Actor's history of domestic violence brought to light as Indian Horse opens in theatres across Canada

Melanie Rope wants people to know about actor Will Strongheart’s history of violence against her and others, before making a choice about whether or not to see the movie 'Indian Horse.'

'I wish to inform you that this matter has been dealt with as of 2010,' stated actor Will Strongheart

New York-based actor Will Strongheart plays the supporting role of Virgil in the film Indian Horse. According to his bio on the film's website he is a member of the Keeseekoose First Nation of Saskatchewan. (Elevation Pictures)

Melanie Rope wants people to know about actor Will Strongheart's history of violence against her and others, before making a choice about whether or not to see the movie Indian Horse.

"It's not about trying to take away from this movie, but maybe just giving people the option to think twice before before they go and see it," said Rope, who is Nakoda woman from the Carry the Kettle Nakoda First Nation in Saskatchewan. She is currently a pre-social work student at the University of Regina and says she dated Strongheart for just under a year in 2009-2010.

What Rope does want, is for people to know about Strongheart's past and to discover how he was cast in such an important film. 

On Friday Rope made a public Facebook post about the vicious assault she experienced at the hands of Strongheart, along with a photo of her swollen, bruised face after she was released from hospital. 

A photo of Melanie Rope from 2010 just days after she says she was released from hospital after being viciously attacked by Strongheart in his Regina home. (Supplied)

"He was threatening to kill me as he was beating me," said Rope, recalling the night when she says Strongheart beat her in his Regina home after flying into a jealous rage. Rope says Strongheart was subsequently charged, convicted and sentenced on two counts of assault causing bodily harm.

He spent 18 months in custody. Six months in a Regina correctional facility and one year at the Willow Creek Healing Lodge. 

It's not about trying to take away from this movie, but maybe just giving people the option to think twice before before they go and see it.- Melanie Rope

Rope's post, which detailed other allegations of abuse from other former partners of Strongheart, was shared widely on social media beginning on Friday morning — nearly 10,000 times — until being pulled down by Facebook on Saturday.

At the same time, Indian Horse, a film in which Strongheart plays a supporting role, is getting national media attention as it begins screening in theatres across Canada.

The much-anticipated film is based on the award-winning novel by the late Richard Wagamese and tells a heart-wrenching story that brings to light the trauma caused by residential schools in Canada through the eyes of an Ojibway boy who finds his escape on the ice, playing hockey.

Strongheart plays Virgil, the best friend of the main character Saul Indian Horse, and a fellow hockey player.

Amid the buzz circulating around Rope's post is a division over whether or not people still want to see the film. It has also sparked a heated online commentary about domestic violence.

Strongheart: 'This matter has been dealt with'

In an emailed response sent to CBC on Saturday about the statements made against him in the Facebook post, which detailed numerous allegations against multiple women, Strongheart did not respond to each individual claim made against him, but did write that he was very aware of what was posted about him.

"This is about the 10th time such posts have been made in the last eight years," he wrote.

His email goes on to say: "I wish to inform you that this matter has been dealt with as of 2010. However, due to my recent involvement in film, and other outlets; these two women have found reason to post and continue to post whenever I am mentioned publicly.

"I have addressed this many times over on my social media accounts, letters/etc. I've made public and personal apologies, held myself accountable for the negative actions I had done and hoped each time was the end of it."

Both Moore and Rope said they've never received a personal apology.

Rope says she's been contacted by hundreds of women since posting about Strongheart. She says many have been expressing their support for her speaking out, while others have been telling her their own stories of domestic violence.

"There are so many women that this resonates with. I think it's important. So many women out there feel alone and feel like they're trapped in these relationships with men," said Rope.

Melanie Rope said she'd been dating Will Strongheart for just under a year when he subjected her to a prolonged assault that put her in hospital. (Supplied)

But others are calling out Rope and her friend for speaking out about their experiences with Strongheart, and calling into question the timing of the post.

Rope says she and others have been speaking out about Strongheart for years.

This time, people are paying attention

It's just that, unlike past attempts to share her truth, this time more people are paying attention.

Rope said it was deliberate to post about Strongheart, once again, as the film was hitting the big screens across Canada. 

Rope says there are many reasons why she continues to share her story. First of all, she says she wants Strongheart to take accountability in a public way for what he's done to her. She also wants to see someone take accountability for casting him in the film and elevating his public prominence. 

Details about Strongheart`s conviction of two counts of assault causing bodily harm in November 2010 can be read in parole documents shared with CBC by Rope.

A photo of parole documents addressed to Melanie Rope related to Will Strongheart's conviction for assaulting her. (Melanie Rope)

"The circumstances of your conviction are that when you get drunk, you then become jealous as you feel your partners are unfaithful to you. You hit, slap and jam your fingers in their throats so they cannot scream. You do not dispute the details," states the document.

The Parole Board indicated in the report that it was aware of three women who had experienced violence at the hands of Strongheart, though charges were not laid in relation to the assault against one of the women because police could not contact her, according to the document.

'I choose to not be silent'

Danielle Moore says she is the woman mentioned in the document, who police couldn't contact, and she too is speaking out about her four-year, on-and-off-again relationship with Strongheart that she says involved beatings and violence.

She has grown close to Rope over the years and she too wanted Rope to post about Strongheart`s past and make the abuse known, knowing it was likely to get more attention in the context of the wide release of Indian Horse on Friday. 

"I choose to not be silent. I choose to speak out, I choose to inspire," said Moore about the years of violence and trauma she says Strongheart inflicted on her that took years for her to heal from.

Moore is a mental health and addictions counsellor in Sault Ste. Marie, a mother of four and an outspoken advocate for women and girls who experience domestic and sexual violence. She is a member of the Batchewana First Nation in Ontario and has roots in Piapot First Nation in Saskatchewan.

Danielle Moore says this photo is from 2006 after she was released from hospital following an attack by Will Strongheart. (Supplied)

She says by drawing attention to Strongheart, she hopes to start a conversation about the need for Indigenous men to step up and do a better job of protecting the women and girls in their communities.

"There needs to be a call to action within our communities," said Moore.

"Unfortunately we live in a society where First Nations women are the most unprotected women in Canada," she said.

All he does is try to degrade us for speaking our truth.- Danielle Moore

Moore says she's never heard any apologies from Strongheart and accused him of trying to silence her and Rope in his response.

"All he does is try to degrade us for speaking our truth and he doesn't actually come forward with any type of compassion or empathy for what he has inflicted upon me and Melanie," she said.

"It's disgusting, it's degrading."

Rope agrees.

"I just feel like I can't take that apology as an apology, if that's what he's trying to claim that he's doing. I don't think that that's a real apology."

'You need to have integrity'

Moore and Rope say they realize that many people don't agree with their decision to bring this story to light in the context of the film Indian Horse and that some might say Strongheart already been held accountable for what he did to Rope through his past conviction.

Rope says she isn't trying to take away from the film, and what it's trying to say.

But she's deeply concerned about Strongheart being held up as a role model for Indigenous peoples, especially when she says he's hidden and denied his past.

"It's just disturbing to me," she said.

"To be in this movie. I just feel like you need to have integrity."

She also finds it ironic that some people are speaking out against her and Moore, saying they should get over what happened to them and that it was in the past, particularly when the film is shining a light on the historical traumas inflicted on Indigenous children in residential schools.

Moore said, while she personally won't be watching the film any time soon, she doesn't support a boycott of the film and doesn't want to take away from an important conversation about residential schools and intergenerational trauma.

"This is not to discredit the work in the writings of Richard [Wagamese] and what the cast and crew have done," she said.

"This is our testimony, for advocacy. This is where we saw an opportunity where we could have our voices and be a voice on a bigger level."

Danielle Moore currently lives in Sault Ste. Marie where she is raising her four children and works in mental health and addictions. (Danielle Moore)

Film producers, Strongheart responds

Three producers of the film were quick to reply with a response to the news on Friday evening as Rope's post continued to spread online.

"We would like to acknowledge the courage of the women who have come forward to talk about their [devastating] experiences. We believe strongly that all survivors deserve to be heard and we honour and respect their voices. We were shocked and deeply saddened to hear their truths today," wrote producers Paula Devonshire, Christine Haebler and Trish Dolman.

Their statement continued, "While making this film, we have strived to come to terms with the injustices faced by Indigenous peoples in this country, and have opened our eyes to the vicious cycle that affects Indigenous men, women and families."

In Strongheart's emailed response to CBC about the allegations, he took time to address how this conversation online is happening within the context of the film.

"I do not find it conducive in any manner to commandeer the focus of residential schools, survivors and our healing as Indigenous people to make this a personal matter…. I personally am on a healing journey from those years and am happy to open dialogue on the healing component but do not wish to make this personal and take away from Mr. Wagamese's piece," he wrote.

CBC first asked for an interview with Strongheart on Friday evening. On Sunday afternoon, instead of agreeing to an interview, Strongheart sent an emailed statement which said, in part:

"I would like to address the story and photos that have resurfaced, and most importantly, offer my sincere apologies to those affected by my actions — especially to the women and their families who I have hurt resulting in pain and suffering that they did not deserve. To those I have wronged, and caused undue grief and anguish, I wish to extend the hope of reconciliation and healing with you."

He went on to write that he'd like to acknowledge how in the past he has caused "tremendous pain and trauma to women" in a dark chapter of his life during which he was battling with alcoholism and drug abuse. He said he is no longer the same person as he was back then and that he has been sober since 2010.