Breaking the silence in Canada’s aboriginal communities

Published: 24 November 2003 0:00 CET

Leslie Vryenhoek of the Canadian Red Cross

Mary doesn’t want her real named used, not because she’s ashamed or keeping secrets – after years of that, she’s left the shame and secrecy behind – but because she wants to protect a family that has already suffered enough despair.

Like her parents and grandparents, and like all eight of her siblings, Mary is a survivor of sexual abuse. Most of that abuse was perpetrated by family members, all caught in a vicious cycle of violence aggravated by self-loathing, cultural displacement and poverty.

It began for Mary at age seven. The attackers who crawled into the bedroom she shared with her six sisters were Mary’s older brothers, themselves only teenagers and also victims of sexual abuse.

“We lived next door to my grandfather and uncle, who sexually abused all my brothers. The boys, in turn, became abusers,” Mary recalls.

Not the only one

Growing up, Mary remembers feeling confused, afraid and ashamed. Worse, she felt alone, convinced that no one else was experiencing the same pain. It wasn’t until, as a young adult, she read a novel in which sexual abuse occurs that she realized others might also suffer in silence.

“I was excited when I read that book. I thought ‘maybe I’m not the only one.’”

Mary recommended the novel to one of her sisters, who called after reading it and said, “This is our family. Did it happen to you, too?”

Mary is a Canadian aboriginal from the Anishinabe nation, and her family’s story of abuse is far from unusual. In fact, studies indicate that between 70-80 per cent of aboriginals suffer sexual abuse before adulthood, just part of a devastating web of violence and despair that have far-reaching consequences.

Among aboriginals, drug and alcohol problems are endemic. Suicide rates are among the highest in the world. The majority of sexually-exploited youth in Canada are aboriginal. And in some communities, eight out of ten women are battered by their partners.

“Physical and sexual abuse are not traditionally acceptable in our culture, so there’s a disparity between the tradition and today’s reality,” says Shelley Cardinal, aboriginal Consultant to the Canadian Red Cross.

Loss of culture

She explains that the legacy of abuse and violence began with the colonization of Canada, and was fostered by official policies and unofficial maltreatment over more than a century.

Removed from their traditional lifestyle, consigned to reservations and prohibited from practicing spiritual ceremonies, aboriginals watched their way of life unravel. The loss of their culture, coupled with legal and economic inequities, created a climate in which physical, emotional and sexual abuse flourished.

One of the most significant factors in that abuse was the Residential School System. Designed as a method of assimilation, the system removed children from their families and sent them away to schools where they were told to put aside their aboriginal practices and beliefs.

“Physical abuse was common in these schools, and an appalling number of children were sexually abused,” Cardinal says. Before the last residential school closed in 1996, five generations of children had learned harsh lessons in maltreatment.

“Toward the end, the older children were abusing the younger children. A cycle had been born.”

Coming to terms with the past

“When I first began bringing it out into the open, family members said ‘leave that in the past’,” Mary says. One brother denied the allegations, and only owned up to the past and began to take responsibility for his actions when Mary threatened to lay criminal charges.

“It took a long time, a lot of years and tears and uncomfortable discussions. Coming to terms with my past was a 20-year process from the time I began confronting the abuse. In the end it was really freeing.”

During her journey of discovery and healing, Mary reconnected with aboriginal culture–an identity lost to her in childhood because her father believed it would serve the family best to abandon their roots.

“That decision wore on him, to have to deny his culture and identity,” she says.

“Raging alcoholism was how he dealt with it. He was ashamed of who he was as an Aboriginal, and it came out in physical rage–tons and tons of anger.”

After she completed a degree in social work, she began working with aboriginal communities, confronting the despair that had plagued her family.

She then became a Prevention Educator with the Canadian Red Cross RespectED service, which offers a program, Walking the Prevention Circle. The program aims to reduce aboriginal vulnerability to abuse by naming the problem, examining its historical context and teaching prevention.

By facilitating the Red Cross workshops, Mary is helping to shed light on the once hidden horror of sexual abuse. “Aboriginal people have grown up ashamed of who they are for so long. The program is helping people find their voice.”