WARNING: This story addresses topics of a sensitive nature.
The names of the victims have been changed due to a publication ban.
Leslie sensed something wasn’t right when she arrived home from an overnight shopping trip to find her 11-year-old daughter, Emily, hiding in her bedroom. Emily’s half-brother hovered over Leslie while she put her groceries away.
When Emily tugged at her arm and whispered, “Mama, can I talk to you when everyone leaves,” one of Leslie’s biggest fears started to become reality. It was an hour before they could be alone — the longest hour of her life, Leslie says.
Emily then told her mom that her half-brother, who’s in his early 20s, sexually assaulted her. Leslie immediately took her daughter to the hospital and police station where professionals confirmed her story, she says.
“My family has a history of keeping it [sexual abuse] in,” says Leslie. “But I promised myself if I ever had kids, I would never let the guy, or whoever did it, get away with it.”
And she didn’t.
By immediately disclosing the abuse to the police, Leslie and her daughter became one of the first families at Tsawwassen First Nation to bypass their community’s tendency to keep quiet about sexual assault. Since their disclosure, a second young girl’s mother has come forward to police with her daughter’s story.
“Children are not supposed to be used for people’s pleasure,” Leslie says “They are just innocent children and they should be able to live their lives as kids and not have to worry about this type of stuff.”
Emily’s abuser pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.
Leslie says she trusted this young man with her kids. In fact, she changed his diapers when he was young. She helped raise him while she worked part-time and attended high school.
“It just goes to show that you can’t trust anyone,” she says, “Not even if they’re family because you never know who they truly are behind closed doors.”
She sits at the kitchen table in her house on Tsawwassen First Nation, a small community of 328 members, half of whom live on the First Nation Lands. Her daughter sits beside her wearing matching pink pajamas and wrapped in a large Disney blanket.
“It feels good to stand away from the influence of my family and just stand on our feet and say this is wrong, and it has to stop,” Leslie says, as tears roll down her cheeks.
But trying to change entrenched social attitudes and encourage others to disclose is a difficult task – and Leslie knows it. There has to be a change in the community so that others can feel safe coming forward, she says.
“I was hoping it would make people stronger to see that I told,” she says.
‘Be quiet, don’t tell’
Silence is one of the key barriers to community healing. Emily feared that the community would blame her after she came forward, and she asked her mother not to tell her friends and family.
“No, no, no,” Leslie said. “They’re going to look at you and go, ‘Wow, you’re such a strong little girl.’”
While friends and distant family hug Emily and tell her she did the right thing, most of their immediate family members don’t support them. But Leslie says Tsawwassen’s Health and Social Services Manager Susan Miller told Emily right away that she was proud of her for disclosing.
“Hurting somebody is not OK,” Miller says. “And we always say to the kids, ‘We believe you.’ That’s the most important thing you can say.”
For nearly ten years, Miller has been working diligently to make sure community members feel safe disclosing sexual abuse within the community. She speaks from her office in a trailer, surrounded by health flyers and piles of community members’ files. Clients drop in constantly.
But in all her years working there, no one has come forward immediately after abuse took place, she says.
“I honestly didn’t believe that I would still be working here to see it happen.” Miller says. “Nobody is hiding. The victims aren’t hiding. And they shouldn’t.”
Miller says a widespread approach of keeping quiet, a tactic learned in residential schools and foster care, has silenced generations from disclosing the crimes. The fear that disclosure could result in a child being taken away, or a family member going to jail, adds to the problem of silence.
“Because of those experiences when abuses did happen, it was always the ‘be quiet don’t tell’ because if you tell, someone either is going to get hurt or you’re going to get taken away,” Miller says.
Leslie spoke out, too. In 2003, she brought a complaint against her grandfather to the police. He pleaded guilty to one count of sexual assault against Leslie.
Still, she was ostracized by some of those closest to her, she says.
Unlike her own family, who she says turned a blind eye to the abuse, Leslie spent her whole life telling her daughter to come forward if anything ever happened because she would believe her.
“I was so thankful she did,” says Leslie, who’s still trying to deal with memories from her own past.
Her grandfather was given a conditional sentence of two years less a day, and three years probation. The conditions included not being allowed on Tsawwassen First Nation Lands. He has since returned. Sometimes she sees him driving by, or at community events, and bad memories come flooding back. She doesn’t like him looking at her or her kids, she says.
Challenges to Healing
Tsawwassen First Nation’s chief Kim Baird is grappling with how to deal with sexual abuse in her community.
“It really saddens me that the negative consequences [of residential school] continue on, generation after generation,” says Baird “It breaks my heart to think of the young girls here. Hoping that they would never have to suffer these indignities.”
A mother of three young daughters, Baird is known as the powerful, business-minded leader behind British Columbia’s first urban treaty in 2009. She’s currently working on megamall plans for Tsawwassen Lands.
But sexual abuse is a tougher issue to deal with, she says.
“To talk about it as a community, we haven’t tackled that yet,” Baird says.
Baird sits on a provincial government advisory committee for Aboriginal women trying to overcome violence against women, a place she looks to for inspiration and solutions.
“Is there more that we can be doing? Probably. What is it? I’m not sure,” she says. “But we definitely don’t have the authority or jurisdiction to solve these issues.”
Sexual assault happens in every part of society, but rates within Aboriginal communities are difficult to gauge. A 2005 study of approximately 2500 Aboriginal high school students concluded 20 per cent of female Aboriginal students reported being sexually abused, three times higher than non-Aboriginal female students.
A more recent 2009 federal study says as many as half of Aboriginal women are victims of sexual abuse as children compared to a 20 per cent to 25 per cent average rate amongst non-Aboriginal women.
“Sexual abuse is still pretty silent and burdened by shame,” says the B.C.’s Aboriginal Health Physician Advisor Evan Adams, in an e-mail.
He says there is a First Nations & Inuit Health acute mental health service that can “parachute in” for a limited amount of time. But he doesn’t know of any consistent province-wide strategies in BC to deal with traumas like this.
“Very, very sad, since sexual assault is the most common experience giving rise to post-traumatic stress syndrome.”
However, some Aboriginal communities in Canada are finding success using community-focused approaches to try to heal victims and offenders from sexual abuse.
“You need a lot more than one counselor,” Marcel Hardisty says over the phone. He’s a community worker from Hollow Water First Nation, an Ojibway community of 1,000 residents northeast of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
In 1986, he was part of a group of community members who teamed up with other individuals and organizations, such as the justice system, counselors, and RCMP, to address widespread sexual abuse by launching The Hollow Water Community Holistic Circle Healing Process.
Over 100 offenders have participated in the program since it began, and an estimated 400 to 500 victims have been involved in the healing process as well, according to reports.
“It helps them recognize where all this stems from,” he says, “and that it is a multi-generational situation…from the impact of the experience of First Nations people through colonization, residential schools, the Indian Act and all of the systems that the government created to impose this government policy. ”
“People become spiritually and emotionally bankrupt,” he says.
Emily’s life will never be the same, says Leslie. The daughter she describes as “happy-go-lucky” now stays in the house instead of going to the youth centre to see her friends, and refuses to sleep alone.
It’s difficult for Leslie, who is determined to help her daughter move forward.
“I felt like I kind of failed my children because it happened,” says Leslie. “Everyone says, ‘No, you’re actually helping your children. I go, ‘Well, it still kind of hurts that it did happen.’”
Emily started to see a counselor, recommended by victim services, after the abuse took place. The Tsawwassen First Nation counselor has also been available to the family.
They’ve received support from the Delta Police Department, including from officer Terry Sansregret. Since 2007, he’s worked in the community as a liaison between the Delta Police and Tsawwassen First Nation.
Still, Leslie says she doesn’t feel safe in the community. Healing is especially difficult with both of their abusers living nearby.
She plans to move to Vancouver with her children, and leave behind the bad memories.
“So we can just move on with our lives and get our counselling and then, think of happier things in life,” she says.
As Leslie describes the abuse, Emily huddles over the table, her face buried in her hands. However, when the topic of their plans to move to Vancouver comes up, her face brightens. She excitedly describes the colour she plans to paint her room by raising an arm of her pink pajamas.
Her family’s move is just one item on a long list of Leslie’s goals.
“What do I want for my kids? Oh, I want them to all get a good education and try to find a career for themselves,” she says.
“These kids are my life, like they’re everything to me.”
- Related: Sexual assault resources