Abused as a child, became abusive husband: Man testifies at MMIWG Yellowknife, then supports others

James Jenka shared his perspective about how men fit into the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls at the public hearings in Yellowknife.

'We are healing. But without you we are nothing. Women give life,' says James Jenka

James Jenka holds up a photo of three women. From left is his mother, Helen Leyden, his aunt Louise Fortin and his grandmother, 'the love of his life,' Mary Ann Fortin. (Randi Beers/CBC)

James Jenka is sorry.

On Wednesday afternoon, he opened up about abuse in his family and in residential school during his testimony to the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women in Yellowknife. 

He said that abuse led to him to abuse his own family.

"I want to apologize to every mother, every sister, every daughter, every woman. Sorry for hurting you. Very sorry," he said.

After the testimony, Jenka donned the purple shirt worn by health support workers. He was part of the team of individuals providing emotional support to those who testified and others who struggled with the stories they heard.

"It is hard work," Jenka said.

"It may not look like it with these support people in here, who are walking around or sitting, but they are there constantly being observant."
Members of the public gathered at the opening ceremony of the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Yellowknife Monday. ( Claudiane Samson/CBC)

Jenka has experience as a life coach: he's worked with the healing drum society, and provided support during Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings.

He called the experience of testifying and then giving support a reciprocal process.

Helping people is his passion, but he demurred when asked if there is anything special about what he does.

"I don't do the healing," he said.

"The creator and the messenger — they are the ones doing the work. My drum, my rattles, my pipe — none of it belongs to me."

'No child should see stuff like that'

Jenka's mother, Helene Leyden, was 31-years-old when she went missing from Edmonton in 1970. She has never been found.

She had given Jenka to his grandmother to raise — a woman he described as the "love of his life."

He remembers loving his grandmother, who died when he was 13. 
James Jenka testifying at the MMIWG in Yellowknife on Jan. 24, 2018. (CBC)

He also remembers seeing his grandmother dragged by her hair across the room. He remembers the drinking and partying.

One night, he said he came downstairs and found his grandmother passed out on the floor — naked, except for a blanket. He remembers a man ripping the blanket off her and inviting him to touch her. He said he refused. 

"No child should see stuff like that," testified Jenka, who then described the sexual abuse he experienced in residential school.

I was an angry man.- James Jenka

Jenka was the first person in his family to graduate high school.

He moved to Fort McMurray, Alta., got a high-paying job and found the life he had fantasized about as a child.

"My dream was to go find me a beautiful white woman like in the books," said Jenka. "I got my beautiful white wife, made lots of money. I got my house. Got my children."

Jenka told the commission that he physically, emotionally and mentally abused his wife.

"I was an angry man," Jenka said. 

"Thank God for [my wife]. She stuck by me as long as she could. She loved me. She tried to love me, this broken man."

He said he was devastated to lose her, but he honours his ex-wife for having the strength to take herself and their children out of the abusive situation he had created.

Jenka spent the next six years drinking and penniless. He spent time on the streets, caught in a cycle of self-abuse before "waking up."

He then began his healing journey, which has lasted 25 years.

No more secrets, Jenka urges 

Jenka said he chose to testify because he wants to honour the women in his life, but that's not the only reason.

"We need to talk about those secrets for families to heal," he said.  "It's tough to hear, but we need to hear stuff like that."

He said a lack of support for men continues to be a problem in the North and talked about the role he has as a man regarding the issues the inquiry is mandated to address.

"Talk about missing and murdered women," he told the room. 

"We are part of you, too, as men. We are broken, just as you are. And we are healing. But without you we are nothing. Women give life," Jenka said. 

"The best comfort I could find as a man — a human being — is in the arms of a woman. When they embrace you … It took me a long time to embrace that."