A few months AGO we were informed about an incident in which a Cree woman was gravelysexually and physically abused in one of the communities. Her injuries were so seriousshe had to be med’evaced to a southern hospital for emergency treatment. Doctors hadnever heard of such a serious case of violence against women in recent years.

To find out more about sexual assault and violence, we spoke with Dr. Robert Harris,who lives in Chisasibi and works for the Cree Health Board’s Public Health Module.Dr. Harris said a Cree woman faces violence at least once every day somewhere in theCree communities.

The Nation How big of a problem do you think sexual assault Is In the Cree communities?

Dr. Robert Harris: I would group it under what you would call family violence, or violence against women. It’s because I think sexual assault is an extreme form of violence against a woman. It’s not separate from everything else. The reason people are using the term family violence is because sometimes we focus a lot on violence against women, which is probably the biggest problem, but people want to forget violence against children. More importantly, the most forgotten of all, is violence against Elders. That’s why people are using the term family violence to force us not to only think of women, but children and the Elders, who nobody thinks about too much.

Violence against Elders Is a big problem?

It’s not so much that someone takes a stick or starts punching an Elder. It’s more verbal. Violence is not just hitting, it’s also verbal violence, which is like, “Oh, shut up, you have nothing to say.” Or neglect, not helping them change (their clothes), or with their bath, or not cooking for them. And the other one is not listening to them. One thing I do get a lot of comments about is when, say, an Elder’s home is taken as a party place. It becomes a place where people come and drink. They won’t go to another place because a younger person can kick them out. If it’s an Elder they just ignore them. So that’s a type of violence against Elders.

What kind of results do you see of this In your hospital work?

Well, they don’t complain too much and they learn to go through a lot of tough things, just sort of endure it. There’s very few times that they come and complain. But sometimes, other relatives will come who can complain for them. What you will see is you’ll go there and there’s an Elder who’s depressed who doesn’t feel they have any more role at all. Depression goes with loss of appetite. Eventually, it just leads to worse

health overall.

What would you say are the causes of this?

I see it many times when there’s some disintegration of the family. For example, say, the middle generation (the Elder’s children) are away or if they die, because of the absence of that generation, sometimes the next generation, the grandchildren, grow up with problems. Once they become teens or young adults they can get into the drinking scene. They don’t think they’re harming anybody. They’re just doing what they want to do, and that old person, well, they don’t listen to them any more. They don’t think they’re worth it. It’s a complicated issue. Many times it’s when there’s a death or somebody in the middle who was keeping the family together, often a woman, when she for some reason dies, everybody’s left without an anchor.

I’ve heard that one or two times a month at the hospital there’s a women who comes In who’s been both sexually and physically abused In a very serious way. Does that sound right to you?

It sounds right, yes. For sure. And I would say those are the serious cases, the ones everybody knows about. With more mild cases it’s very frequent.

How frequent Is very frequent?

Like very frequent. I think if you take the whole region, I mean this is an estimate, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that every day there’s a women being seen for something related to violence against her. And I’m sure some doctors would say it’s even more.

Is alcohol a factor In a lot of those cases?

The serious ones that come once or twice a month, the big ones, you can say maybe 90 per cent of the time the abuser was under the influence of alcohol or another drug. However, the one that’s every day, this other violence or abuse happens with or without alcohol. The one we see every day is the woman who comes with abdominal pains and she’s not really sure where they’re coming from; they’ve seen two other specialists; they’ve had all kinds of tests; and nobody knows where the pain is coming from. And you ask, How are things at home? Are there any problems with your partner? They start crying and it comes out. The abuse to that women is happening with or without alcohol.

On top of the cases that are reported are there a lot that don’t get reported?

Yes. What comes to the clinic is the tip of the iceberg.

In what percentage of the cases you see Is someone charged with an offense?

I guess I could say a small percentage. I would say about I0 per cent. That is a rough estimate.

Is there a problem with how these offenses are being treated by the authorities?

No. I think the main problem is, first, that women don’t want to go to the police. Why don’t they? Number one is fear, their fear of being beat up more. Number two is that they feel sorry for the abuser. They know their abuser has their own problems. They cannot be an abuser without having their own problems. That’s why they’re abusing. They’re not doing it for fun. They know that more than anybody else, so they don’t want to get them into more trouble.

Number three is what other people will say. People will say, How can you be so mean? So, basically, lack of support. Although we must say there’s a movement against violence (in Chisasibi) and there’s been two talk shows that went to two in the morning, one in August and one in September, where a lot of people opened up and talked about their own experiences -men who had been abusers and women who have been abused. I think that’s a positive thing. That led to a lot more people showing up to the health clinic with their stories. I think it’s going to lead to a lot more community support.

It’s maybe something that’s needed In all the communities, more support for these situations?

Oh, definitely… And number four is they hear stories in the past of women going to make complaints (to the police) and not being taken seriously. So they say, What’s the point? It doesn’t help. But in Chisasibi I can say that’s changed. The complaints are taken seriously.

Who Is the abuser In the most typical case? Is It usually a friend, Is It “date rape,” or a spouse?

The number one abuser Is the partner, the spouse, boyfriend, husband.

In the sexual assaults also?

You know the concept that you swear at your girlfriend, and after that you push her, and after that you punch her In the stomach and then you come in drunk at 3 In the morning and you expect to have sexual relations with her and she doesn’t want to, so you assault her, you rape her. Before It used to be a man’s right, but now we know that’s a rape. That’s the most common one. The reason we don’t hear much about it is because people say, well, we still don’t believe it. They are a couple. We don’t believe It. But it hurts them just as much.

The other one, the isolated sexual assault you always hear about in the movies where you’re walking in a dark alley or the bad part of the bush, and someone jumps on you and rapes you

and runs away – those are very rare. They grab headlines but those are very rare. Ninety per cent of the murders of women in Canada are committed by the partner.

What would you tell a women who had such an experience?

The first thing is to go look for help. Tell other people. You have to tell your friends or relatives. And for sure come into the clinic to see a nurse or doctor, or before anybody else, the community workers. Get in contact with them. There are difficult situations. It’s easy for me to say go to a women’s shelter, lay charges, but the fear is real. They know the police cannot keep them away and this (laying charges) takes a few weeks. But I think because the fear is real, the second advice is protect yourself. If that means going to a women’s shelter, do it. You’re fear is real. Violence does happen. Bad injuries do happen – fractures and stabbings.

Number three is lay charges. That’s not being mean to the person. We all know the abuser needs help. Sometimes having to face charges, the way they hit bottom, that’s when they say, wow, this is serious and, yeah, ok, I’ll go to a treatment program, I’ll get help. Because many times these men don’t want to get help. It sounds paradoxical, but that’s the best way to help them, is to lay charges.

Then that goes to the rest of the community. We all have to understand why a woman would be laying charges and try to understand that that’s a way of helping somebody. Because many times you hear the relatives of the man calling the woman, saying: Go back to him, number one, and drop the charges, number two.

At* there enough treatment or healing programs out there for the women and men?

That’s a very good question. The first answer is no. For sure we have to develop more things. For the women there’s more support. There’s more people who are willing to listen and spend the time. There are shelters, at Chisasibi and Val d’Or. We need more community awareness. Like for employers to understand when their employee cannot come in, even if they may look healthy. Being a victim of violence, you cannot work. So they should try to understand and give them medical leave.

For men, because it’s a very complicated issue, we offer them one-on-one counseling. But I think the only effective treatment for a man is that Individual counseling, plus a whole other program which we don’t have. This would Include talking to other men, peer support, vocational training (am I going to keep a job or not), exercising, meditation, there’s a whole series of things. Very few places have that, but It’s the only thing that’s been found to be effective.

What about for the Elders?

I have to say Elders are the forgotten lot. One thing we’ve done that’s effective issomething that’s very traditional. It’s basically a circle in the house.I’ve participated in two of them in five years, so it doesn’t happen that much. Butthey’ve been very effective. The whole extended family gets together with the Elderand with the people who are having the problems, and In a very non-judgemental wayeverybody starts saying what they see as the problem. There’s always a lot of tears.In those two cases, I think the young people got the message and I don’t think theyknew what they were doing to the old man.