Sexual abuse a root cause of indigenous suicide crisis: Aglukark
Susan Aglukark performs during the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards in Toronto on Friday, Nov. 24, 2006. (Nathan Denette / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
OTTAWA -- Some nights, Susan Aglukark still wakes up drenched in sweat.
It's been 42 years since the acclaimed Inuk singer endured sexual abuse, including being photographed naked, as an eight-year-old girl living in remote Rankin Inlet -- a trauma from which she now considers herself about 80 per cent healed.
The rest, she knows, will never be completely gone.
"I'll always have triggers," Aglukark, 50, said in an interview. "Being photographed is a trigger."
She also knows that as a sexual abuse survivor in the indigenous community, she is far from alone.
Such abuse is a "dehumanizing and demoralizing" root cause of the youth suicide crisis that has been ravaging remote northern outposts in recent years, such as the Attawapiskat and Wapekeka First Nations in northern Ontario.
"There is a very vicious cycle in our communities right now, all from the residential school era," Aglukark said. "My abuser himself was abused in residential school."
That abuser, whose identity she didn't want to disclose, was convicted in 1990 after Aglukark and a group of other victims decided to pursue charges.
Not all of them do. Victims who spoke to The Canadian Press for a series of stories about the links between generational abuse and residential schools described being wary of coming forward for fear of isolation, family shame and reprisals.
Aglukark recalled how uncomfortable she felt telling a police officer what happened.
"That was probably the greatest trauma for me, having to sit there with this emotional fear in my head and in my heart and repaint this incident with this completely strange man I didn't know," she said.
"That scared me more than going to court."
Once her attacker was convicted, she found little relief beyond knowing he'd be unable to victimize anyone else while behind bars. She also felt humiliated, she said: "The whole town knows this was done to you."
Aglukark's own healing came through music -- specifically, with the release of her 1992 album "Arctic Rose," in which she lets listeners in on her pain.
The response to the album was overwhelming, she said; nightly performances turned into a form of therapy where she sang about her own trauma onstage, and heard stories from other victims after the show.
At times, the emotional burden became too much.
"That was the thing that scared me the most ΓÇª we started and opened this can of worms," she said. "'Now what?' That's the thing that kept me up at night."
It's also what ultimately kept her going in October 1998 after she spent three hours crying in a van outside a recording studio -- a moment she described as a very dark place in her life, despite her success and critical acclaim.
"In that moment I realized I love my life," Aglukark said.
"It was more or less loving the journey I am on ... glimpse of that life was me as whole and healed enough as I can be ... that meant going back to that following, that can of worms ... opened up with 'Arctic Rose'."
Since then, Aglukark has given herself space to heal in small stages.
She's currently working on a new venture working with indigenous children, the Arctic Rose Project, and is in the midst of recording a new album.
Aglukark said she hopes indigenous people will have the courage to allow all victims -- as well as those who became perpetrators -- to be part of a recovery process moving forward.
"The longer we wait, the more we are going to have suicides," she said. "The cycle of abuse is not going to change if we don't act now."