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Isolation Conceals Abuse, Incest In Indigenous Communities: Chief

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OTTAWA — At night, he would arrive in Corey's room by crawling through the window next to the bunk bed where she slept. She knew from the smell when he was there.

By day, she endured different hands, sometimes under the most mundane circumstances — once, she recalls, while in the kitchen eating lunch. He pulled down her underwear and started fondling her. He left money on the table.

They were family members, these two predators — their unwanted touch impossible to escape for a young girl living on a remote First Nation in British Columbia.

That isolation, a fact of life for many Aboriginal Peoples, is a pernicious barrier to the essential goal of exposing the scourge of indigenous sexual abuse and incest, says Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

perry bellegarde
Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. (Photo: CP)

Bellegarde is pleading with chiefs to confront the problem head-on. But he also acknowledges a difficult truth: many First Nations people who live in remote areas are reluctant to come forward with their allegations for fear of reprisals in their small, tightly knit communities.

"If you don't have a safe space, are you going to talk about this?'' he said in an interview. "If you do talk about this ... and expose this, are you going to have the necessary supports in place?''

Corey — not her real name — is skeptical. She knows from bitter personal experience how hard it can be to have faith in authorities within indigenous communities, where sexual abuse is so often swept under the rug.

"Having been raised in a community where we are supposed to respect our elders ... I don't,'' she said.

"Why allow somebody to hide behind a wall when that wall can be taken down so easily and they can start doing that work that they need to do?''

"Having been raised in a community where we are supposed to respect our elders ... I don't."

During a months-long investigation by The Canadian Press, a number of leading experts — researchers, the head of Canada's national Inuit organization and former Truth and Reconciliation chairman Murray Sinclair — have flagged alarming levels of sexual abuse in some indigenous communities and potential links to the aboriginal suicide crisis.

A theme has emerged: it is very much an open secret.

During interviews, some victims have cited a "deafening'' silence about something they consider a widespread problem. Speaking up about their experiences often leads to a severe backlash, they say.

'They put all that garbage on me'

For Corey, who's now 55, the abuse began a half-century ago.

It persisted until she was 11 or 12, filling her with fear of reprisals if she spoke up. She remembers being beaten. She remembers family members having sex with each other.

What ensued, of course, is all too familiar: she turned to alcohol and cocaine to numb her pain. She went to the police and sought legal recourse through the courts, only to be told by a relative that she was "destroying'' her family.

Thanks to a lack of evidence, no one was ever convicted. But Corey never regretted her actions.

"They put all that garbage on me — the lies, the deceit, all the shame, all the guilt,'' she said.

"That was all garbage they dropped in me and just ... to keep me quiet. And when I chose not to be that garbage bin ... anymore, that's when I knew I had my power and I could stand up to them and say, 'I know what you did to me was wrong.'''

She wants to see leaders like Bellegarde go beyond mere words.

"I would say ... you have all these words about the secrets that need to come out in native communities,'' she said. "Step to the plate ... be the one to step forward and say 'You know what ... let's make a change.'''

"Step to the plate ... be the one to step forward and say 'You know what ... let's make a change.'''

While the sexual abuse that took place inside residential schools — government-funded, church-operated institutions — is well-documented, there is less evidence of just how pervasive the problem is in indigenous communities across the country.

Sexual abuse is very much "learned behaviour'' passed down from residential schools that has contributed to much of the dysfunction in First Nations communities, Bellegarde said — a truth reflected in the 40,000 First Nations children in foster care and sky-high rates of incarceration among indigenous youth.

Slowly and sporadically, leaders are coming forward. Matthew Coon Come, a former national chief of the AFN, took to social media in the wake of a series of stories by The Canadian Press about aboriginal sex abuse.

matthew coon come
Grand Chief of the James Bay Cree Nation Matthew Coon Come speaks out against uranium mining in Quebec, on Dec. 15, 2014.

"Indigenous leadership need to rise up and speak up for the children,'' Coon Come, the grand chief of the Grand Council of the Crees, said on Twitter. "Praying secret things done behind closed doors be exposed.''

Secrecy an issue: minister

The "secrets amongst secrets'' is a big problem in small communities, said Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett.

"What we've seen in some communities is now it is safe to talk about bullying, but maybe bullying means something different to these kids,'' Bennett said in an interview.

NDP indigenous affairs critic Charlie Angus, who represents the northern Ontario riding of Timmins—James Bay, said many people up north are conflicted when it comes to describing their trauma because of the church's role in residential schools.

"It becomes very difficult for them to talk about it, and the sense of shame,'' Angus said.

Suppressing the truth leads to destructive behaviour, which means it's doubly important to treat old wounds and protect children from predators who might be hiding in plain sight, he added.

"We also have to find ways of healing within the family.''

— Follow @kkirkup on Twitter

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