More victims tell of sexual abuse on reserves
Published Wednesday, December 14, 2011 10:13PM EST
An earlier online version of this story incorrectly stated as fact that revenues from the DeBeers mining operation don't trickle down to reserve families. This statement should have been attributed as the opinion of one resident, as it was in the accompanying news video report.
The community receives various compensation as a result of the construction and operation of the mine, including direct financial payments from De Beers Canada.
A day after two women spoke out on suffering sexual abuse on a troubled northern Ontario reserve, more victims are coming forward to say the problem is prevalent across the country.
Jocelyn Iahtail, a former resident of Attawapiskat, said "grandstanding" on the part of the chief and council in response to a housing crisis on the reserve prompted her to share her dark tale of sexual abuse while living in the community.
Iahtail's story prompted a relative in Edmonton, who was once a social worker on the reserve, to tell her story of being abused.
"You wonder, where does it end," she told CTV News.
Another woman, Sophia Mack, has also come forward to say she suffered abuse -- as did her mother who lived in Attawapiskat and in a residential school in Fort Albany.
"It infuriates me because for the longest time I didn't talk about it," said Mack. "I was afraid to talk about it; I was embarrassed to talk about it. It was so common to just bury it."
While Mack has sought help to cope with her trauma, she says her mother has not.
"The hardest thing in the world is to be your mother's parent," Mack said.
Senator Romeo Dallaire said the troubles in Attawapiskat, both the housing crisis and the history of abuse, are not an exception among First Nations communities.
Dallaire said Wednesday the troubles plaguing Attawapiskat can be found on reserves across the country.
"It's nothing less than a goddamn embarrassment in this country," he told CTV News. "We're doing better work I think in developing countries than we are in this country."
Victim tired of ‘grandstanding'
Attawapiskat was thrust into the spotlight last month after leaders declared a state of emergency due to a housing shortage and the fact many residents are living in squalid conditions.
Leaders then lashed out after the federal government put the community under third-party management, suggesting $90 million in funding had been used improperly.
"The grandstanding is what precipitated it, the issue of third-party management -- a financial one," Iahtail told CTV's Canada AM on Wednesday of her decision to go public with her story. "I would have liked to see this same kind of grandstanding in regards to issues of our children, in regards to sexual abuse, in regards to child welfare matters."
"Where are the voices of the children, where is the grandstanding for the children?"
Iahtail said she was sexually abused as a child from the age of four to 13 by four people she trusted, including relatives of some council members. She said her story is not unique in Attawapiskat, where incest and sexual abuse are endemic and span generations.
"Attawapiskat is just a small representation of what's happening at our aboriginal communities across Canada," she said.
In fact, over the years she has been sharing her story and speaking to other victims, Iahtail's own mother has found the courage to share her own story of sexual abuse with her daughter.
Iahtail also echoed the words of former NHL hockey player Sheldon Kennedy who told the U.S. Senate on Tuesday that there are almost always witnesses to sexual abuse who are afraid to come forward.
She said the reasons people remain silent in small, tight-knit aboriginal communities are myriad: "Fear, retaliation are the very reasons why no one will stand up today," Iahtail said.
"For people who actually stand up there is grave retaliation, their chances of accessing housing, education funding, medical services, advocacy are few and far between because there is retaliation that takes place by our local government."
Iahtail and her mother decided to speak out this week because the pain continues to be pervasive in their community.
They say they also want to break the cycle of abuse that has scarred them and many others.
The scars on the community are obvious, Iahtail says: suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, gas sniffing and violence are mere symptoms. Indeed, while abuse may be less visible than squalid shacks and poor housing, it also insidious and destructive.
Iahtail said she doesn't want to minimize the housing problems gripping the community of Attawapiskat, but said other pressing issues also deserve urgent attention.
"I think we have reached epidemic proportions. I do believe silence is violence," she said.
According to some estimates, the level of abuse in aboriginal communities is staggering.
"Sexual violence and sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities affect 75 to 80 per cent of our girls and women," said social worker Sylvia Maracle, from the Ontario Federation of Friendship Centres.
Among non-aboriginal girls and women the rate is closer to 20 per cent.
Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said the prevalence of abuse is one of the reasons why the entire system of reserves needs to be revamped.
"I recognize the reality of inter-generation trauma and family violence in our community," he said in a statement. "All of these matters point to the need for broader structural change, increased mental health and other support services.
"This is why First Nations are calling for transformative change -- to smash the status quo. We cannot afford to lose another generation."
In response to the housing crisis, the Red Cross has landed in the community to distribute blankets, sleeping bags, generators and other supplies to help residents who are living in inadequate shelter survive the winter.
Meanwhile, residents of Attawapiskat say they are troubled by a lack of adequate housing and social services in a community that is next door to a diamond mine.
Bernadette Iahtail told CTV News that at one point, 40 people were sharing one house.
Cindy Blackstock wonders why the community doesn't have the budget to offer culturally based services for families and children, despite the proximity of the mine.
With a report by CTV's Daniele Hamamdjian