Women begin the fight against sexual abuse,
When she was five, Melodie Casella, a member of British Columbia’s Sechelt (Shishalh) First Nation, was sexually abused by her babysitter. Freda Ens, who grew up in the Haida community of Old Massett Village, was even younger when she says her mother sold her for bottle of beer to an unrelated man.
The two women, who told their stories to The Canadian Press, are, according to experts and other victims, just the tip of the iceberg of rampant sexual assaults on girls and women on reserves that most victims have been too afraid or ashamed of to report in the past.
But they are among a growing movement of women determined to shine a spotlight on the problem with the hope that it can be the first step toward stopping the cycle of abuse.
They are right to speak out. But reporting assaults is easier said than done in small, remote First Nations communities where an abuser could be a relative, a neighbour or even the chief or a councillor who can withhold housing and other resources from your family if you complain.
Still, these women and many more are bravely coming forward and drawing the attention of politicians, such as the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde, who says native leaders and the communities themselves have an obligation “to expose this to the light of day.”
That’s made more difficult by the fact there has been little research done on the tragedy. But the few studies there are indicate that 25 to 50 per cent of girls younger than 18 have been sexually abused on reserves. Even that may be conservative. The Ontario Federation of Friendship Centres has estimated the figure is more likely 75 to 80 per cent.
What’s needed to end this tragic cycle of violence, according to experts and native leaders?
Communities acknowledging what happened at residential schools, then taking responsibility for the next generation. More women and girls coming forward to report it. Aboriginal leaders speaking out about it. Investment in studies to find out how prevalent it is, so Ottawa and indigenous and women’s organizations can begin to create programs and set aside funding to deal with it.
Making victim supports available on all reserves, even remote ones, so that women and girls don’t fall into a cycle of despair that leads to alcohol and substance abuse and suicide.
Indeed, Jason Smallboy, deputy grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 indigenous communities in northern Ontario, estimates that 80 to 90 per cent of alcohol and drug addiction on reserves “is related to sexual abuse.”
The veil of secrecy is being lifted. Now native and non-native governments must work together to come up with the funding needed for supports, studies and programming to halt this abuse in its tracks.
Women are taking the first step to stopping sexual violence on reserves