Indigenous

Cabinet ministers set to discuss sexual abuse on reserves, says Bellegarde

The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations says he will meet soon with three federal cabinet ministers to discuss the issue of sexual abuse within Indigenous communities, following an investigation by The Canadian Press.

Meeting follows Canadian Press investigation that uncovered alarming rates of abuse

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde says he will meet with three federal cabinet ministers to discuss the issue of sexual abuse within Indigenous communities. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations says he will meet soon with three federal cabinet ministers to discuss the issue of sexual abuse within Indigenous communities, following an investigation by The Canadian Press.

The discussion will include Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, Health Minister Jane Philpott and Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu, Perry Bellegarde said Monday in an interview.

First Nations leaders, set to gather for an annual meeting beginning Tuesday in Gatineau, Que., have also faced pressure from the national chief to have the courage to publicly confront sexual abuse and incest on reserve, following an investigation by The Canadian Press.

"We can help facilitate and create the awareness as the Assembly of First Nations, but the chiefs and councils have to make it alive and real in the communities, because that is where it happens," Bellegarde said.

During a months-long investigation by The Canadian Press, a number of leading Indigenous experts, including former Truth and Reconciliation chairman Murray Sinclair, have flagged alarming levels of sexual abuse in some communities and links to the suicide crisis among Aboriginal youth.

Some victims have also cited widespread silence about the issue.

Others, including Fred Kejick Thomas from Lac Seul First Nation in northwestern Ontario, are asking to be in the forefront as part of a national conversation to help others suffering in silence.

Kejick Thomas, who says he was sexually abused by an uncle at the age of four, has personally approached leaders in his own community about the need to address the problem.

A taboo subject 

Sexual abuse remains very much a taboo subject, Thomas said, noting community members can experience backlash for speaking up about what happened to them.

"People don't really want to listen — they look away," he said. "I am really, really proud of those people who come out and talk. ... We have to educate our people."

The AFN special chiefs assembly, set to be held over three days, will also address issues including an update on the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and resource development and the environment.

The Kinder Morgan Pipeline proposal, approved last week by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with 157 conditions, has created divisions among some First Nations communities.

The AFN does not have a position on the project but supports the right of self-determination, Bellegarde said, noting this means the right to say yes or no to resource development projects.

"We want to make sure the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is followed because Canada supported that declaration without qualification and giving substance and teeth to free, prior and informed consent ... means sitting down and talking with Indigenous peoples," he said.

Wealth and jobs for First Nations are desired but not at any cost, he added, noting Indigenous people have a responsibility to protect the land and water.

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