Women in Transition

Helen Morrison, executive director of Cape Breton Transition House and Emily MacArthur, outreach/navigator at Willow House Community Outreach Sexual Assault Program at the 2018 Women's March. Photo taken by Wanda Earhart.

Helen Morrison, executive director of Cape Breton Transition House and Emily MacArthur, outreach/navigator at Willow House Community Outreach Sexual Assault Program at the 2018 Women’s March. Photo taken by Wanda Earhart.

Helen Morrison, executive director of Transition House in Sydney, marched with about 150 women (I spotted at least one man!) on Saturday, January 20, the first anniversary of the 2017 Women’s March, showing their support for women who are or have been victims of violence. Morrison gave an inspiring talk to the marchers, making it abundantly clear that violence of any type and against any person is wrong. Her long involvement with Transition House, which was founded in 1981, has made her well aware of the toll abuse and violence have taken on women who have sought and found shelter with the agency.

Transition House became a reality when four local women, whose friend had committed suicide as a result of domestic abuse, decided to do something for the many other women who suffered the same kind of abuse but who, for so long and for so many reasons, were unwilling to speak out about it, even to their own families.

In fact, there was definitely a time when any suggestion of abuse would be perceived by many, including other women, as something the woman brought upon herself. Women were silent because they were ashamed that someone they loved and trusted would inflict such pain and suffering on them, often while their children looked on, silent, or perhaps not-so-silent, observers. Those who did speak, to clergy or to very close women friends, were often advised, says Morrison, to remain silent and, above all, to stay with their partners, “for the sake of the children.”

Transition House is a refuge where victims of violence, in addition to a safe place to lay their heads, find other forms of assistance, through programs designed to restore their self-esteem, convince them violence “is not their shame but his,” and support them as they attempt to make new lives for themselves. Today, Transition House has beds for 20 women and children in their main building, but also provides shelter in other apartments in the area. (They have also given shelter to women who, though not victims of violence, find themselves without a place to sleep, especially when weather becomes a major concern as it did in our area during the first weeks of 2018.)

The organization has also established the Willow House Community Outreach Sexual Assault Program, which works with victims of sexual assault through counselling sessions, meetings and workshops as well as providing assistance to other agencies and answering calls from those in distress. While domestic violence against women remains of the utmost concern to them, Morrison said she believes the recent march underlined the community’s support for anyone dealing with violence in any form and in any situation.

Bea LeBlanc, Transition House’s first executive director, probably didn’t fully envision what such an institution would mean to those who had, for so long, suffered in silence. Seeking help probably comes a lot easier these days, precisely because so many others have already done so.

Speaking up is also becoming easier, as the recent rash, or should I say epidemic, of Canadian politicians being accused of harassing and/or abusing women with whom they work has illustrated. The revelations have many people shaking their heads in disbelief, but the fact is that such behavior has been part and parcel of not only politics but all environments where power rests with men. “The old boys’ club” is not a new phenomenon, what’s new is the increasing willingness of  women to speak out publicly about it.

When women must ignore or attempt to laugh off constant harassment, when they must seek advice from female co-workers to know which men have to be avoided, in elevators or their private offices, then work becomes something to be endured rather than enjoyed. And while clearly most men are neither harassers nor abusers, it can take just one persistent and willful predator to drive a woman to quit a job that she had considered to be a wonderful opportunity. One of the most disappointing aspects of the whole situation is that, according to so many of these harassed women, many of their male co-workers witnessed the harassment but did nothing. (It occurred to me that a call to the wives of some of these whitened sepulchers might call a halt to their away-from-home activities.)

What’s needed, according to Helen Morrison, is a cultural change, such that, just as “drinking and driving” has become unacceptable, so violence against women would no longer be tolerated in our society.

Amen to that!


Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.