The Nishnawbe Aski Nation Women's Council says it's time to end the silence about sexual abuse in First Nations.

At a meeting over the weekend in Thunder Bay, council spokesperson Jackie Fletcher said painful events from the past have fostered a cycle of abuse. She said the only way to break it is to openly acknowledge the problem.

Fletcher said First Nations leaders need to create a safe environment in which victims can speak out — as well as for abusers to come forward, admit what they've done, and deal with the issues behind the abuse. 

"Sometimes it has to be a rude awakening for that Pandora's box to open," Fletcher said. "And we've done that as the NAN Women's Council. We've done it with our own people.  And now we've got to ... get that out there a lot more."

Fletcher said the cycle of abuse stems from painful events of the past, including residential school experiences.  

"What has happened to us has happened to us," Fletcher said. "And we need to acknowledge that and move on."

Jocelyn Iahtail said she was sexually abused repeatedly as a child at Attawapiskat First Nation.

Decades later, she can now speak publicly about her experience — not just for her own healing, but to encourage others to find their voices.

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Jocelyn Iahtail (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

Feeling re-victimized

"You encounter people who've never told anyone else due to that toxic shame," Iahtail said.

As part of her healing journey, Iahtail had to go to Minnesota to get specialized treatment for sexual abuse survivors. She continues her healing process in Ottawa.

Iahtail explained that she couldn't heal at Attawapiskat First Nation, because she didn't feel safe there, and in a small community it was impossible to avoid seeing her abusers.  She said her abusers were cousins. The abuse began when she was four years old and lasted until she was 13. 

Iahtail said leadership in First Nations often wants to keep the issue silent and doesn't encourage victims to speak out.

She also pointed out that when people talk openly about the abuse they've suffered, they often feel re-victimized by others who criticize them for speaking out.

"You're not seen as a hero [for speaking out]," Iahtail said. "You frighten a lot of people. I've had comments made that ... I'm hateful and ... don't know anything about how to forgive ... I've heard so many derogatory comments." 

But she remains committed to speaking out.

Fletcher added the women's council will break that silence further by pushing community leaders to create an environment in which victims of abuse aren't afraid to talk.