Indigenous inquiry hears first-hand account of life in the sex trade
Mealia Sheutiapik was on the streets of Ottawa when she was 15
The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Women heard a first-hand account testimony about life in the sex trade from an Inuk woman who left her home in the north when she was just 15.
Mealia Sheutiapik described the path that led her to work on the streets of Ottawa, beginning when she witnessed a murder when she was 11 or 12 years old.
"I had a normal life, I was not abused," Sheutiapik said, recalling her childhood Frobisher Bay — now Iqaluit.
Sheutiapik didn't go into detail about the murder she witnessed; she said it is still difficult to talk about thirty years later and she had no way of processing it as a child.
"There was no help," she said.
"I didn't know how to talk it out because I was just a kid."
By the time she was 15, Sheutiapik moved to Ottawa with a 29-year-old boyfriend and not long after, he began abusing her.
"So I ended up running away and that's how I ended up on the street," she said.
Alone, impoverished and traumatized, Sheutiapik turned to drugs.
"I tried to kill that pain," she said, "It took over me."
For ten years, on-and-off, Sheutiapik worked in the sex trade to support her addictions. She tried to reach out to healthcare workers and support groups, but found it hard to find anyone to help.
I'm just giving back to the community as much as I can and try not to think about what I used to do.- Mealia Sheutiapik
Sheutiapik said there were Inuit- and Indigenous-specific support groups, but not enough outreach, making it hard to know where to look.
All the while, she strived to make a better life for herself. She enrolled in a counselling program, and while tt took a few false starts, she eventually found a job with a church.
"I like what I do today," Sheutiapik said.
"I'm just giving back to the community as much as I can and try not to think about what I used to do."
'A ghost crime'
Jennisha Wilson is a program manager with Tungasuvvingat Inuit in Ottawa. She works with sex workers who are trying to leave the trade.
She described human trafficking as "a ghost crime: something that is difficult to report, something that is difficult to identify."
Wilson reiterated a point made at Monday's hearing: that women sometimes don't realize they're being used and abused.
"It's very difficult for Inuit to see how they are being exploited," she said.
"Their experiences have been normalized over time."
Life in the south
Wilson and Sheutiapik both spoke about the challenge for Inuit to adapt to life in southern Canada. Sheutiapik described her trouble finding culturally-appropriate help, and Wilson said much of the research on human trafficking doesn't even include Inuit women.
It was a point that rang true for Elizabeth Zarpa, an Inuk from Labrador who went to law school in Victoria, and now lives in St. John's.
"There's a large population of Inuit who travel from Labrador to access services like healthcare and education," she said.
Zarpa said there are Indigenous communities and supports in the capital city, but few that focus specifically on Inuit culture.
"Especially in St. John's there could be more programming around Inuit for educational purposes, transportation, cultural support, language."
The inquiry continues Wednesday.