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Editor's note: The following story contains content some readers will see as sensitive and disturbing.
By Mike Baker
When Lani Elliott met the man of her dreams, she felt like the luckiest woman on the planet. However, what she was sure was a wonderful, fairy tale beginning would soon descend into a nightmare of epic proportions.
The keynote speaker at Family Transition Place's 2019 HOPE Project event, held at Hockley Valley Resort last Friday (Sept. 27), Ms. Elliott shared details of her extremely disturbing recollections of beatings and attacks carried out by her now ex-husband over several years in the 1990s.
Growing up in small-town Saskatchewan, Lani, a product of the foster care system, admitted she wasn't the stereotypical girl who dreamed about a big, beautiful wedding and raising her children in a quiet country home. Instead, she grew up determined to break gender barriers and with ambitions to make her mark on society. Her ultimate goal was to become an RCMP officer. Then she met a man. And everything changed.
“When I met my husband, he was a master corporal in the Canadian Armed Forces. He presented himself as everything I could have hoped for in a partner. He was charming, he was good looking and he had all the qualities I was looking for in a partner,” Lani remembered. “Our relationship was perfect.”
Within six months of meeting, the pair were engaged. They married within a year. Shortly after the wedding, Lani discovered she was pregnant with her first son. Her ambitions of becoming a police officer were put on hold as Lani instead focused on, first, bringing her son into the world, and, then, raising him.
After spending years in the foster care system, Lani said she had become a “people pleaser”, in the sense that she would do whatever she thought was necessary to be accepted and loved by the people she cared about. In the case of her husband, that ‘whatever' presented itself in the form of becoming a “traditional wife”.
“All of a sudden, my career didn't matter. My husband convinced me that I didn't really need my career. The things that were supposed to matter to me, were no longer important to us. The things that were important to him became the central focus of our relationship,” Lani said. “That didn't make sense to me, but he had me convinced we had this traditional relationship, and I wanted to be a traditional wife and please my husband, so I went along with it.”
Soon, her husband was dictating how Lani was supposed to look. She wasn't allowed to cut her hair, and she wasn't allowed to wear makeup. Her husband would start picking out all of Lani's clothes, and would tell her what she was and wasn't allowed to eat. He would tell her exactly where, and for how long, she was allowed to run for while out exercising.
“Eventually, he controlled pretty much every aspect of my existence,” Lani recalled.
Lani was six months pregnant when her husband, who can't be named for legal reasons, struck her for the first time.
“We were in the upstairs bedroom at his parent's house. It was Easter weekend and we were watching TV. I remember turning the channel, that's all I did. The next thing I knew, he was taking the remote out of my hands and he then struck me with it. Within a second, I was lying on the floor while he was on top of me, beating me with the remote control,” Lani stated. “I was so stunned that I didn't even do anything. I didn't fight back. I just let him hit me.”
When he was finished, Lani's husband calmly went back to watching TV. She left the room, knowing in her heart what she had to do.
“I thought to myself ‘I need to leave'. I went to ask his mom to help me leave. I knew they could hear me screaming. It was Easter weekend, everyone was home, they could all hear me. When I found his mom, all she did was put her finger to her lips and shook her head. In that moment, I had never felt so alone,” Lani said. “So, I didn't say anything and I just kept quiet.”
Lani convinced herself that things were going to get better. She created this fantasy in her mind that, as soon as the baby arrived, her husband would see how amazing it is to be a father and change his ways. Only he didn't. Things didn't get better. In fact, they got much, much worse.
Her husband continued to beat her, with increased regularity. The topper – with each beating, her husband became more and more violent. At times, Lani summoned the strength to leave, taking refuge at a women's shelter on four occasions within a period of a couple of years. It never lasted, though. She would always return to her husband, because she had this vision in her mind of how perfect things could be, if only he stopped with the beatings.
“The last time I stayed in the shelter was after my second son was born. I remember when I was in that shelter, a woman looked at me, and she had a cast on her leg that went from her toes all the way up to her hip. We were all in a circle, sharing our stories and she looked me right in the eyes and said ‘someday, he's going to kill you'. I remember telling her ‘no he won't, because he loves me. He would never take it that far', and in that moment I absolutely believed myself,” Lani said.
She decided to go home three weeks after that conversation. A few months later, after her husband had beaten her again, Lani once more left to stay at the shelter. This time something that most would see as completely trivial and normal, would bring about grave consequences upon her return home.
Because her usual shelter in Regina was completely full, Lani and her two sons were bused to Saskatoon and put up in a hotel. She was given food vouchers to pay for groceries to feed herself and her children.
“We were living on my husband's First Nation reserve at the time. What I didn't know is when you use a food voucher in the city, it's considered social assistance. So, the Province took that food voucher and, because I lived on a reserve, asked for reimbursement through the reserve,” Lani said. “They faxed that voucher through and someone at the band office took that voucher and gave it to my husband. Because he was working for the band office, they wanted him to pay it back.”
She added, “In his mind, I had lied to him, because I didn't tell him where I was, or what I was doing, and that was something that was absolutely forbidden.”
When Lani returned to Regina, she scheduled a visit between her husband and her two sons. She remembered, at that time, she had no intentions of going home. Her husband took their children out for ice cream, but, when it was time for them to go back, he brought only one son.
“He told me if I didn't come home, I would never see my kid again, so of course I went home,” Lani said.
Things were normal for a few days upon her return. Then, one morning, her husband woke up and decided he wanted to go grocery shopping in the city. But, first, he needed to make a pit stop at the band office. He was only inside for a few moments, before retreating holding a piece of paper. It was the invoice for Lani's stay at the hotel in Saskatchewan, with the food voucher attached.
“He was absolutely livid. We started to drive again and then all of a sudden, I felt something hit me. I could feel a stinging sensation in the side of my head. (For a visual), we were driving in a cargo van, with our little boy sitting in a car seat lodged between our two bucket seats. I didn't react, I didn't say anything, because I was absolutely terrified,” Lani said. “Then, he hit me again and he pulls over onto the side of the road. He straddles me and starts to beat me. By this time, I can't feel anything. I felt the first blow, then nothing.”
Once he was finished, her husband started to drive again, only he wasn't travelling on the usual route they took to the city. Suddenly, he veered off onto a side road. At this point, Lani started to really worry. Eventually, he pulls over, turns to look at his wife and says only one word – “Run.”
“I didn't even hesitate. I yanked that door open and started running as fast as my legs could carry me. Then I felt something hit me in the back of the head. I keep running. Then I felt it again. I kept running. The next blow was to the back of my legs – all of a sudden I see the road coming up at me and I'm tumbling. Tumbling into the ditch,” Lani said. “As I rolled, I realized he wasn't punching me with his fist. He was hitting me with an aluminum baseball bat.”
Lani doesn't remember much from then on, outside of visions of her husband repeatedly swinging the bat and bringing it down onto her body. She thought she was going to die. All of a sudden, a noise caught both her, and her husband's, attention. He stopped swinging. She came to enough to realize what the noise was.
“It was our son crying, all that distance away in the van. Somehow, the wind picked up the sound of that little boy's voice and carried it to us. I have no idea what I said to my husband, but I convinced him to let me get up so I could tend to our son, and he did,” Lani said. “So I got up and walked back to the van and comforted our son.”
It wasn't until later than Lani found that her husband had broken both of her legs, among other things, during that attack. Still, she made it back to that van of her own volition.
“I don't know how I did that,” Lani admitted.
After getting back into the van, Lani's husband continued on to the city, wanting to go grocery shopping as if nothing had happened. By the time they arrived at the store, the adrenaline had worn off and Lani was in a great deal of pain. She couldn't walk. She convinced her husband to take their son and go shopping, while she waited in the van.
“As soon as he was out of sight, I flagged somebody down to help me. It was a postal worker, he called 911 for me and helped me. My hope started with that postal worker,” Lani said.
She would spend the next three months living in various women's shelters in Saskatchewan. She credits the empathy, love and patience of the workers and counsellors working at those shelters with saving her life.
“I don't know whether I could have made it through that without them. The women who work at these shelters are amazing, amazing people,” Lani said.
It took Lani 10 years to build up the courage to share her story with her family. It was another five years before she felt comfortable discussing it with the public. Now, she wants to use her story as a beacon, a shining light to show that domestic violence can happen to anybody, and that there is a road back to a normal life.
“One of the things I've discovered in sharing my story is it allows other people to do the same. Domestic violence does not discriminate. It can happen to everybody,” Lani said. “I would not be here if not for the help of people in my community who came to my aid, but I needed to get out of my own damn way first to get help. I needed to stop carrying my husband's shame and his blame, and I needed to understand the cycle of violence needed to stop and it needed to stop with me.”
She concluded, “Domestic violence can happen to anybody, but it doesn't have to. There is hope out there. My hope started when I was lying on that gravel road, when I sent that one last plea to the heavens to give me a reason to get up. Then I heard the sound of my little boy's voice in the wind. That was the moment I started to believe not only in myself again, but also in hope. In my community. I just needed to believe again.”
More than 1,000 people accessed FTP's programs in Dufferin County in 2018. And 73 women and 45 children sought refuge at the emergency shelter in Orangeville, with a further 11 women and 9 children placed in second-stage housing. The organization received 3,261 calls to its 24-hour support line and provided woman abuse counselling to 343 women.
“Every year we promote the HOPE Project. It's about bringing speakers to the community to talk about their own journey from despair and fear into hope,” said Norah Kennedy, Executive Director at FTP. “Unfortunately, Lani's story is not a story that is unfamiliar. It is one story out of hundreds, out of thousands that are very similar. It's not an easy story, but it is an important one.”
She added, “In the words of Bruce Cockburn, you've got to kick at the darkness 'till it bleeds daylight. If that isn't about hope, I don't know what is. Despite everything, you just have to keep kicking at the fear and despair until the light shines through.”
The HOPE Project is FTP's largest annual fundraiser. Final totals raised through this year's event are still being calculated. For more information about FTP and the services it provides, visit familytransitionplace.ca.
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