The last time Maria Fitzpatrick left her violent ex-husband, she and her two young daughters stuffed what belongings they could into pillowcases and ran for their lives. The abuse had left Fitzpatrick with black eyes, broken bones and miscarriages. When she fled after nine years of marriage in 1981, he was threatening to kill her and their daughters.
It was the third time Fitzpatrick had left; on two previous attempts, she was forced to return to her abuser because the shelters she'd escaped to only let women stay for several weeks. She also felt a sense of duty to her landlords: raised to "pay her way," Fitzpatrick hated the idea of running off on her rent, even as she ran from a husband who had pressed a gun to her head, laughing.
Last week, Fitzpatrick, now an MLA for Lethbridge-East, recounted the horrors of that abusive marriage – "a trap that was intentionally or unintentionally supported by society" as she put it – at the Alberta Legislature.
Fitzpatrick told her story in support of Bill 204, which will let victims of domestic violence break their leases early without penalty from landlords. The bill passed second reading unanimously with a standing ovation and Fitzpatrick's story went viral: Women all over the world are now contacting the 66-year-old grandmother, who talks to all of them.
How is a lease a hurdle for women trying to flee abusive partners?
For me it was an extra worry that I could not handle. The second time I left, the lease was in my name. The landlord could have come back and sued me for the balance of the year that I owed. It would have been a significant amount of money that I did not have. The next time I left it was a townhouse. I contacted the landlord as I was going out the door and paid him an extra month's rent because I did not want him to sue me. Fortunately my ex didn't have a chance to put holes in the walls there.
This bill allows somebody who is in a domestic violence situation to break their lease and move to some place safe. Finances are a huge piece for that person.
Was last week the first time you spoke publicly about the years of abuse you survived?
I'd spoken to women one on one when I was a parole officer. I had women on my caseload who were in abusive relationships. I helped them pack up when they were moving out. They'd move back and I'd help them pack again the next time.
I totally understood that: They won't leave until they're ready to make that break in their own head. It is more than being hit that's the end of a relationship. I was raised Catholic and one of the biggest hurdles for me was that the Catholic Church expects when you're married that you remain married. I did some counselling and a priest said to me, "God doesn't want you to be in a relationship where you're a punching bag." That, to me, was one of the trigger points that gave me permission to leave.
You escaped on a Greyhound bus. What was that 62-hour journey like for the three of you?
A lot of that bus ride I had one daughter on one knee and one on the other. They were eight and four. We left Cincinnati and we went to Brooks, Alta., where my brother was living. Two days after we flew to Yellowknife to stay with my sister. We had with us what we could carry. We didn't have suitcases – we had pillowcases and some plastic bags. At the Canadian border, the guards questioned me extensively as the girls sat patiently waiting. I thought they weren't going to let us in, even though the three of us were born in Canada. The bus was leaving and the bus driver came in to say so. As the bus driver walked out to leave, the guard handed me my paperwork and let me go. I was relieved to be on Canadian soil but I was also in a panic, thinking maybe my ex was coming after us.
When I got to my brother's place we sat up and talked for a while. I went to bed and it was the first night in two years that I had a sound sleep. I slept for 10 hours and felt I was ready to do whatever I had to do next. We arrived to Yellowknife, driving in to my sister's place from the airport. There was fireweed blooming all over the place; I'm from Newfoundland and I felt very much like I'd come home. It was the next layer of feeling safer.
The real, final point of safety came in 1992 when I learned that he had died in 1990. I felt like I grew about two inches.
How did it feel to say it all in front of your colleagues in the Legislature?
I don't think I could have put the bill forward myself because it would have been going directly into the pain. When the bill was put forward it opened the door for me to support it, and to do so strongly. Thank god for MLAs Shaye Anderson and Rod Loloya who were sitting next to me. They both kept their hands on my back to give me a little strength to get through it. Once it was all done I felt a lot of relief.
One of your male colleagues wept openly while you spoke. How important is it to see that domestic violence upsets men deeply, too?
There are abusive men out there and there are really good men out there. I worked in corrections and worked with men who were abusers, which added to my perspective and my interest in rehabilitation and changing behaviour. I was very fortunate to actually learn a bit more about how people get to that point. I saw men lashing out at others because they had no control in their own lives, no respect for themselves or others, and had not been valued throughout their lives.
What have you heard from those women who are now in touch with you?
The most distressing thing is that since my first encounter with this violence around 1973, it is now 2015 – 41 years later – and our societal attitudes have not changed significantly enough to make domestic violence a thing of the past. The most heartening thing is that so many people are reaching out and beginning to tell their stories to move forward in a positive way in their lives.
What else do we need for abused women, beyond help with the lease?
This bill is a first step. A lot of things need to be done. Women need better access to psychological counselling, and programming to better identify negative behaviours in all of their relationships, with partners, children, siblings and co-workers. They need methods for self-protection so they can speak out. Do not keep it a secret. Speak to friends, family, police or counsellors. For abusers, we need mandatory psychological counseling which should have as its goal behaviour modification and understanding of where that controlling behaviour comes from.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Lease laws from coast-to-coast
If it becomes law in Alberta, Bill 204 will let victims of domestic abuse break their leases without financial penalty, provided that they can get landlords an emergency protection order or restraining order, or a signed statement from a nurse, doctor, social worker, psychologist or police officer.
Several other provinces already have laws in place to help victims of violence break their leases. Last month, British Columbia announced amendments that now allow tenants fleeing family violence to terminate their leases early. Tenants will need to give their landlord one month's written notice and a written form from a third-party verifier, such as justice staff or health care professional (the province will decide who these verifiers should be in the coming months).
In Nova Scotia, victims of domestic violence can apply to have their tenancy terminated early through the department of justice, but they still have to provide one month's notice.
Manitoba allows early termination of leases for victims of domestic violence, stalking and those who believe that their safety or that of their children is at risk if they stay. A designated authority must confirm that the tenant is at risk and has filed a police complaint, agreed to cooperate with the subsequent investigation and trial and also secured a court order.
As part of Ontario's Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act, legislation introduced last month would let tenants leave with 28 days' notice, if they provide a landlord with a peace bond or restraining order, or a signed and dated statement attesting that they or a child living there have experienced domestic or sexual violence. This documentation would be given in person or mailed to a landlord, who would be required to keep it confidential to protect survivors until they leave.
Amanda Dale, executive director of Toronto's Barbra Schlifer Clinic, commends Ontario's proposal, which does not force victims of domestic violence to have authorities attest to the veracity of their claims. Dale, who sat on a provincial roundtable on the proposed reforms, believes third-party verification of abuse is "demeaning and patronizing"; she doesn't understand why a sworn affidavit isn't enough.
"We end up boxing women in with a system that requires them to seek the approval of a whole bunch of people in positions of authority, when what they're trying to do is just rebuild their lives," says Dale. "When you put more power in the hands of social workers and police and court staff, it can become a gatekeeping role where they determine whether you're authentic or not.…You wind up with a series of barriers that drives women back into the arms of their abusers, which is exactly why we're putting these new provisions in place. We don't want women stuck with the rent when they need to move quickly."