Welcome to Signal for Help, a special podcast series from the Canadian Women’s Foundation and award-winning women journalists, Media Girlfriends.

We know that gender-based violence is a problem, and we want to support survivors in our lives, but there’s a lot of stigma and silence around gender-based violence in our society: too many people who experience abuse are shamed, silenced, and stigmatized, and too many people don’t feel confident and competent in supporting them.

Featuring interviews with survivors and experts, we’ll explore how everyday people can better support survivors of gender-based violence.

This podcast includes stories of gender-based violence. Please listen with care.

Bernadette has always been drawn to helping people. And now, that’s exactly what she does living and working in Halifax as a court advocate for women fleeing abusive relationships.  

This work is personal for Bernadette. She grew up in a “dysfunctional” home where she suffered corporal punishment at the hands of her father. Then, in her early 20s, met her now ex-husband, who abused her throughout their 29-year relationship. This included physical abuse during her pregnancy, as well as enduring emotional abuse such as control and belittlement.  

She felt that friends and family minimized her experience, and she had to find her own way out of the marriage. Today, she often experiences minimizing language and rationale coming from those who are tasked with deciding the fate of her clients. 

To help, Bernadette emphasizes the importance of validating survivor voices and educating responders with the right language to go along with a deeper level of empathy. 


Hi. This podcast includes stories of gender-based violence. Please listen with care. 

Welcome to Signal for Help. I’m Nana aba Duncan.  

Do you know what it’s like when someone decides to tell you their story of being abused, especially when it’s a story like the one we’ll hear today about being abused by someone you love? The privilege of hearing a story like that is enormous, and I am so humbled by the stories that people are sharing in this podcast. 

So, I’m just going to take a step back for a second. As you know, there is so much stigma around gender-based violence in our society. But the stories in this podcast are so important because there are simple ways to help. Ways for you to go from being a bystander to a responder when someone gives you a signal for help. When we first set out to make this podcast with the Canadian Women’s Foundation, we knew our goal. We wanted to give regular people like you and me the information we need to be ready when someone in our lives needs help. When they are experiencing gender-based violence and they turn to you or me, their parent, their sibling or friend. And we knew we needed to hear from experts, so we look for survivors who are already telling their stories publicly. 

Like today’s guest Bernadette. 

00:01:52 Bernadette 

The verbal and emotional and the mental can be more devastating than a slap, a kick, a punch or bruise, because the lingering effects of those attacks on my spirit and essence of who I am stay. And it takes a lot of work to turn that around. 

00:02:12 Nana aba 

When we look for people to be on this podcast, Bernadette came to us. She told us that she had experienced intimate partner violence with her partner, who she was with for 30 years, and she told us a lot of details about her life from growing up in a small town in Nova Scotia to the work she does today with an organization called Alice House. And at Alice House, Bernadette helps women navigate the court system, as they start their lives over, away from domestic violence. Let’s get to know Bernadette. What exactly does a court support services coordinator do? 

00:02:47 Bernadette 

The role is to create a meaningful court plan that’s aimed at stopping the violence and helping to repair the harms that have been caused. Also, advocacy and support services is one aspect of my role providing support for women that are navigating the court system and the services.  

00:03:05 Nana aba  

That’s a lot, Bernadette! 

00:03:06 Bernadette 

It is a lot! 

00:03:08 Nana aba 

Yeah, that’s a lot that you do, so I imagine every day is different. 

00:03:12 Bernadette 

It is different. It absolutely is. You really don’t know from one day to the next, but you take it, take whatever comes and you deal with it in the best that you can. 

00:03:20 Nana aba 

When did you know that you wanted to help people as a career? 

00:03:23 Bernadette 

What an interesting question. It came early for me and I consider myself one of those fortunate ones where I didn’t have to struggle for life to figure out what I wanted to do. So, for me it began in my teens, actually, my mid to late teens. And I think it really it grew from there because I would often be told by some of my peers or just my friends’ parents, who would often say you’re so easy to talk to or you don’t judge people. And coming from a background of large family and just seeing the community in which lived and some of the challenges and how people had always struggled and my friends, my cousins, because again, I had a large extended family as well. So, I’ve had some exposure to some of those challenges that we face both as an individual as a family member and a community member. So yeah, I knew early on. 

00:04:13 Nana aba 

You mentioned challenges. Tell me about those challenges. 

00:04:17 Bernadette 

Growing up in a large family of 13, both of my parents worked outside of the home. We grew up in poverty, but one thing we never did without food, we never did without clothing, we had the basic needs. We had shelter, clothing and we were loved in the best way that they knew how to. And yeah, so coming from a large family in a small village with a population of just over 2000 people and not really having a lot of the extra stuff that I guess we know of today. 

00:04:45 Nana aba 


00:04:47 Bernadette 

There was no Internet back then and you had three channels on the TV. For us it was a struggle to even have hot water. I could remember us having an out house and as kids growing up, we often times would just go and find our own ways of amusing ourselves. And so, I was one who spent a lot of time at the beach near the water. So that was a lot of where I would escape to when things would become overwhelming or too much. 

00:05:11 Nana aba 

Do you think any of that has prepared you for the work that you do now? 

00:05:15 Bernadette 

I would definitely say yes to that. I think it’s given me a deeper understanding just for the struggles that people face in general. I think for me the most difficult period would have been probably once I hit my teenage years. I think that was really where I had my greatest struggles. My dad, he ruled with an iron fist, let’s say. So, corporal punishment was very real in our household. That was the way in which we were raised, and I understand that going back to those days and those times, that’s just the way things were done. And we never used words like physical abuse or violence or it was just to us, it was discipline. 

When we did something wrong, that’s how it was taken care of and having witnessed that with younger siblings, it definitely had an impact. It created anger, for sure. Where, I was definitely angry with my dad. With my mum. She again, she worked outside of the home and they did the best that they could to provide but a lot of the emotional stuff wasn’t there, and if there’s one thing that I often long for growing up was that closeness with my mother.  

As a child growing up, my mother wasn’t really affectionate at all. But when I take a look and you know, ponder her childhood, that was kind of the way it was. They were pushed out of the home and if men came by they would be pushing the men, the daughters toward these men. And particularly if they were older men and if they were men who may have had money. And that was the way my grandmother was. That’s how she and what she believed. If we find the man who’s got money and you do this and you look nice and you wear lipstick and you keep your nails clean, and this is what you do to attract those men. But even then at my young age, I didn’t agree with that way of thinking. 

00:06:52 Nana aba 

So, when you met your ex, you had in your mind that that kind of approach was not the way to be. How old were you when you met your ex? 

00:06:59 Bernadette 

I was 21 when I met him. 

00:07:03 Nana aba 

And how did you meet? 

00:07:04 Bernadette 

We grew up in the same community and ironically enough, both of our parents actually worked together at a hotel motel. They were both chefs there, so there was a family connection already there. 

00:07:14 Nana aba 

So, at what point did you start to notice that the relationship wasn’t going well? 

00:07:19 Bernadette 

Well, he was angry, like I knew that he was still carrying some residual stuff from the past, from his marriage, that he had. So, in terms of some of those signs when name calling would start or he would become very critical of things that I would do or things that I wouldn’t do.  

00:07:35 Nana aba 

So, you’re in this relationship where he is saying negative things to you, and I’m imagining that you are telling your family or sharing with friends. How did they support you? 

00:07:47 Bernadette 

I have to honestly say that I didn’t really have friends. I’ve had acquaintances and maybe like relatives, childhood friends, but honestly, I didn’t really have friends. That’s not a lie. That’s the truth. And so, in terms of family, because there was a period of time where I’d be completely isolated, there was no real connection and that would go on for long periods of time. Where there would be no connecting with family, so I was basically on my own. And then there were times where family would have witnessed, let’s say, times of where he would have verbally shamed me. So, if he didn’t like what was said, he would just get up and leave. Often times, which is what would happen and then of course, if he’s leaving, I’m leaving too, because we came together so I gotta leave with him. And then sometimes that would just continue to ensue in the verbal disagreement or argument.  

00:08:48 Nana aba 

I want to know about the impact of all of this. What is the toll of the constant mental spiritual abuse that had on you over those many years? 

00:08:59 Bernadette 

I think the feeling of inadequacy really stands out for me, feeling like you could never really measure up or that you could never really be enough or the feeling that maybe this is my life and these are the choices that I made. Definitely some self blame on that, blaming myself and what was it about me that would allow someone to treat me that way.  And so, there was definitely anger with myself, disappointment, and early on, I guess, really when the signs were there, why did I stay? And again, the question, I know the answer to that and I always said it was because of my son. Because of that belief of keeping the family together for better or for worse. 

00:09:38 Nana aba 

I want to go back to your family members to the help that could have been useful when you needed it, when you were in your relationship with your ex? Why do you think it was hard for them to help you. 

00:09:52 Bernadette 

That’s a good question. I think really the fact that I was isolated I think was a big part of that. So, they didn’t really, you know, to the extent, let’s say, to what that abuse look like. I don’t even know, honestly, that would have been a word that was used to be honest. 

00:10:10 Nana aba 

What word is that? 

00:10:12 Bernadette 


00:10:24 Nana aba 

When you were ready to leave, did they know? 

00:10:25 Bernadette 

Throughout the years in the relationship, I had definitely verbalized that many times. I did leave multiple times, but I kept going back. I didn’t stay away, and of course, I think there was definitely a dependence there. There’s no question about that, particularly with the financial piece, not really feeling like I had anywhere to go, not really feeling like I did have the support of my family. And even here, up to four or five years ago, when I did decide to leave. I’ve reached out to my family in terms of where was I gonna stay and I reached out to two family members and they both denied me shelter there with their family. So again, that was a bitter pill to swallow. The time when you’re ready to reach out and you’re ready to leave. 

00:11:08 Nana aba 

You don’t get the help that you need. What would have helped you beyond if they had taken you in. What else would have helped? 

00:11:16 Bernadette 

I think just being supportive, honestly and non judgmental. Just leaving a space just for me to sort through what had happened and what had been happening on my own time and just to be there without even questioning or asking. I think too, because we get tired of having to have the same conversation over and over and over. And all that really goes with that. 

00:11:42 Nana aba 

I wanted to turn to the responders role and how a person can respond in a supportive way, and I know you say language is important. If a person sees that their friend or family member might be experiencing violence or has experienced violence with a partner, and they’re moving through the legal system. What are a few sentences that they can say to be there for them? 

00:12:08 Bernadette 

One of the things that I’ve always said is being non judgmental. I think that it’s important to just be there and whether it’s present and in the physical form, just being there and just allowing a safe space. I think for the individual who has experienced this to really set the pace. I think is what’s important. Following their lead, I guess I like to call it that. So, I think in terms of supporting that, I think #1 is the validating of the experience, I believe you when you tell me that this has been happening and I think that’s really important to validate that experience. And letting them know that they’re not alone and that I’m here to support you, even if it’s just to listen. I don’t have to say anything just to be present with you and walk with you through that journey. And what does that look like? It can look like a lot of different things in terms of the justice system. Obviously, the acquirement or the attaining of a lawyer. Supporting them, whether it’s helping, even if it’s just being with them when they make that initial call. Or maybe it means driving them to the local courthouse where they can go and make an application for whatever that looks like. Whether it’s a separation or it could be custody, I think that’s really important. And maybe if you have information with regard to transition houses in the localized area, people who have a better sense of the issue of intimate partner violence, I think it’s important having that understanding. 

00:13:38 Nana aba 

Yeah, I think that even giving examples like you can drive them somewhere. That’s not something everybody thinks might be helpful, but it really is. I want to ask you this question; when it comes to the women that you work with and support, what is something that you hear from them over and over again about leaving a relationship? What are the patterns? 

00:13:59 Bernadette 

Always children, when there are children involved, it always becomes about the children, and the big thing is custody. That’s a huge piece. The fear of not having or the partner taking the children from them, withholding them. CPS is huge. The fear of child welfare involvement, particularly if they’re being threatened with things like I’m gonna call Children Aid on you. And I’m gonna tell them that you’re unfit parent. And I’m gonna tell them that your house is a mess, that you’re a terrible cleaner, you’re living in filth. So those are really the two big ones, the children and then the fear of the children being taken from them are huge. 

00:14:35 Nana aba 

You talk a lot about the language that is used and how important it is to communicate in a way that doesn’t retraumatize, or minimize people’s experiences. What are some of the words and the phrases that you regularly use in your work that does not retraumatize people? 

00:14:53 Bernadette 

Well, I think again. It goes back to the validating of the experience, believing the women believing them when they tell you their story, validating the experience, oftentimes sharing. So, I think minimizing language. Also he won’t allow me to see my family or he stops me from going where I want to go. And so, the language that I would use is, it sounds like he’s isolating you and isolation is absolutely an indication of power and control where they’re trying to prevent you from having those connections or contacts with them, whether they’re jealous because of that or they feel threatened by that. What are those underlying issues? And those types of  what I call tactics and being projected with them. 

00:15:37 Nana aba 

And what is the purpose of reframing the language in this way, what does it do? 

00:15:43 Bernadette 

I think the purpose of reframing the language is making it… it’s like, how do I say this, making it relevant to what intimate partner violence is. Being more specific to what intimate partner violence is. uUsing the language that identifies it as intimate partner violence, I think is huge. So, when he calls me a name and he puts me down, that’s emotional abuse and making that connection. I think that was really true for me as well that I didn’t really see it as that, early on. And it wasn’t until it evolved and then I started to realize that this is emotional abuse. This is mental abuse, and that wasn’t common language for me. Going back then back in the day, I didn’t hear that. Oh, that’s emotional abuse. That’s mental abuse. 

00:16:35 Nana aba 

So having the language gives you power. 

00:16:40 Bernadette 

It does. And I hear that with women when I share with them. So, for example, sharing with them, what does mental abuse look like. What does emotional abuse look like. What does psychological abuse look like and actually connecting those dots to say when he’s keeping me from my family, that’s an attempt to control. That’s an attempt to isolate. That’s the breaking down of those relationships, withholding the car keys, keeping you from accessing the car so you can’t go and do whatever it is you want to do. Withholding money. That’s financial abuse. Using money for things that he wants and not for things that you want or things that the family needs. That’s financial abuse. So, I think it’s so important to call it and name it what it is. 

00:17:22 Nana aba 

I imagine though that when a person hears that reframing that it’s not immediate that you yourself would be using those new terms that you’re hearing, right. If I have been saying, he puts me down, he puts me down and someone tells me that is an emotional abuse it likely takes time, right? For me to now start calling this emotional abuse. 

00:17:43 Bernadette 

At times, absolutely. And I think again that is oftentimes related to their experience and the way in which they frame it for themselves in terms of that understanding. So, if you think about it, of course, in the context of being the partner of islands and being in a relationship with somebody that you know you love, you’ve given your life to, for better or for worse. Then you know you’re in this relationship and the very person who says that they love you is the same person who uses words that basically diminish your self worth. So things as I stated about saying that you’re a whore, nobody will ever want you. You’re never good enough. You’ll never amount to anything, and that anything that you do is never right. So, I think in that context, when I talk about the emotional and the mental. It’s as if every negative word that’s been said to you has attached itself to you, and that somewhere along the way when you hear something over and over again, particularly from the person who you love and who says they love you. There’s a part of you that begins to question that begins to, so maybe I’m not the best mother. Maybe I’m not the best wife. Maybe I could have done that better. Maybe I could have did that better and so, you start to question yourself. And in doing that, I think it can become very diminishing in terms of your spirit. 

So, we take on all those things that have been said to us and we start to believe that and it wears away and it evolves at the very essence and the very core and the very spirit of who you believe yourself to be. I thought I was this, and now you’re telling me that I’m not? I thought I was that. But now you’re telling me that I’m not? So maybe there’s some truth in what you’re saying to me. So, I take that on and I begin to believe that. And so, devoting away at my spirit, and this is what I’ve seen, having worked in transition house for over 15 years, women coming through the doors of our shelter and their head is down and their shoulders are down and there’s no essence, there’s no joy. There’s no happy. Because the very core in essence of who they are has been diminished, and I can slap you and I can kick you and I can leave a bruise and I can leave a broken bone. But you will heal from that eventually, overtime. Bruises will heal. Cuts, broken bones will heal. But my spirit won’t heal as quickly as those bones because I absolutely believe what you have said to me to be true. And I guess that’s what I meant when I said the verbal and emotional and the mental could be more devastating than a slap, a kick, a punch or bruise, because the lingering effects of those attacks on my spirit and essence of who I am stay. And it takes a lot of work. Takes a lot of work to turn that around. To build yourself up to a point of where you now believe in yourself, where you love yourself, and I think that’s what happened to me, I fell out of love with myself. I lost my love. I did. I lost the love of myself. I truly did. And all the things that I love to do, I no longer do. And up until about four or five years ago, one of the things that I absolutely loved to do was ice skating. 

And when I got out of the relationship, I went and I bought myself a pair of skates and I got myself back on the ice. And it was the most liberating, the most exciting thing that I did in the 30 years that I was in that relationship. And I don’t leave home today without my skates in the car. 

00:21:44 Nana aba 

In light of everything that you’ve talked about what attitudes have you seen in the courtroom with courtroom administrators and others in the courtroom that re-traumatize folks? 

00:21:58 Bernadette 

I think the big thing that stands out for me is the revictimization of the victim. For example, a lawyer for the offender and a counselor for the offender would be using language of saying that “Oh, she’s manipulating. She’s just trying to manipulate the system or trying to manipulate the process,” and even with the language, I think again, so, to call it what it is. So if it’s emotional abuse, let’s call it emotional abuse. If it’s financial, let’s call it financial. And so, I think that there needs to be more work honestly in that area in terms of the ongoing continuation of educating those service providers that are there to assist, help those that are within the system.  

00:22:43 Nana aba 

Now taking it outside of the courts, what should a responder say or do for someone who is leaving an abusive situation or considering leaving one? 

00:22:57 Bernadette 

I think it’s important to again to have a sense of what does helping look like for that individual, and #1 do they want the help? Are they at a point where they want to get assistance or help. I think it’s important to have a sense of resources, in particular for that specific situation, in particular to intimate partner violence. I think it’s important to know the resources for those areas. And again, I think being nonjudgmental because I think that it’s definitely a challenge still for women trying to navigate, whether it’s leaving the relationship or navigating the systems in which now they’re caught up in because of the separation that has come due to the intimate partner violence. 

00:23:38 Nana aba 

Bernadette, you’ve been really helpful here. I appreciate everything that you’ve said. Thank you so much for sharing your story. 

00:23:47 Bernadette 

For the grace of God, I’m here today. 

00:24:10 Nana aba 

I’m so grateful to Bernadette for telling her story and for emphasizing why words matter. Language does matter, and I am learning all the time. I hope you found Bernadette story as powerful as I did. And if you want to learn more about what you can do when someone needs your help, you can go to the Canadian Women’s Foundation website. 

You can sign up to be a signal for help responder and join the learning journey, or take the mini course online. It takes about an hour and helps you practice by making choices in specific scenarios. I did it myself and I found it very helpful. Afterall when you know how to respond to the signs of abuse. You can change the story. Take action at signalforhelpresponder.ca 

Signal for help is a podcast from the Canadian Women’s Foundation, made by Media Girlfriends. 

Producers of this show are Garvia Bailey and Hannah Sung. 

Associate producer is Elena Hudgens Lyle.  

Post-production is by David Moreau. 

I’m Nana aba Duncan.  

Again, if you’re feeling like you need support. Go to signalforhelpresponder.ca and click on get help for links to services and information. Take care of yourself and thank you for listening. 


This project has been funded by Women and Gender Equality Canada.

Logos for Women and Gender Equality Canada and Government of Canada