Sex­ual abuse haunts chil­dren in in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties


Freda Ens says she was a baby when her birth mother sold her for a bot­tle of beer.

The buyer was an un­re­lated man she would later call “grand­fa­ther.” Her ear­li­est mem­o­ries in­clude be­ing sex­u­ally mo­lested by a num­ber of men in his ex­tended fam­ily.

“I don’t ever re­mem­ber be­ing able to say, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ or, ‘No, I don’t have to do that,’ ” re­called Ens, 59, who grew up in B.C.’s Old Mas­sett Vil­lage, a Haida com­mu­nity.

“I would wake up and it would be dark and I wouldn’t know who it was . . . It could have been an un­cle . . . it could have been an­other cousin. “The one I knew was my dad, who went to jail, and then my grand­fa­ther.”

Child sex­ual abuse is a dis­turb­ing re­al­ity in many of Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit com­mu­ni­ties, re­search is be­gin­ning to show.

Ex­ten­sive in­ter­views with so­cial sci­en­tists, in­dige­nous lead­ers and vic­tims un­der­taken over the past few months by The Cana­dian Press show that the preva­lence of sex­ual abuse in some com­mu­ni­ties is shock­ingly high.

Only now are prom­i­nent in­dige­nous lead­ers speak­ing out pub­licly for the first time about the need for com­mu­ni­ties to take a hard look.

It’s a painful legacy con­nected to al­most 120 years of gov­ern­mentspon­sored, church-run res­i­den­tial school, where abo­rig­i­nal lead­ers say many na­tive chil­dren were phys­i­cally and sex­u­ally mo­lested by clergy and other staff. The abused in turn be­came abusers, cre­at­ing a cy­cle of child­hood sex­ual vi­o­la­tion that has spread in ever-ex­pand­ing rip­ples from one gen­er­a­tion to the next.

Within in­dige­nous so­ci­ety, the knowl­edge that chil­dren are be­ing mo­lested is often an open se­cret — but one to which few are will­ing to give voice. In­stead, they dance around the words, talk­ing in­stead about child wel­fare, bul­ly­ing, sub­stance abuse, in­ter­gen­er­a­tional trauma and com­mu­nity con­flict.

Al­though The Cana­dian Press has a pol­icy of not iden­ti­fy­ing the vic­tims of sex­ual as­sault, Ens agreed to be iden­ti­fied in this story as part of her on­go­ing ef­forts to raise aware­ness about the prob­lem in abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties.

Com­mu­nity health nurse Shelly Michano, who lives and works in Bi­igt­gong Nish­naabeg First Na­tion in north­west­ern On­tario, is on the front lines. She sees the con­se­quences of sex­ual abuse among some res­i­dents, which can man­i­fest as al­co­hol and drug abuse, chronic ill­ness and sui­cide. “I would say as First Nations peo­ple, you’re hard-pressed to find any­body who doesn’t have per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence with this,” Michano said.

“But it’s never, ever quite on the sur­face. There’s still lots and lots of stigma at­tached around that. And peo­ple don’t nec­es­sar­ily openly speak about it still.”

Fi­nally, how­ever, some abo­rig­i­nal lead­ers are be­gin­ning to tear away the veil of se­crecy, ac­knowl­edg­ing that un­til the cy­cle of sex­ual abuse is brought to light, it will con­tinue, threat­en­ing the well-be­ing of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of Canada’s First Peo­ples.

“Sex­ual abuse and in­cest is amongst our peo­ple, there’s no ques­tion,” Perry Bel­le­garde, na­tional chief of the Assem­bly of First Nations, said in an in­ter­view. “Have the courage to stand up and say: ‘This is an is­sue and let’s ex­pose this to the light of day.’ . . . That’s the obli­ga­tion of the com­mu­nity lead­er­ship and the com­mu­ni­ties them­selves.”

Within Canada’s over­all pop­u­la­tion, re­search shows one in three girls and one in six boys ex­pe­ri­ence an un­wanted sex­ual act, with 30 to 40 per cent of vic­tims abused by a fam­ily mem­ber.

But the preva­lence of abuse among in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tions is dif­fi­cult to as­sess ac­cu­rately, ex­perts say — in part be­cause of con­flict­ing ev­i­dence and also be­cause the is­sue is so taboo within com­mu­ni­ties that it often re­mains shrouded in si­lence.

In a 2015 re­view of stud­ies, pub­lished in the Amer­i­can In­dian Cul­ture and Re­search Jour­nal, re­searchers say child sex­ual abuse (CSA) is one of the ma­jor chal­lenges fac­ing in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties across the con­ti­nent, but data is often con­tra­dic­tory.

“Some­times, re­ported in­ci­dence rates of CSA are com­pa­ra­ble to those found in the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion. Other times, in­ci­dence is much high- er,” the au­thors write, con­clud­ing that re­search to de­ter­mine the ac­tual scope of the prob­lem in Canada “is cru­cial.”

In a 2014 Statis­tics Canada re­port, a higher pro­por­tion of abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple re­ported ex­pe­ri­enc­ing some form of child­hood phys­i­cal and or sex­ual mal­treat­ment be­fore the age of 15, com­pared to their non-abo­rig­i­nal coun­ter­parts. The study also noted it is pos­si­ble that some of that abuse may have been a di­rect or in­di­rect im­pact of res­i­den­tial schools.

In his work as the chair­man of the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion (TRC), which looked at the toll taken on sur­vivors of res­i­den­tial schools, Sen. Mur­ray Sin­clair fre­quently heard gut-wrench­ing sto­ries about sex­ual abuse and its dev­as­tat­ing long-term ef­fects. But he has no way to know the true ex­tent of the prob­lem.

“There is very lit­tle data, peo­ple are just not look­ing at it,” Sin­clair said. “In our calls to ac­tion at the TRC, we said one of the things we lack in this coun­try is an un­der­stand­ing of the mag­ni­tude of the prob­lem and we need to look at bet­ter ways of gath­er­ing data so we can de­velop so­lu­tions that are prop­erly fo­cused.”

In­ter­gen­er­a­tional sex­ual abuse is one key rea­son be­hind wide­spread sub­stance abuse, a form of self-med­i­ca­tion that helps both vic­tims and per­pe­tra­tors push down their emo­tional pain and bury their shame, health ex­perts and abo­rig­i­nal lead­ers say.

“If some­body’s go­ing through trauma or ad­dicted to al­co­hol or drugs, there’s a rea­son,” said Ja­son Small­boy, deputy grand chief of the Nish­nawbe Aski Na­tion, an or­ga­ni­za­tion rep­re­sent­ing 49 in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties in north­ern On­tario. “And prob­a­bly 80 per cent, 90 per cent is re­lated to sex­ual abuse.”

The abuse has gone be­yond res­i­den­tial school sur­vivors, their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren, Sin­clair said.

“We are look­ing now at a sit­u­a­tion where in­ter­gen­er­a­tional chil­dren are abus­ing each other,” he said. “Where mem­bers of street gangs are vic­tim­iz­ing young girls, girls are go­ing miss­ing and be­ing hauled into the sex trade in sig­nif­i­cant num­bers.”

The im­pact of child­hood sex­ual abuse is ex­pected to be a cen­tral is­sue raised when hear­ings be­gin early next year for the in­quiry into miss­ing and mur­dered abo­rig­i­nal women. An in­terim re­port is due in Novem­ber 2017.

“Through­out the (pre-in­quiry) hear­ings on miss­ing and mur­dered in­dige­nous women and girls, we cer­tainly found the in­ci­dents of child abuse and the as­so­ci­a­tion of child abuse was very, very fre­quent, in both the de­scrip­tions of the vic­tims and in the per­pe­tra­tors,” said fed­eral In­dige­nous and North­ern Af­fairs Min­is­ter Carolyn Bennett.

One of the first steps in ad­dress­ing sex­ual abuse is ac­knowl­edg­ing its ex­is­tence and say­ing it is not OK, said First Nations child ad­vo­cate Cindy Black­stock.

“We have to make sure that our kids know that el­ders are the keep­ers of the tra­di­tions and no one in our com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing el­ders, ever has a right to harm a child,” Black­stock said.

Ens, who knows her mem­o­ries of abuse are far from unique after nearly three decades of work­ing with vic­tims of crime, said she hopes shar­ing her ex­pe­ri­ences will help oth­ers scarred by be­ing sex­u­ally vi­o­lated as chil­dren.

“My big­gest mes­sage would be to tell some­one — and that it is not your fault,” she said. “When we don’t talk about it, we are just as guilty as the per­pe­tra­tor. We are cov­er­ing it up.”


Freda Ens, 59, said she hopes shar­ing her ex­pe­ri­ences will help oth­ers scarred by be­ing sex­u­ally vi­o­lated as chil­dren.


Perry Bel­le­garde, na­tional chief of the Assem­bly of First Nations, far left, and In­dige­nous and North­ern Af­fairs Min­is­ter Carolyn Bennett.

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