Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Open Secret: Sexual Abuse Haunts Children in Indigenous Communities

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Open Secret: Sexual Abuse Haunts Children in Indigenous Communities

Article excerpt

Sexual abuse haunts 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, Metis 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. And 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 government-sponsored, church-run residential schools, 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.

While 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," said Michano.

"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."

Sexual violation of children is an ugly fact of life worldwide, crossing all cultural, educational and socio-economic boundaries. 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 is one of the major challenges facing indigenous communities across the continent, but data is often contradictory. …

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