Walking the walk

Delaney Lambert, Conrad Burns and Naomi Roberts start their walk to Saskatoon to raise awareness about abuse. Arthur White-Crummey/Daily Herald

Naomi Roberts lived through an abusive relationship as a teenager, when she was just 15 years old.

“It was like slow manipulation,” she said. “It got to a point where I couldn’t even go visit my grandma. I couldn’t even leave my house.”

He was controlling, jealous – even of total strangers.

“I thought that was love, being 15. But eventually you get into drugs and alcohol… it escalated from there, and that’s when I got the abuse, physically.”

She charged the man with assault, and swore that she’d never accept abuse again. Many years later, she met another man: former mayoral candidate Conrad Burns. He, too, once faced abuse – and challenged her to join his quest to stop it.

For the past four years, Burns has walked to raise awareness about abuse. Last year, he walked clear across Canada. This year, Roberts, Burns and a few family members are spending three days on foot. They set off from Prince Albert City Hall on Saturday, and planned to end their journey at the Saskatoon Indian and Métis Friendship Centre on Victoria Day. They hope to pick up supporters along the way.

Burns said he’s trying to send a message. To abusers: recognize what you’re doing, and learn to control your anger. To the abused: get out and find support. And to society: it’s time we stop viewing abuse as normal.

“For a long time it’s been a social norm to accept an abusive relationship. You’re now married, for better or for worse,” he said. “But worse does not mean putting your life and your children at risk, so leave the situation.”

He cites statistics that show that one in four women, and one in six men, are abused at some point during their lives. Here, the problem is especially concerning. Saskatchewan has the highest rate of intimate partner violence of any province, according to 2015 statistics. And Burns said he’s heard from professionals who say Prince Albert has an even higher rate.

Virtually everyone is affected in some way, he said.

“Either we’ve been through abuse, we are the abuser or we know someone who’s been abused,” he said. “That means everyone in Canada, every single individual of every race, colour or ethnic background, has experience with abuse or knows about a form of abuse through friends and family.”

Burns said abuse comes in many forms. Much of it passes through generations. It can be physical, or it can be hurtful words, control, manipulation. That’s what he faced – and it’s what motivates him to make a difference.

“I’m always going to be putting myself out there and trying to create awareness about abuse, because I’m passionate about it,” he said. “I went through an abusive relationship about 10 years ago. My partner was emotionally abusive toward me, and I realized through talking to her that she was the product of intergenerational abuse – she was abused as a child.”

Many people, he said, don’t even realize that they’re dealing with abuse. He wants to help them realize that they can escape, and that there are supports available.

“Hopefully through walking and educating people and talking about abuse, they understand what abuse is and that they don’t have to tolerate that,” he said.

He said people come up to him during his walks to share their stories. He hopes he can give them solace. One day, he said, he’d like to set up support groups – one for victims and one for abusers.

Roberts said the journey is her first ever long-distance walk for a cause. She works with young people, as a volleyball coach, and hopes her story can inspire them as they face the same pressures she overcame. She wants them to know that “someone has been there, has been through that struggle and can talk to them confidently.”

For now though, she’s just going to battle the harsh sun, the intermittent rain and the long road to Saskatoon.

“I’m feeling kind of excited,” she said. “It’s going to be a long journey, so lets get trucking.”