Teen held captive, tortured dismissed by police as runaway case, MMIWG inquiry hears

The adoptive mother of a 15-year-old Innu girl, who was found naked and curled up in a closet more than a month after she disappeared in 2011, told the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls on Thursday police never supported her in her search.

Jean-Frédérick Gosselin sentenced to 5 years for attack in 2014, but Innu mother's faith in justice is gone

Commissioner Michèle Audette hugs families from Unamen Shipu, Que., who gave devastating testimonies at the MMIWG inquiry on Wednesday in Mani-Utenam. (CBC)

The adoptive mother of an Innu teenager who was kidnapped, held captive and savagely tortured for weeks in 2011 said police never supported her in her search, dismissing her daughter's disappearance as a runaway case.

Maria, whose real name cannot be published because her adopted daughter, now 22, was still a minor in 2011, recounted the anguish she endured in her testimony Thursday, the fourth day of Quebec hearings of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) in Mani-Utenam, near Sept-Îles.

She said the then-15-year-old, who is her biological great-granddaughter, failed to come home from a pool party in Quebec City where they were living in August 2011.

After her daughter's disappearance, Maria said she drove up and down a 1,000-kilometre stretch of highway between Quebec City and Natashquan, her home community, searching for clues and following up tips she received from friends.

"I had the impression police weren't helping me. They weren't nice with me when I went to ask for information," said Maria, who added she did receive support from the Missing Children's Network in Montreal.

Maria said her hopes were shattered several times after police called to tell her they had found her daughter, who turned out to be a different Indigenous girl, one without the distinctive birthmarks and piercings Maria had described to police.

MMIWG inquiry commissioner Qajaq Robinson holds the great-great-grandchild of Maria, a witness who testified her adoptive daughter's kidnapping in August 2011 had been brushed off by police. (Julia Page/CBC)

Found naked, curled up in closet

On one of her lone trips, Maria received a phone call that police had found her daughter, curled up and naked, in an apartment closet.

She raced back to Quebec City from Sept-Îles — a nine-hour drive.

"I would never wish this on anyone," Maria said, describing what her daughter had lived through.

"She had been knocked out, had cigarette burns all over her."

Maria said her daughter had been held captive all that time in a home in Wendake, the Huron-Wendat enclave in Quebec City.

She told commissioners she wasn't able to recount the details of the torture and sexual violence her daughter endured.

"She remembers vaguely that she was tied to a wall, her arms pinned in the air, and the man was throwing knives at her," Maria said, saying she can't shake the thought her daughter could have died at any moment.

'There is much injustice'

The teen had tried to escape but was knocked unconscious by her perpetrator by a blow to the head. A court later heard she came to in a bathtub filled with icy-cold water. Maria said the girl suffered serious long-term injuries as a result.

Jean-Frédérick Gosselin, now 40, was charged with forcible confinement, armed assault and sexual assault.

The Crown later dropped the forcible confinement charge. Gosselin pleaded guilty to the other charges and was sentenced to five years in prison.

Maria said that the five-year sentence doesn't begin to repair the harm he caused.

She said her daughter never received any support from Quebec's Crime Victims Assistance Centre, CAVAC.

Maria told the inquiry she had never had faith in the judicial system, which she says is devoid of any human values.

"There is much injustice," Maria concluded.

A seat at the sharing circle of the MMIWG inquiry hearing in Mani-Utenam, Que., is always left empty for the Indigenous men and women who were victims of violence. (Julia Page/CBC)

Maria's own traumatic childhood

Maria said she adopted her great-granddaughter as a toddler because of the unhealthy, beer-bottle-strewn environment she found her living in.

"I went in at 4 a.m., she was still walking around in her diaper. I couldn't believe my great-granddaughter was living in this house," she told the commissioners.

Like many of the witnesses speaking at this inquiry, Maria has lived through many traumatic episodes.

Raised with her family in the bush near Ekuanitshit, 200 kilometres east of Sept-Îles, at eight, Maria was sent away to a sanatorium in Gaspé.

She said Innu children from all over Quebec were sent there to be treated for tuberculosis, even though she doesn't believe she had TB.

"We played around and had lots of fun. We certainly didn't look like sick kids," Maria said, suggesting the children were being "used as guinea pigs."

After 13 months in the institution, Maria returned home to her mother, where she said she was the victim of sexual abuse perpetrated by a distant relative who'd come into their tent at night.

"I was afraid if I told my mother, she'd confront him. And I couldn't lose my mother. She was the most important thing in my life. So I buried the secret within me."

Maria said she was then forced into a violent marriage which lasted 34 years.

She said once her children were grown, she had enough of it and left, reclaiming her life.

Peace, at last — and laughter

Now Maria said she is a happy person, grateful to have a great-great-grandchild. At times resorting to humour, Maria showed how vital that's been to her recovery.

"My doctor told me I had one foot in the grave. I told him the other one is ready," she said, setting off another wave of laughter from the hearing's participants.

"Don't be afraid to love your children. There is no shame in loving your child," she told the audience as she finished her testimony.

Innu singers chant a song of respect for the witnesses appearing before the MMIWG inquiry and for victims of violence and their families. (Julia Page/CBC)

The MMIWG hearings continue in the small Innu community until Friday.

Earlier this week, four women testified they had been victims of Alexis Joveneau, a Belgian missionary, alleging there were several others.

Joveneau, who arrived in Quebec from Belgium in the early 1950s, died in Unaman Shipu, also known as La Romaine, in 1992.

Women and men described to the inquiry's commissioners the power Joveneau wielded over the communities, helping the government to force the people of Pakua Shipu to a new reserve 175 kilometres away in the 1960s, and the devastation left by the alleged sexual abuse.

Bags like these for discarded tissues are available at the community hearings. (Julia Page/CBC)

Missing parents and children

In some cases, Innu families are speaking out for the first time in decades.

The family of Anne-Marie Jourdain said they believe their mother was murdered at the end of November 1957, while she was out trapping in the woods north of Port-Cartier, about 60 kilometres southwest of Sept-Îles.

Families from Pakua Shipu, near the Labrador border, also told commissioners how their children were never returned after being taken away for medical treatment to the nearby hospital in Blanc-Sablon in the 1970s.

A witness said death certificates were never provided for at least eight babies, who were never properly buried.

Next hearings set for Montreal

The hearings in Mani-Utenam, 900 kilometres northeast of Montreal, are the first to be held inside an Indigenous community.

The first phase of the hearings is dedicated to hearing personal testimonies, while the second phase in 2018 will be dedicated to government institutions.

The inquiry has made stops in Saskatoon, Edmonton, Membertou, N.S., Winnipeg, Smithers, B.C., and Whitehorse.

The planned stop in Rankin Inlet in December was postponed, and will be rerouted to a hotel in the community at a later date.

The inquiry has confirmed it will hold hearings in Montreal next year — an announcement many families had been waiting for.

Commissioner Michèle Audette confirmed the decision prior to the opening ceremony Monday.