Confront scourge of sexual abuse, stand up for children, Inuit leaders demand

Prominent Inuit politicians are urging Canada's leaders — indigenous and otherwise — to protect children from the scourge of sexual abuse and suicide running through indigenous communities.

'There is no way to talk about this issue without it being difficult,' says ITK president Natan Obed

'There is no way to talk about this issue without it being difficult,' says ITK president Natan Obed. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

Prominent Inuit politicians are urging Canada's leaders — indigenous and otherwise — to protect children from the scourge of sexual abuse and suicide running through indigenous communities, saying no child deserves to have their innocence stolen.

The head of Canada's national Inuit organization says it is incumbent upon all leaders to proclaim that abuse in indigenous communities is unacceptable.

Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, is himself no stranger to intergenerational trauma; his own father struggled with alcoholism after falling victim to sexual and physical abuse at residential school.

"There is no way to talk about this issue without it being difficult," Obed said in an interview. "I always think of the
children, the children that shouldn't be abused and they are at the centre of my thoughts."

Children deserve the right to live happy, healthy childhoods and to fulfil their potential, he added.

"We need to do more to keep our children safe," Obed said. "We know the risk factors that child sexual abuse is for suicide."

'We know the risk factors that child sexual abuse is for suicide,' says Obed.

'An open secret'

Talk of sexual abuse often falls on deaf ears at all levels of government, a frustrated Iqaluit Mayor Madeleine Redfern said Monday following a Canadian Press investigation that highlights the alarming prevalence of sexual abuse in some indigenous communities — and the fact that it remains an open secret.

'If you acknowledge it, you have to deal with it,' says Iqaluit Mayor Madeleine Redfern. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)
"If you acknowledge it, you have to deal with it," Redfern said. "Just the same way that the Catholic Church abuse went on for decades; that was an open secret until media ... decided that those stories needed to be told."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stuck to a familiar script when asked about the issue Monday, citing existing government investments and the Liberal commitment to establish a new relationship with Canada's indigenous people.

"The one thing we will not do is decide from Ottawa how to fix these problems because that's part of what has got us into successive failures," Trudeau said.

"We will work in respect and in partnership with indigenous communities, indigenous leadership, to ensure that we are addressing these problems together for the long-term."

Shockingly high numbers

Researchers, indigenous leaders and victims told The Canadian Press the level of abuse in some communities is shockingly high, although there is limited data to indicate exactly how pervasive the problem is across the country.

Independent Sen. Murray Sinclair, the chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which explored the depths of Canada's residential school legacy, said data is sorely lacking that could point to the magnitude of the problem inside indigenous communities.

Sexual abuse has gone beyond residential school survivors, their children and grandchildren, said Sinclair. The cycle of abuse has infected subsequent generations, he warned. Children are abusing each other across generations; members of street gangs are victimizing young girls; and women are being hauled into the sex trade.

Mental health resources to address the issue and research possible connections to the alarmingly high number of indigenous suicides are sorely lacking, especially in Canada's far North, Sinclair noted.

Obed with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who vows to work in partnership on the issue, and not 'decide from Ottawa how to fix these problems because that's part of what has got us into successive failures.' (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami)

Scared of the abusers

In the 2007-08 Inuit Health Survey conducted in Nunavut, a staggering 52 per cent of women and 22 per cent of men said they experienced severe sexual abuse during childhood. 

A 2012 Statistics Canada report found rates of sexual offences against children and youth were highest in the territories — the Northwest Territories and Nunavut recorded the highest rates in Canada, followed by Yukon.

Fear remains a very real barrier for victims to speak up about abuse, Redfern said, noting many are concerned about possible retaliatory attacks from community members themselves including family and friends.

"They are very scared of their abusers ... often if it is family members or close family friends, especially if the person is in a position of power, if that person is an elder, a politician, a community leader, a leader within their family — a father, a grandfather," she said.

"Society will be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest numbers."