North

'Hide everything': Report finds silence prevails in N.W.T. sexual assaults

Ten women and 37 service providers took part in a two-year study looking at the needs of women who have been sexually assaulted in the Northwest Territories. The author found that most people have been encouraged to keep silent about the abuse.

'There are strong repercussions for women who speak about it,' says author Lani Cooke

Ten women and 37 service providers took part in a two-year study looking at the needs of women who have been sexually assaulted in the N.W.T. The author found that most people have been encouraged to keep silent about the abuse. (Sunghwan Yoon/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

"Elders have worked to keep sexual assaults secret. It has always been 'Hush. Hush.'"

"The community attitude is to hide everything."

Those are quotes from women and service providers who took part in a two-year study looking at the needs of women who have been sexually assaulted in the Northwest Territories.

Lani Cooke, author of the new report Hush Hush No More, was commissioned by the YWCA to work on the project. She spoke with 10 women from five N.W.T. communities who have been sexually assaulted.

'Hush Hush No More' was written and researched by Lani Cooke. (submitted)

"It was hard for them to come forward because in many cases they hadn't really talked about this before," Cooke said in an interview this week.

"What I found in the North is there are strong repercussions for women who speak about it and very strong repercussions for women who go to the police and report it and proceed through the justice system."

Cooke found that many parents encouraged their daughters and sons not to report abuse, particularly if a family member was the abuser.

"My mother said that we would deal with this within the family," the report quoted one woman who was abused by her stepfather.

Cooke says in the "very confidential" interviews, women talked about threats, intimidation and  gossip.

One woman was too frightened to tell her mother that an acquaintance of her father had sexually assaulted her.

"If I would have gone to my mom and told my mom what was happening to me, and my mom told my dad, she would've got beat up."

Of the 10 women interviewed, only one had reported her sexual assault to RCMP.

Mixed experiences with the justice system

"We talk with approximately 100 women a month who have been sexually assaulted," said one of the 37 service providers Cooke spoke with, including members of the RCMP, N.W.T. Victim Services and health care workers.

"Almost everybody that we talk to has disclosed some form of history of sexual violence," said another.

While some victims talked about a lack of trust in the RCMP, others found police officers "kind and helpful." Women also found support from their church, shelters and from elders.

In Cooke's report, she said it can take up to three years for a case to go from the charge to the trial. (Mitchel Wiles/CBC)

Many though, including service providers, spoke about how difficult the court system is for victims.

"A number of the court workers with whom I spoke would like to see the court trials on sex assault closed to the public," Cooke said.

"It brings up a lot of memories of what had happened," said one woman in the report, "and then you have all these people sitting in the court, watching, and they run out and gossip."

While some women talked about being liberated in court after telling their story, other victims said they found the process intimidating and too long.

One court worker recommended that preliminary inquiries — where it's determined if there's enough evidence for a case to go to trial — should be foregone in sexual assault cases. Cooke said the length of cases allows for more intimidation, noting that a case can take up to three years to go from the charge to the trial.

9 recommendations

Cooke's report offers nine recommendations, which she points out all came from the people involved in the study.

They include a dedicated 24/7 toll free N.W.T. Rape Crisis Line, more training for service providers, better collaboration among services, and a territory-wide sexual violence awareness campaign.

"We need to start talking to our women. We need to start talking to our men," Cooke said.

Hush Hush No More, a report on sexual assault in the N.W.T., was written by Lani Cooke. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

She'd like to see a holistic, ongoing campaign that includes community workshops, PSAs and posters, with a big reach on social media and in schools.

"There's got to be a lot more discussion and education to tell guys that this isn't the way to get your gratification for your sexual urges," said one person in the report.

"Some children who are being abused in their homes do not know that this is wrong," said another.

with files from Marc Winkler, Lawrence Nayally

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