Don’t you just love it when you’ve known someone in our community for a while, and discover a passionate and powerful side of them that takes you by surprise? This is the case with Nicky Benzie. While I have known she is involved with the Fernie Women’s Centre (WC), I was not aware of voice she has lent many in Fernie.
When Nicky finished University, she decided she wanted to travel and did some research into ski towns. She had worked for the same rafting company as Carolyn Doyle who owns Big Bang Bagels and had a friend working for Carolyn. Nicky decided to reach out to Carolyn, who immediately responded with, “if you come in September you can stay with me for free and work for me!” Having never heard of Fernie, Nicky took the leap. “I worked at the bagel shop for two years and met all of my best friends there!”
While she loved working at Big Bang, she started feeling like she could be doing something “more geared towards giving back.” Nicky had been volunteering with the Women’s Centre and saw that there was a position available. She contemplated going back to school, but decided to apply… and is now the Office Manager. “That was almost six years ago,” she tells me. “It was a dream come true, providing me with a way to live here, to give back to the community, and to have a job that sustains me.” Nicky knew how much the WC was doing in the community, something that is very important to her. She has been a feminist as far back as she remembers. “Even as a little kid, when I didn’t have the right words to say it,” she says. “Women’s issues are a passion of mine.”
Nicky’s role is to support women with whatever they need, with wherever they are at. She has the knowledge about key resources and programs, the ability to navigate different government systems when they are in need. As her boss, Lauren Fox says, “She is a strong feminist and an advocate for ending violence against women.” Nicky is the chair of a local committee called Community Coordination for Safety in Relationships (CCSR) - a group of services providers who recognize that gender-based violence impacts many of the people that they serve. They work to promote the safety of individuals in their relationships through timely interventions and solution focused collaboration. The ultimate goal is to see our community free from violence and abuse, where everyone is safe and respected. Recently, men’s issues have been identified as a need through CCSR and they are in the process of organizing a monthly men’s drop-in program starting this fall.
Nicky also sits on the Sexual Assault Response Committee (SART), who work towards increasing the awareness of reporting options for victims of sexual assault in the valley, increase available support and reporting options, update and share written protocol between Interior Health staff and victim services, and ultimately ensure all victims of sexual assault receive consistent support and assistance from the agencies best equipped to meet their safety needs.
On top of all of this, Nicky has been volunteering at the Options for Sexual Health clinic for the last five years!
As we chat, I can’t help but ask how she does it. Isn’t it hard mentally and emotionally to work with people who are going through something so devastating?
“It’s tough, but it’s in my skill set - helping people and problem solving,” Nicky says. “I get that initial story, and it can be hard to hold the weight of that. What breaks my heart the most is the way the system adds extra layers of trauma.” She tells me that counselling is available to all of the staff at the WC, “and Lauren is incredible. She is there to debrief in the moment as well as extra clinical supervision.”
The WC has become much busier in recent years. But Nicky believes it’s not because there is more violence, it’s more to do with people feeling more comfortable and confident in talking about what they are going through. “They’re wanting to ask questions, is this a healthy relationship, or they’re having weird feelings… it has become way more socially acceptable to go and talk to someone about it. There has also been a surge since the #metoo movement,” she says. They’re seeing an increase in older women coming in as well. “It’s lovely to see the resilience in these women, someone in such a long relationship having the courage to talk about it.”
“The voice theme is so awesome. Abuse thrives in silence,” she adds. “If you’re not feeling respected or safe, that’s enough.” Everyone is welcome at the WC, and they encourage dropping in for a coffee and a chat. Or even to use the computer, the printer and fax machine. “You don’t have to be a resident, we have no criteria other than identifying as a woman.”
This year, the Fernie Women’s Centre is celebrating 40 years! Inspired by the Women’s Marches on Washington, they are hosting Solidarity March on March 8 at the Fernie Arts Station “to honour survivors of domestic and sexualized violence.” All are welcome, to join in the walk from the Arts Station to the Court House and back, followed by refreshments, and live music by the Hark Raving Sirens. “We want to let any survivor of violence know that there are people who see them, believe in them and are willing to speak up for them. I have a voice that can do it when maybe you don’t feel like you can.”
When asked about what her hopes are, Nicky immediately says for her role to be made redundant… if we ended violence in the valley. “But it would be great to be in a place where people in any relationship feel like they know there are people they can talk to, and that they have worth… everybody needs help.”
And until we reach that place, we have people like Nicky offering their voice. And for that, we are grateful.
1. When did you first arrive in Fernie and what brought you here? Being in the mountains brought me here, and I came on Derby Day in September of 2011… a little concerning.
2. Who did you first meet in town? Carolyn Doyle.
3. Do you remember your first general impression of Fernie? I was blown away by how beautiful it was. In every direction you looked. Almost overwhelming.
4. What keeps you here? Lots of stuff. The community does, cliche to say. Just being able to live and work in a meaningful way in a beautiful place with people who lift me up.
5. Do you have a favourite Fernie memory or pastime? Being on the chairlift on a pow day and hearing everyone hooting and hollering makes me so happy. Everyone is so excited.
6. What time of the year do you love most in Fernie, and why? I like the fact that there are four seasons here, and there is always something new to do. Always an activity. Even springtime, as it provides a time to slow down and take stalk.
7. Where do you see or hope to see Fernie in 5 years? I would love there to be a space for all individuals where they could feel like they are being supported in whatever challenges they are going through. And affordable housing. A homeless shelter here would love one here.
8. How do you start your day or what is one of your daily rituals? Coffee.
9. Tell us something people might be surprised to learn about you. I really like pub trivia.
10. Quote to live by: No one achieves anything alone.