A few years back I chatted with a psychologist, an acquaintance in a different province who counsels native women who live or have lived on reserves. The conversation started after I mentioned my policy work on native issues, including how the data inevitably shows that when compared to those who live on-reserve, First Nations people who live off-reserve fare better on every social and economic indicator: education, income, employment, living accommodations, and much else.
Beyond the results and opportunities off-reserve, which is why two-thirds of all native Canadians (and only half of those who are “registered Indians” in still-used official census language) do not live on reserve, my policy observations led the psychologist to offer another reason why women in particular choose to live off-reserve if they can: the rape culture.
My psychologist friend was, quite properly, prevented from detailing what she heard in counselling sessions. However, she had a long career with women from multiple reserves in her province. Her eyes said it all: pained, as she described how multi-generational and entrenched the abuse had become.
I’ve thought of that conversation many times since and most recently with the rise of the #MeToo movement. Recall how it started with accusations (entirely believable, in my view) against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein and has since led to cascading stories of sexual misconduct, abuse and attack by males, often, as with Weinstein, in positions of power.
The media’s #MeToo blind spot
My question, a rhetorical one: Why haven’t a plethora of similar accusations arisen from First Nations women? It’s not because such experiences do not exist. In 2014, the Atlantic Monthly delved into the subject in Rape Culture in the Alaskan Wilderness, a frank piece about the horrific rate of sexual assault in Alaska’s native communities. There, the reporter found the incidence of rape was almost three times the national average and that “for child sexual assault, it’s nearly six times”. Predators ranged from uncles and elders to drunken friends of stoned parents. Girls as young as 13 had been abused, attacked, and raped.
Also in 2014, Statistics Canada reported similarly disproportionate data for First Nations girls and women in this country. It was based on self-reporting by females who live on and off reserves. The Toronto Star reports that the Ontario Federation of Friendship Centres estimates that 75 to 80 percent of girls under 18 on reserves may have been victims of sexual assault. And on reserves especially, it seems, few go public with their stories. One of the rare ones to do so was Freda Ens, who was 59 when she told a reporter in 2016 that she had been repeatedly raped by male relatives while growing up in Old Masset Village, a Haida community in British Columbia. Ens urged other victims to come forward; otherwise, she said, “We are covering it up.”
Also in 2016, CBC Radio interviewed “Deborah” from Vanderhoof, B.C., (her last name was not provided), who said her mother, sister, and other female relatives had died of alcohol and drug abuse as a result of the sexual abuse they had suffered as children. Their abusers got away with it, she said, because “there’s a really strong no-talk culture on First Nations reserves where people know things are going on.” It’s actually dangerous to speak out, she noted, recalling that when she tried to obtain legal help for two young girls who were being sexually abused, someone tried to burn down her on-reserve house.
So if there is any place in Canada where #MeToo ought to be exposing sexual misconduct, it is on reserves. Yet the avalanche of accusations so far has mostly come from non-native women, mainly political staffers in Canada, and celebrity actresses in the United States. Much good could come from the movement spreading to reserves – though with a proviso that as with other accusations, vetting by responsible media would be preferred – so why isn’t it happening?
I suggest three reasons that might explain why the #MeToo movement, and the media’s coverage of it, has not yet erupted in aboriginal communities.
Reason one: location
One explanation is the location of reserves. Much of the media is located in major cities. An investigative story about possible sexual assaults on remote reserves requires time, resources, contacts on the ground and people willing to tell their stories. That’s often the weak link between newsrooms in urban centers and rural areas in general but might be especially problematic for reserves.
That’s perhaps part of it. But in a social media age, where everyone from Harvey Weinstein to Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown have been the targets of internet take-downs, the internet is, of course, available in rural areas and reserves.
(I’ll skip, for this column, the debate over whether public accusations, not proven in court, ought to cost people their jobs. I agree that turning the presumption of innocence on its head is a problem. If a man is unjustly accused, there is still the possibility of libel and defamation actions against media that print unsubstantiated accusations. But I also think women – and I know more than a few who feel this way – feel they can’t speak up because of a power imbalance between them and the men they work for and the career-ending implications they would face if they went public with their own harassment experiences. It is not preferable that women remain silent.)
Reason Two: Dysfunctional rights for individuals on reserves
The second and more compelling explanation is linked to the first – the remote locations of many reserves – but also how reserves function, or don’t, as the case may be. Recall that most reserves have a collectivized structure. Individual property ownership is non-existent in most cases. That means Aboriginal women, as with men, cannot build up wealth via their own property. It belongs to the reserve government. Such governments also happen to be the main dispensary of social benefits and jobs and education.
Now imagine yourself a young woman seeking opportunities provided only through band politics. How easy is it to complain about sexual harassment, or worse, in that scenario? How easy is it leave a reserve – where you have little wealth built up and no property to sell – and start over in town, either on your own or with your kids? Also, given that many reserves have but a few hundred people, and major towns and cities may be hundreds of miles away, that means access to police, lawyers and social workers is limited. The location and structure of reserves is a real problem for women in particular.
Reason Three: Deference
A third reason is related, unfortunately, to the deferential posture many in the media, politics and academia adopt in relation to Aboriginal matters. One can, rightly, grasp and despise that racist and demeaning treatment of Aboriginal Canadians is part of history. But that acknowledgment does not imply a responsibility to ignore a problem for fear of being called racist. Or a duty to cede the discussions, investigations and reporting to only native Canadians. One columnist for a major newspaper told me she thought sexual abuse deserved attention, but First Nations people should be the ones to publicly address the issue – an argument akin to saying only Catholics in past decades could investigate and address sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic church.
Instead, if you believe that human beings are similar regardless of ethnicity, and that potential predators can exist in any community, the question becomes why attacks might be more prevalent in one community over another. The answer would seem to be opportunity: predators are more likely to take advantage and act in a socio-cultural environment where the chance of being reported, outed, caught and convicted are slim. Remote reserves fit that description. It is there where the rights the most of us take for granted are impossible or difficult to exercise. And insofar as deference comes into play, that exacerbates the danger.
Deference and notions of the sacred can make things worse
This deference is regrettable because it can make the potential for sexual assault and abuse greater. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat made just this point in a 2014 column about the rapes of 1,400 British girls, “mostly white and working class”, in the British town of Rotherham, mainly by Pakistani men, that went mostly ignored, unreported and unprosecuted for years.
It wasn’t that local police and other authorities didn’t know; they did, and did mostly nothing, even when complaints were made. It was partly that they despised some of the complainants coming forward – “white trash” in North American lingo – and partly a reluctance to investigate the immigrant Pakistani community lest the police be accused of Islamophobia.
Douthat then theorized, correctly I think, citing earlier sex abuse and rape scandals such as occurred in the Catholic church, but also in a New York City scandal involving a revered teacher, that the core problem all such cases was veneration: clergy and others who were too trusted or seen as untouchable in an earlier era; multicultural precepts in ours. But for Douthat, it would be a mistake to condemn either Catholicism or multiculturalism. The problem was veneration: “Show me what a culture values, prizes, puts on a pedestal,” he wrote, “and I’ll tell you who is likely to get away with rape.”
As he also wrote: “The point is that as a society changes, as what’s held sacred and who’s empowered shifts, so do the paths through which evil enters in, the prejudices and blind spots it exploits. So don’t expect tomorrow’s predators to look like yesterday’s.”
In Canada today, Aboriginal culture and communities are effectively made “sacred” and politically untouchable, because First Nations peoples and culture were maligned and harmed in the past. The results today include romanticization of Aboriginal life, culture and reserves, and creation of a “no go” zone for frank analysis and needed critiques.
The light of day
To be clear, generalizing about all reserves or all Aboriginal men is not my intent. I do not know the scope of the problem and my working assumption is that all peoples of all ancestries, ethnicities, cultures, faiths and nations are human beings with similar traits. Every population has its share of good men and sleazy ones, and much worse. If sexual abuse is higher on Canadian reserves, that does not indict all or even most First Nations men.
But it may indict the reserve system. That’s because of the remoteness of many reserves, and the anti-accountability structure that envelops them. This is not going to change in the first instance and is unlikely in the second. And while high levels of sexual abuse in aboriginal communities are often blamed on the “intergenerational legacy” of residential schools, this yet obscures the underlying structural problem: whether in the days of residential schools or now, the problem was/is location, veneration, and a culture of hushing up abuse in protection of whatever culture is romanticized, then or now.
So I do wonder how three factors – the distant, remote and isolating location of many reserves; their dysfunction on individual rights including property; and the problem of excessive deference – may combine to harm girls and women and also prevent them from sharing their stories.
And I have an additional query for journalists: if the potential predators were priests, politicians, performers and CEOs – would there not be more investigative interest? As Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations has quite rightly argued, native leaders – and I would add those who can investigate such matters – have an obligation “to expose this to the light of day.”