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Champions for the cause

By CN Content posted 06-03-2016 00:00

Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald are determined to have non-state torture recognized as a human rights violation and a crime

Jun 03, 2016, By: Debra Huron
Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald
Teckles Photography Inc.

Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald are hopeful they are nearing success in their 23-year campaign to have non-state torture recognized as a human rights violation and a crime in Canada, thanks to a private member’s bill now at the committee stage in the House of Commons.

Liberal MP Peter Fragiskatos introduced Bill C-242 in the House in February. On April 21, during second reading of the bill, MPs lauded Sarson and MacDonald for their commitment to human rights and social justice. The bill was referred to the standing committee on justice and human rights for debate.

Non-state torture (NST) refers to ongoing mental, physical and sexualized violence that occurs in domestic or commercial spheres. Both nurses say they suffered violence and abuse when they were growing up, which made them open and sensitive to the horrific stories of violence they heard from patients.

The two advocates are Maritimers by birth and live in Truro, N.S. Sarson started her career in public health, living for 11 years in the Canadian Arctic and working in nursing stations and hospitals there. MacDonald has worked in hospitals, in community health and in home care. Sarson was working as a public health nurse and MacDonald as a continuing care coordinator in Truro when they met in 1989. They were sharing an office. “We would talk to each other after work about our philosophies and beliefs,” says Sarson. They discovered they were like minded and became friends.

While continuing in their full-time roles, they started a private practice, one evening a week, to support individuals who had self-identified as enduring relationship violence. Their debriefings often revolved around the long-term mental, emotional and physical violence they were hearing about — mostly, but not exclusively, from women — that were clearly torture, rather than abuse. “We knew we were listening to crimes, grave crimes, that were human rights violations,” says MacDonald. She adds that these crimes include electric shocking, whipping and beating, inflicting psychological torture, immobilizing or suffocating, and withholding food, drink and sleep.

In exploring the Criminal Code, they realized that although it contained provisions to prosecute officials, such as peace officers, public officers and members of the Canadian Forces for acts of state torture, NST had been ignored in the justice system.

Sarson and MacDonald committed to ensuring the code would one day be amended. They knew that without a law dealing specifically with NST, victimized individuals were limited to pressing charges for types of assault. “If someone who had been tortured wanted to go to court, they couldn’t go and say they were tortured,” Sarson explains. “In my opinion, that is like being forced to consent to not really telling the truth and being silenced. If you’ve been raped thousands of times over 20 years, it is not an assault.”

Seeking national and international allies, they joined NGOs that supported recognition of NST as a human rights violation and that had standing to advocate at the United Nations. Ultimately, the UN’s Committee Against Torture made a recommendation that Canada add NST to the Criminal Code. “This was a huge success,” Sarson says, “and a pivotal moment in our activism.”

She says their website (launched in 2004 to help raise awareness), has attracted national and international attention. More than 5,000 people who have personal stories of NST have contacted them for information and support.

The two report that CNA, the Native Women’s Association of Canada and the Canadian Federation of University Women are among the groups that have written letters in recent months to MPs and to the minister of justice in support of the bill. And they are enthusiastic about an online petition, launched by Fragiskatos, giving the public a chance to back it as well

The response has given new optimism to the nurses, who admit they are battle fatigued. “It’s been painful and demanding,” Sarson says of their decades-long efforts. “Over the years, many people told us to our faces that we were out to lunch.” Writing letters, lobbying politicians, travelling to UN meetings, garnering support and responding to the stories of those who have been victimized has meant time away from husbands, children and other pursuits.

Sarson is retired now from her job in public health and has turned more of her attention to research and writing on NST. “I don’t ever plan to walk away from this work. It’s too important.” However, she does find time to garden and likes to make preserves and juice. She says her garden is a way of being close to the land, which keeps her in touch with her Métis and Acadian roots.

MacDonald, a full-time home care coordinator, does most of the networking — an integral component of their advocacy efforts. Her relaxation comes from finding beauty and humour in the world, she says. She loves to travel and to connect with new people and cultures.

While there is no guarantee the bill will become law, the nurses believe that if it does, a new era will dawn for the thousands of women and men they have heard from over the years.

MacDonald says she hopes that “if there’s a law and there’s data and we have more research on this subject, care providers will be more knowledgeable about how to provide care and can start getting into prevention.”

The two know from their own experiences of enduring violence as children that it is possible to heal from such trauma. Still, MacDonald asserts, “it doesn’t matter how you survive or how you cope; to have a childhood without violence is a far better experience. As a nurse hoping to prevent non-state torture, that’s been my ultimate goal — that children should never have to endure such wrongs and atrocities.”

10 questions with Jeanne Sarson

What is one word you would use to describe yourself?

If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be?
That I could live another 100 years

What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to learn?
My shyness

“If I had more free time, I would...”
Cocoon once in a while

What is your biggest regret?
I was unable to find an opening to do my PhD on non-state torture

What was the last good book you read?
Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work by Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare

Who inspired you to become a nurse?
Not who, but what: poverty and necessity

What was the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
Pursue degrees

What is the best thing about your current job?
The privilege of witnessing women recover from non-state torture

Name one change you would like to make to the health system.
Relational assessments should become a normal nursing skill

10 questions with Linda MacDonald

If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be?
I’d be able to speak other languages

What are you most proud of having accomplished?
I’m the mother of three caring adult children — two daughters and a son

What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to learn?
I read my horoscope daily

Where did you go on your last vacation?
Basque Country and Barcelona

Name one place in the world you’d most like to visit.
Nordic countries

What was the last good book you read?
Man Made Language by Dale Spender

Who inspired you to become a nurse?
My inner voice

What was the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
To value my ability to be present with people

What is the best thing about your current job?
Helping transform society to be more caring for survivors of non-state torture

What do you like least about being a nurse?
The oppression I have experienced related to nursing being a female-dominated profession

Debra Huron is a writer in Ottawa.