Only a makeshift wooden marker, simply listing his name and the dates of his birth and sudden death, identifies Lester Desjarlais’s unkept grave in the Sandy Bay Ojibway Reserve cemetery, 150 km northwest of Winnipeg. On March 6, 1988, the 13-yearold Desjarlais hanged himself in the backyard of a Brandon, Man., foster home where he was living at the time, depressed after suffering years of sexual and physical abuse on the impoverished and neglected reserve. While Desjarlais’s grave lacks a permanent headstone, the troubled native youth will indeed be widely remembered. Last week, after an 11month inquiry into the teenager’s untimely death, Provincial Court Justice Brian Giesbrecht delivered a 300-page report on child abuse on Manitoba’s 60 Indian reserves—a devastating indictment of how abused native children have been neglected by both their own communities and provincial agencies. “What is clear to me is that Lester Desjarlais had the right to expect more,” Giesbrecht wrote. “His family let him down; his community let him down; his leaders let him down; then the very agency that was mandated to protect him let him down, and the government chose not to notice.”
Giesbrecht’s hard-hitting report cast into sharp focus the issue of abuse—of both chil-
dren and women—among natives. For years, the problem was cloaked in silence. But recently—partly as a result of widespread discussion of abuse in Canadian society as a whole— aboriginal women in particular have been speaking out and demanding remedial action. Some of them clearly distrust the ability of the male-dominated leadership on many reserves to deal with the problem. Declared social worker Mavis Henry, a member of the 200-member Pauquachin band at Sidney, B.C., 50 km north of Victoria: “A lot of our leaders still are unaware of violence issues. And a lot of our elders are unwilling to talk about abuse. In some cases, they are the problem.”
But, according to many natives, the tide is finally turning. “Today people are more educated, and women are making a stand,” said Marie Francis, a crisis intervention officer at the Micmac Native Friendship Centre in Halifax. “They are not willing to put up with what they put up with 25 or 30 years ago.” Still, monumental challenges must still be met. Although experts acknowledge that firm statistics on aboriginal abuse do not exist, native womens’ representatives estimate that 80 per cent of native women have been victims of abuse. The incidence of child abuse may be equally chilling. According to Reaching for Solutions, a 1990 federal report on child abuse
in Canada, “The chances for an aboriginal child to grow into adulthood without a firsthand experience of abuse, alcoholism or violence are small.”
Activists say that the problem has to be confronted directly. In April, 1991, Rosemarie Kuptana, for one, now the head of the Inuit Tapirisat, which represents Canada’s 36,000 Inuit, issued a challenge to her people. In a report called No More Secrets, released by the Ottawa-based Inuit Women’s Association, Kuptana wrote that the Inuit can “acknowledge the problem and do something about it, or deny that we have problems of child sexual abuse and thereby deny our communities the chance of being truly healed.”
That healing will be a difficult process. Kenneth Richard, executive director of the provincially funded Native Child and Family Services agency in Toronto, estimates that of the 200 families that make up his agency’s caseload at any one time, 80 per cent have experienced or are experiencing family violence of some kind. That, Richard says, is partially the result of “the colonial legacy in Canada that destroyed native culture.” Added Richard, a Métis: “It is really a recipe for the expression of all kinds of morbid things, one of them being family violence. What you established was normlessness, which leaves people angry and despairing— without any rules.” Other factors such as high unemployment, along with the alcohol and drug abuse rampant in many aboriginal communities, exacerbate the problem. Says Claudette Dumont-Smith, an Algonquin health-care specialist in Hull, Que., and a member of the Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women: “People live in a cycle of hopelessness.”
Judge Giesbrecht’s inquiry made clear the
horrors that can arise out of that hopelessness. During the hearings, witnesses told of ignored reports of rampant child abuse on Manitoba reserves and of well-documented individual cases of abuse covered up by reserve officials. “Many aboriginal children are suffering horribly, physically and emotionally, in their settings and in families that are dangerous,” Dr. Charles Ferguson, a child abuse specialist and director of the Winnipeg Child Protection Centre, told the inquiry.
Also testifying at the inquiry was Marion Glover, a child abuse expert who worked for the Dakota Ojibway Child and Family Services, the agency responsible for child welfare at Sandy Bay and seven other reserves. Within four months of becoming a child welfare supervisor at the agency in September, 1987, Glover listed 60 cases of suspected child abuse—including that of Desjarlais—at Sandy Bay. Prior to that, she says, there were no child abuse cases reported there. After the agency failed to act, Glover took her findings to the provincial government—and was promptly fired. “My position all along is there has been a conspiracy to cover up child abuse,” Glover said in a recent interview with Maclean’s. “The child abuse situation is horrendous. But reserve workers did not want to investigate abuse. Chiefs and band councillors interfere. And the social services ministry does not care.”
In his report, judge Giesbrecht clearly concurred with that assessment. “Marion Glover was responsible for exposing the problems, not causing them,” he wrote. He accused the Manitoba government of turning its back on the issue of abuse, and he called for an overhaul of the Dakota Ojibway Child and Family Services agency. As well, he called for legislation to curb the ability of chiefs and councillors to interfere with child welfare services. Wrote Giesbrecht in a stinging rebuke: “A child-care agency that cannot stand up to interference cannot do its job, and is not entitled to a mandate. An Indian leadership that cannot discipline itself is not worthy of governing.” But Giesbrecht also said that aboriginal communities must ultimately heal themselves. Wrote the judge: “No amount of outside assistance in the form of government programs, legislation or even constitutional change will overcome this code of silence. Only the individual residents of the reserve are capable of putting an end to this.”
Many natives say that a large part of the blame rests with the residential school system. Until the 1970s, Canadian authorities forced many aboriginal children to leave their families and attend church-administered residential schools, often hundreds of kilometres from their home, in an effort to assimilate them into
Canadian society. That alone, experts say, helped to destroy aboriginal family values. Noted Ontario’s Richard: “How could you ever learn to live in a good way in the context of the family if you were never around to live with your family? Native culture relies a lot on role
modelling. Without adequate role models in the context of the residential schools, there weren’t a whole lot of skills learned in terms of child and family life.”
Much of what the children did learn in the residential schools was clearly harmful. Stripped of their culture, punished for speaking their native languages, many aboriginals now say that they endured physical and sexual abuse in the schools. Says Clara Prosper, a community development worker with Halifax’s Micmac Native Friendship Centre: “Oftentimes, abuse comes from people who were abused themselves. It just perpetuates itself.”
As Phil Fontaine, the head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, declared in an emotional speech in June, 1991, “The victim becomes the victimizer.” In that speech, Fontaine said that he was abused by teachers during his years in residential schools in Winnipeg and Fort Alexander, 100 km northeast of the Manitoba capital—and that he had in turn been abusive in his relationships with women. Declared Fontaine: “I can never apologize enough to all the people I’ve harmed. I have to heal as well.”
In fact, many native communities are starting the healing process. Violence panel member Dumont-Smith says that some reserves, including her home reserve of Maniwaki, 120 km north of Ottawa, have established shelters for abuse victims. At the Hollow Water reserve, 150 km northeast of Winnipeg, residents have started a program to counsel both victims and abusers, intervene in families whose members are suffering from violence, and train band members as counsellors. Those efforts received support in June when, at the annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations in Fredericton, delegates voted unanimously in support of a resolution condemning abuse. Says DumontSmith: “There was a will in that hall among the national chiefs that violence against aboriginal women had to stop.”
More and more aboriginal men, meanwhile, are following Fontaine’s lead and confronting their demons head on. In the remote northern B.C. reserve of Alkali Lake, for one, residents have established a self-help group for native men who were abused in residential schools. “Our men are slowly beginning to look at the abuse,” said Edna Manitowaki, an /> Ojibwa from Manitoulin Island, Ont., £ who in August was one of 70 people W attending the Healing Gathering on S Sexual Abuse at the Ojibwa BrokenI head Reserve, 70 km north of Winni5 peg. “We are beginning to look at the I scars, to let go the pain, the garbage u and self-pity.”
Other aboriginal women also say that the situation has already begun to improve. “I think events are taking a turn,” says Halifax’s Prosper. “Sweat lodges and selfhealing group are helping people go back to the old traditions.” For her part, Dumont-Smith sounds an equally hopeful note. “We are breaking our silence, and I think that we will overcome our current situation,” she says. But, she adds, “We have a long way to go.” Justice Giesbrecht’s report last week offered a clear indication of just how long—and painful—that road may be.
PEETER KOPVILLEM with JOHN HOWSE in Sandy Bay and JOHN DeMONT in Halifax
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