An advocate for women in the sex trade told First Nations leaders this week that the cycle of addictions in their communities will push their sisters, daughters and granddaughters into prostitution.

Bridget Perrier was the keynote speaker at a conference dealing with an epidemic of prescription drug abuse in remote northern Ontario First Nations. Some communities report up to 80 per cent of their population is hooked on painkillers, such as OxyContin.

"For First Nations women who become heavily addicted, they have to prostitute themselves and they don’t even realize they’re doing it," Perrier said. "They’re sleeping with the dope dealer, they’re sleeping with someone to get money

[for drugs]."


Delegates to a three-day conference dealing with prescription drug abuse say they need more social supports to prepare communities for the sudden wealth of new mines planned in the region. (Jody Porter/CBC)

‘Racism plays a big role’

Perrier said she speaks from experience. An Ojibway woman from Long Lake 58 First Nation, she was adopted out to a non-Aboriginal family as a baby. At the age of eight, she was sexually assaulted by a boarder in her adoptive home.

She said after the abuse, her parents blamed her unruly behaviour on her "Indian-ness" and put her in the care of Children’s Aid. By 12, she said she had been groomed to work as a prostitute by older girls in her group home.

"Racism plays a big role," Perrier said. "When I would go missing, my dad was told not to report me as an Aboriginal girl, just to say I was Caucasian, because if he said I was Aboriginal, they [police] wouldn’t look for me."

Years later, as an advocate for what she calls "prostituted women," Perrier discovered just how difficult it is to get police to search for missing Aboriginal women.

Perrier is the step-mother to Brenda Wolfe’s daughters. Wolfe’s remains were found on serial-killer Robert Picton’s farm. Perrier said police in Vancouver dismissed her concerns and told her Wolfe was "on vacation" when Perrier first attempted to report her missing.

‘Like a black hole and you get stuck in it’

Now Perrier is a driving force behind the push for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

Delegates at the conference sat silent and still for nearly two hours as Perrier shared her life’s journey, then they leapt to their feet to give her a standing ovation.


Chiefs and community leaders pose for a photo after a community feast marking the beginning of the prescription drug abuse conference in Neskantaga First Nation. (Jody Porter/CBC News)

The community hall in Neskantaga First Nation was charged with emotion as men began asking for the microphone to share stories of sexual abuse in their families. Their voices shook as they expressed the fears they have for the safety of their daughters and granddaughters.

"Once you get caught in that cycle of prostitution, that intergenerational trauma is like a black hole and you get stuck in it," Perrier said. "And you feel what you’re worth."

‘Selling themselves to the devil’

Perrier cautioned the group about the potential perils of the new-found wealth that may come with new mines planned for the region. She said she was flown into mining camps as a child to "service men."

"There’s no high end prostitution in northern Ontario, it’s all low end," Perrier said. "So these girls are basically selling themselves to the devil for nothing."

There are already examples of men preying on First Nations women suffering from addictions in the region, Perrier said.

A man from Florida is regularly coming to Thunder Bay, she said, bribing women with drugs into posing for explicit photos that he posts on a website targeted at men who want to see sexualized Aboriginal women.

"You know he’s disgusting and I’ve actually had a confrontation with him because I’ve had family members on that site," Perrier said.

‘They hunt them’

Thunder Bay police said they haven’t had any recent complaints about the website, but had looked into it a few years ago.

"At that time, the participants or models were adults and, as such, did not constitute a criminal act," spokesperson Chris Adams said in an e-mail to CBC News. "If any information comes to police regarding underage participants, then there would be an issue to investigate."

Perrier said people often want to blame First Nations women involved with drugs and prostitution for their plight.

"It’s not their fault," she said. "Blame those men trolling for them. It’s ritualistic for them, they hunt them."

Leaders at the conference say they want to make sure their communities are healthy and social supports are in place before mines, and their potential to bring more harm, come into the area.