When Charlotte Hrenchuk moved to Whitehorse in 1988, she didn’t intend to stay. She and her husband had been living in Alberta, and when he got a job with the Yukon government as a wildlife technician, she followed him north—“a very non-feminist thing,” Hrenchuk says with a laugh. They planned to move back south after a few years. But, 28 years later, they’re still in Whitehorse, living in the same house in the woods outside the city. “It just sort of grows on you,” Hrenchuk says.
Now 65, she has been active in making a difference for women in the territory as both co-chair of the Yukon AntiPoverty Coalition (YAPC) and coordinator of the Yukon Status of Women Council (YSWC), two non-governmental organizations in Whitehorse.
Hrenchuk has long been interested in justice. She studied fine art and anthropology in university, trained in the theatre, and worked as a costume designer and puppeteer. It was in this field she learned about the Theatre of the Oppressed, a theatrical form used to discuss and encourage social and political change, and ways to tell stories that were informative and educational, not just entertaining. “My parents had a strong sense of social justice, which they instilled in me,” Hrenchuk says. “I always believed that I had a privileged life and that all women did not have the luxury of the choices I have had. So I did feel it was important to make a difference in whatever field I was working in.” That’s why she started working for the YSWC and YAPC.
She and her husband adopted three young children from Sierra Leone—twin girls and a boy—and Hrenchuk took a few years off to stay home with them. Once they started school, she began working part-time for the YSWC.
One of her first projects was organizing a reproductive health conference. At the time, counselors and nurses in the territory had little training in how to talk to pregnant women about their options. “A lot of people felt really uncomfortable talking about the issue of abortion,” Hrenchuk says. A woman from the Planned Parenthood Association of B.C. flew up to speak at the conference about how to provide support before and after such a procedure. About 60 people attended, including social workers, nurses, doctors, First Nations health workers, and women from rural Yukon communities, to whom subsidies were offered to cover the costs of travelling to Whitehorse for the event.
As her kids grew up, Hrenchuk wanted to work more. She continued to apply for grants, developing her position at the YSWC as she was able to get more funding. Then, about 10 years ago, she joined the YAPC. It seemed like a natural fit.
“The issues that I’ve been working on a lot over the past number of years with [the YSWC] have been issues around women’s poverty and homelessness, and applying a gender lens to that. Because women’s homelessness looks different than men’s homelessness,” she says. For one, many women have children, and if they don’t have an adequate place to live, their kids are taken away. Some women also stay in abusive relationships so they have a place to live, or return to abusive relationships because they can’t afford a place to live.
This is one area of intersection in Hrenchuk’s work. Whitehorse is an expensive city to live in, and for years, the YAPC has been pushing for more affordable housing. In 2011, the coalition released a report called A Home For Everyone: A Housing Action Plan for Whitehorse, which took stock of housing options, and found that supportive homes for vulnerable people were “insufficient or non-existent.”
There have been some positive changes since then: a long-term home for people with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder has opened, as well as a transition home for people with mental health issues.
Several years ago, Hrenchuk worked with advocates in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut to produce a report on women’s homelessness in the North. They released it on Parliament Hill in 2007. “Nothing had ever been done on it before,” she says. “I’m proud of bringing the issue forward. And also raising the consciousness of people in the south about issues women in the North face.” The issues are the same ones women in southern cities face, only exacerbated in the territories—higher rates of violence against women, sexual assault, domestic violence, and addiction.
An initiative borne out of another pan-territorial study Hrenchuk worked on is A Safe Place, an after-hours program offered Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights at the Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre in Whitehorse. It’s low-barrier, meaning women can drop in when they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, provided they aren’t a danger to themselves or others. They can have a hot meal, or curl up on a couch and sleep. In the three years since it began, the number of women who attend has grown. “I think that was a big success,” says Hrenchuk.
Now, she’s researching the sex trade in the Yukon, something she says hasn’t been studied before. “I haven’t finished the interviews or the data gathering or analysis, but at first glance, many, many women are trading sex for a place to live or for money for a place to live,” she says.
The work she does can be discouraging. Hrenchuk gets frustrated by political indifference and bogged-down bureaucracy. But she’s motivated by the women she talks to. “I feel a real strong sense of responsibility that if women are entrusting me with their stories, it is my duty to do something about it, to the best of my ability.”