Inuit must speak out against sexual violence, woman tells MMIWG inquiry in Nunavut

Laura MacKenzie urges Inuit to speak up about what she calls 'rampant' child sexual abuse and violence in remote Northern communities.

Laura MacKenzie wonders if her cousin’s life could have been different had somebody reported abuse

Laura MacKenzie believes her cousin's life would have been better if she had the counselling and support she needed from a young age. (CBC)

Laura MacKenzie urges Inuit to speak up about what she calls "rampant" child sexual abuse and violence in remote Northern communities.

In her testimony to the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls on Tuesday morning in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, she suggested her cousin might still be alive today had this silence been broken.

Betsy Kalaserk was 29 when she took her life in Yellowknife in 2003, in front of her husband. He was convicted of criminal negligence causing death because he didn't intervene to save her, even after Kalaserk's young child asked him to. MacKenzie said he received a four-year jail sentence but was out after two years for good behaviour.

Betsy Kalaserk was 29 years old when she took her life in Yellowknife in 2003, in front of her husband. (Submitted)

MacKenzie says leading up to the suicide, Kalaserk struggled with the trauma of years of sexual abuse by a close family member.

"The very people that should have protected her from this were the very ones that abused her," said MacKenzie, who remembered her cousin as a friendly, kind, open-hearted woman.

When Kalaserk grew up, she moved from Rankin Inlet to Yellowknife, met a man and got married. For awhile, MacKenzie said things were good — she had some access to counselling. But alcohol abuse, depression and self harm eventually caught up with her.

Urges Inuit to speak out

MacKenzie told the room she chose to testify because she doesn't want anybody else to go through the trauma that Kalaserk experienced.

She urged Inuit to elect leaders who speak out against any form of violence, and called out elders to speak up against sexual abuse.

MacKenzie said the Catholic church has played a role of breeding a culture of silence among Nunavummiut.

"The [Catholic] church seems to encourage the abuser by saying, 'pray and forgive,' and not report the abuser, especially if it's a relative or high standing official," she said.

"I believe in God. But I don't believe God would want any child to be sexually abused continuously by a person. That's not the God i know."

Identifying the need to report violence is something commissioner Qajak Robinson said she has heard in testimonies across Canada. She said the inquiry has heard children need to be taught at a young age that abuse is wrong, and how to report it.

MacKenzie believes to this day that Kalaserk's life would have been better had somebody reported the abuse against Kalaserk, and if she had the counselling and support she needed from a young age.

"These things get me up at 3 a.m.," she said.

"What if, what if, what if?"

The qulliq, a traditional Inuit oil lamp, is burning at the MMIWG hearings in Rankin Inlet. (Randi Beers/CBC)

Call for more social services in the North

MacKenzie used her testimony to call for the federal government to provide the same social and health services in the North that is offered to those in the South.

"We need child sexual abuse specialists in the territory who can work with many people in the communities," she said.

"It can't be one person per region. That person is a human being. One person can only do so much."

She also called for Northerners to have access to the same family doctor over time, so one physician can develop better relationships with their patients, which she says would lead to a better quality of care.

MacKenzie ended her testimony by acknowledging how difficult it must be for Inuit to hear Nunavummiut publicly speak at the national inquiry.

"I know these aren't easy things for you guys to hear, but know that this isn't easy for me to say," she said.

"We can no longer turn a blind eye."