Indigenous #MeToo catching fire in B.C. First Nations communities
Lack of services prevents Indigenous sexual assault victims from coming forward, advocates say
A recent Facebook post by Lauraleigh Paul, the daughter of Vancouver artist Lawrence Paul, alleging an Indigenous actor had sexually assaulted her has spurred other Indigenous women to do the same.
Over the past week, scores of Indigenous people have shared their personal stories of sexual assault, harassment and abuse on Facebook. They have also contacted journalists and victim services.
The incidents cited have taken place in a range of settings, including within First Nations organizations, at powwows, during work trips with band councillors, during cultural events, in homes, on film shoots and in government offices.
One Indigenous woman posted to social media and called the CBC to disclose that when she was 15 years old she was sexually assaulted by an older man during a trip to Seattle for a powwow.
At the time, the man was a cultural leader in the Indigenous community in B.C., the woman said.
Higher stakes than Hollywood
Despite the recent revelations, several members of Indigenous communities say vulnerable and marginalized peoples are more cautious when it comes to bringing forward accusations of sexual assault and harassment.
And they have good reason.
"It is an extremely, deeply personal thing to disclose and in Indigenous communities you're dealing with, more often than not, smaller and remote communities," said Wawmeesh Hamilton, a journalist with The Discourse media outlet. Hamilton has done extensive research on Indigenous sex offenders in First Nations.
"If you have been sexually assaulted or sexually abused, you see your abuser probably every day — whether it's at home, outside in the community, at the band office, at the gym, at the community centre — you see them all the time," Hamilton said.
The stakes are even higher when you add poverty into the mix, and if one's abuser is a leader in the community, held in high regard or in charge of critical needs like housing.
Dire need for safe houses and shelters
Mavis Erickson, a Carrier lawyer who previously worked as a special representative for the protection of First Nations women's rights for the federal government, said many Indigenous people don't come forward with sexual assault allegations because there's a lack of resources such as shelters or victim support services in Indigenous communities.
"[Indigenous] women don't have the safety and security to name men as aggressors or predators in the community because they don't have a [safe] place to go to," said Erickson.
Toronto Star journalist Tanya Talaga spoke about the need for safe houses for Indigenous women and youth during two Massey Lectures this week in Vancouver.
The Anishinaabe author of the book Seven Fallen Feathers told audiences her research revealed a connection between sexual assault and abuse and teen suicide — a phenomenon that is 11 times more likely in some Indigenous communities.
On Thursday, the B.C government announced it is building 280 new transition housing units for women and children fleeing violence, but did not indicate if they will be in Indigenous communities or if spaces will be allocated to Indigenous women.
More women coming forward means a need for more services.
Jenna Forbes, executive director of the Vancouver Aboriginal Transformative Justice Services Society, said many Indigenous people are coming forward with stories of abuse.
"Our community is reliving and getting triggered, but there aren't enough counsellors, third parties for women to make police reports, and safe spaces for confidential conversations," Forbes added.
Ingrained code of silence
Erickson says the reticence of some victims to speak out is not just about poverty and the complexity of close-knit communities. Their reluctance to speak out goes back to the residential school experience.
"It's the same silence that took over our communities when it came to reporting sexual abuse within the church," Erickson said.
"I think that it's hard to come forward and make those allegations and be believed — it's the silence we learned in residential school to just to be quiet and shut up," she said.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has recorded more than 150,000 Indigenous children who survived residential school, with more than 6,000 deaths.
But today, there are still people who don't believe abuse took place in the schools.
Erickson says some people's reluctance to believe this is another reason why some Indigenous people are hesitant to vocalize their abuse.
Forbes says regardless of the difficulty, the truth needs to come out.
"In the work I do, most people accused in a crime of violence want to say, 'I'm sorry I hurt you,' and move on. But we teach the person to be accountable because the victim will remember every detail," she said.
"The only path to closure on both sides of crime is to walk back through the situation, not around it or over it," she said.
Where to get help
Rape Crisis Centre 24-hour crisis line: 604-255-6344 or toll free 1-877-392-7583
Battered Women's Support Services: 604-687-1867
VictimLink B.C.: 1-800-563-0808
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868; Live Chat counselling at kidshelpphone.ca