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UNB family violence researcher receives the Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case

Author: UNB Newsroom

Posted on Dec 21, 2018

Category: UNB Fredericton

Rina Arseneault, associate director at the University of New Brunswick’s Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research (MMFC), received the Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Person’s Case on Dec. 14 in Ottawa.

The Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case is given to individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the goal of equality for women and girls in Canada.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the MMFC, as well as the year of Ms. Arseneault’s retirement. As she prepares for retirement on Dec. 31, Ms. Arseneault has been reflecting on her life, the evolution of her career and where she sees the centre at their 50th anniversary.

Ms. Arseneault has always considered herself a feminist. Born in the village of Atholville, N.B., Ms. Arseneault was the 13th of 14 children. Growing up, contributing to the family trumped education. As with many of her other siblings, she was expected to drop out in Grade 10 and find a job.

But Ms. Arseneault had other plans.

“I was always arguing and pushing. My mom would say, ‘you were a wonderful challenge,’” she says.

To continue going to school, Ms. Arseneault decided to move in with a family friend who had medical issues. She did housework in exchange for room and board.

After completing high school, she attended Université de Moncton. Two years into her psychology degree, Ms. Arseneault enrolled in a paid program that trained her to be a psychiatric attendant at the provincial hospital in Campbellton. Working in the women’s ward in the 1970s, she saw first-hand the toll family violence played on women, families and society.

“The vast majority of the women there had such sad stories. I encountered teenagers who were put there by their families because of pregnancy, elderly women whose families didn’t want them anymore and women who had to be placed there because their husbands just needed to have that seventh baby. It was difficult to see.”

The experience at the women’s psychiatric ward inspired Ms. Arseneault to go back to school in Moncton to complete both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work. She also worked at a women’s shelter while completing her degrees.

“During this time period, there was no such thing as second stage housing or outreach workers. Family violence wasn’t seen as a social issue. It was a family issue.”

The MMFC opened in 1993. Prior to opening, the president of the New Brunswick Coalition of Transition House called and said that she sent a letter of support for Ms. Arseneault. She believed that Ms. Arseneault was the perfect candidate to bring the community’s voice to the research centre.

“When I arrived at the centre in 1993, they saw a fit. And it was an impressive board. Given my experience working in women’s shelters, my role was to ensure that the community be at the table – and not only at one table, but at every table. All documents had to say that.”

“The first five years at the centre were about building partnerships. People often thought of research as a project with a start and a finish. Researchers were supposed to be on the outside looking in. But the MMFC believed then, and still believes now, that we needed to do action-oriented research in collaboration with community and government,” says Ms. Arseneault.

The MMFC has not only brought groups together in order to dig deeper into the root causes of family violence, but they’ve influenced change. The centre’s research initiatives have had a powerful effect on legislation and policies within New Brunswick, both at the provincial level and within the private sector.

Now, 25 years later, the MMFC is a leader in family violence research and the provincial government makes sure that members of the centre are there when making important decisions regarding policy and legislation.

“It’s been important for us to work together and figure out the missing pieces of the puzzle. Even today, we have a lot of knowledge, but it’s siloed. But we can’t work alone anymore, we need to work together.”

Rina says that by the centre’s 50th anniversary, they will have found the answers to many questions, but there will be more issues to solve.

“We have come a long way in a very short time, not even a generation. But the issues are much more complex now. We need to unpack these issues and continue talking about trauma and its impact.”

As Ms. Arseneault prepares to retire from UNB, colleagues have been reflecting on the significant contributions she’s made to the university and beyond. It’s easy to see why she’s been chosen to receive the Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case.

“Rina Arseneault has been the heart and soul of the Muriel McQueen Fergusson centre since its inception,” says Nancy Nason-Clark, member of the MMFC research team. “She is a tireless worker herself and a cheerleader for the work of others. Her impact on the lives of abused women and children has been immense.”