likely lead to less effective investigations.
Her recent work involves a bid to train hairdressers and estheticians on how to help clients who are victims of intimate partner or other domestic violence. After successful pilot training sessions in Fredericton and Saint John, the family-violence research centre is in talks with the Cosmetology Association of New Brunswick to formalize a provincewide training program, Ms. Holtmann confirmed.
The idea is to get what Ms. Arseneault calls the “informal system,” that is often first to encounter victims of abuse, to connect those victims with the “formal system” designed to help them.
More than her ability to spy gaps where they ought to be bridged, Ms. Arseneault is credited with having what one colleague called “boundless” energy to carry a torch that can be relentlessly heavy – and for galvanizing others to do the same.
“This is an issue where it is so hard that you are tempted, once in a while, to say ‘I’ve done my part.’ It is hard on the heart and hard on the head,” said Norma Dube, formerly the assistant deputy minister responsible for women’s issues in New Brunswick. “Rina has never given up.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect spelling of Rina Arseneault's name. This is a corrected version.