Sexual assault cases are at epidemic proportions in Mistissini. In fact, when the Nation spoke to several key members of the community, they all had first-hand experiences with sexual assault, from simple touching to rape.
“Right now in Mistissini we have two sexual offences a month,” Mistissini Police Director Calvin Blacksmith told the Nation. “That’s 24 in a year. That’s a lot. And that’s not even half of the cases that come forward.”
Blacksmith said that the precedent-setting 1999 Supreme Court of Canada case involving Jamie Gladue, which essentially states that Aboriginals should be judged based on their history, including residential school abuse, is the catalyst behind lenient treatment towards Aboriginal people within the justice system.
“The Gladue case was not in our favour,” he said. “We’re trying to protect the people and the community, but the sentences convicted criminals get are ridiculous sometimes. One guy came up to me and told me that he knew he could commit a crime and get away with it, even murder. He said he saw the sentences handed down in court and was surprised at how small they were.”
“If you can convince the judge that you went to residential school and it had an adverse effect on you, the judge will go easy on you,” said a frustrated Blacksmith.
Blacksmith talked about answering a call of a violent and intoxicated minor. When police arrived, she was uncooperative and throwing things. It turned out, he said, that she was a victim of sexual assault and that was the reason for her behaviour. Blacksmith said that sometimes the family tries to keep these things hush-hush because the perpetrator is their brother or their father.
“It’s difficult when you work so hard and so many hours on a file and then the judge turns around and hands down a light sentence,” he said.
Chief Justice Guy Gagnon, Quebec Court
The Nation contacted Guy Gagnon, Chief Justice of the Quebec Court and originally from Amos, to discuss the justice system in the north.
“The judicial process is not necessarily to please or to offend any members of the community,” said Justice Gagnon. “It’s to make sure that the cases proceed in the context of the Gladue case. Having said that, if the Crown or the prosecutors are not happy with the result there is always a possibility of appealing the case to see if it is a fit sentence or not.
“The judges are there to apply the law and apply the rule of law that has been established in the case of Gladue. Maybe sometimes they are mistaken or maybe they are right on the point when they apply those rulings or precedents, but it is up to the prosecutor to appeal.”
Gagnon went on to explain that every Aboriginal case tried before a judge is influenced by the Gladue case, which took into account an Aboriginal woman’s background of alcohol abuse in the stabbing death of her boyfriend in British Columbia in 1999. That case has been used to dole out lighter sentences to Aboriginals convicted of various crimes since. In the Gladue case, the woman was convicted of manslaughter and given a three-year sentence.
“I support the case of Gladue, that’s my duty. I think this decision was totally appropriate for the situation in the north.”
Gagnon also said that anyone can get in touch with the Crown prosecutor if they are not pleased with a sentence. However, he stressed that there is a difference between an unpleasing sentence and an unfit one.
In other words it is not just because an individual wanted the accused to go away for 12 years instead of eight years that the Quebec Court of Appeal will necessarily hear the case. It has to be very clear that the sentence did not fit the crime. He also said that any successful appeal would affect future judgments.
“If you file an appeal once, this case will have to be considered for all the other cases,” said Gagnon. “That would become the jurisprudence.
“We can’t take for granted that an officer is not happy with the result that it means automatically the case is not well-founded. When a sentence is not well-received by the community it doesn’t mean it’s not a fit sentence. There are two sides to the coin. There might be some people in the community, like the accused, who are happy with the sentence.”
Gagnon has worked in Nunavik for 11 years and is very familiar with the northern reality. “I’ve spent many years in the north and I know that people from the north normally feel that the jail sentence will be difficult for them for simply what we call being homesick,” he said.
“I’m not saying this applies to all the members of all the communities, but sending a Native to jail is very often considered a more severe decision than sending other people because they don’t live in the south and get homesick. That may have more of an effect on their personality than another person.”
But Gagnon was quick to point out that not all Natives should be judged the same. “If you talk about Natives living around Montreal, there could be a different approach, I’m ready to concede that,” he said.
“It’s not that Natives should never go to jail, absolutely not. I’m saying that we should avoid that possibility if we feel that the reintegration of the accused into the community will be well-served by not sending them to jail and that members of the community will be supportive to the accused.”
Gagnon went on to say that in each community, a justice committee makes suggestions to the judge on the length of sentences to their people. These committees, said Gagnon, are made up of community members and are unique systems found only in the north.
A call to Mistissini Justice Committee Administrator Louise Coonishish, however, demonstrated the limitations of their power.
She told the Nation that although it is called a Justice Committee, the main purpose of the committee is simply to help convicted small-time crooks, usually youth, find a place to serve their community hours – and that’s pretty much all they do.
“We made a protocol on alternative measures to work with adults,” said Coonishish. “We’re in the process of trying to sign the agreement with Quebec. We’re starting to receive adult cases but minor ones, like someone who has been fined $100 to $5,000.”
She also said that people are not obligated to work with the committee, nor does the committee “run after” them if they fail to perform the court-appointed community hours.
There are panel meetings with the eight members to determine where the convicted criminal will do their community work. Members include Elders, middle-aged members and youth, according to Coonishish, who has been there for a year and has seen 100 voluntary cases since then.
Gagnon said that there are cases, such as a brutal rape, that leaves the judge no choice but to put the assailant in prison. “All the cases must be looked at individually. A simple touch could be sexual assault and we will not send the person to jail, unless we think he would be a danger to his community. It’s the same even in the white community.
“Having said that, even if the guy spends 10 years in jail, the victim will meet them on the street one day,” Gagnon continued. “The real question is not how you feel; you must be prepared to meet them on the street after two years, two months or 10 years. It’s not because you’re afraid to meet him on the street that he should spend 15 more years in jail. We have to make sure that the accused has a fit sentence.”
Bill, the victim’s father
The Nation spoke with someone in the community who wished to remain anonymous concerning an incident that happened to his daughter last fall. We will refer to him as Bill.
“Last fall, when my daughter was 13, this guy let himself into the house,” recounted Bill, who has two sons and two girls. “He went into my daughter’s room and tried to rip her clothes off while she was sleeping. She woke up and was able to get away from him and run down to the neighbour’s to call the police. In court he pled guilty and they gave him a sentence of six months house arrest.”
The sentence, although lenient, would have been acceptable to Bill and his family, if not for one thing.
“My daughter was fine when he was sentenced, but when we saw him at the store and called the police to find out he was on a day pass, she was scared. Then we saw him a couple days later, then a couple days after that. Finally one of the police officers told me he gets a pass almost every day,” said Bill, distraught.
“For her it’s like she has the sentence and he can do whatever he wants. She’s scared to see him on the street. Every time she wants to go across town or wherever she has to worry that this sexual predator is hanging around and where he’s hanging around.”
Bill said that the sentences don’t fit the crime and it is not only the sexual predators’ freedom that is taken away.
“They’re punishing the victim instead of the criminal. If the person was sentenced to house arrest and they couldn’t leave for a certain amount of months that would be a different story. But the guy who did this to my daughter gets passes all the time and he is seen around the community. We saw him drinking once, which is a breach of his conditions, and we called the police but they couldn’t find him,” he said.
“They put someone like this back into the community who admitted what he did and instead of getting a slap on the wrist, he got a pat on the back,” Bill fumed. “What’s he going to do the next time he gets drunk? Maybe the next kid won’t be so strong or so lucky.”
Bill warned about a growing trend of people taking the law into their own hands. His son, for example, was livid when he found out about what happened to his little sister. If something happens again in the future to the family, he might not wait for the courts to mete out justice.
“What do we do the next time something happens? We’re supposed to show restraint and let police handle it when we know that nothing is going to happen of any significance? Or do you take justice into your own hands and call the ambulance instead of the police when you catch someone in your house trying to rape your daughter?
“I think a lot of cases go unreported because they figure nothing is going to happen,” said Bill. “Last week a friend’s daughter got beat up by three guys trying to rape her. She didn’t report it because she said nothing is going to happen anyways. They told me they would deal with it in their own way.”
Bill says his daughter will be affected by the attack for the rest of her life. He fears she might never return to the spunky little girl he once knew.
“She won’t sleep alone in her room anymore,” he said. “She’ll have someone sleep with her or she’ll sleep on the floor in her brother’s room. She always sleeps with the light on. It’s changed her life. She looks over her shoulder all the time.”
The wait to get her in to talk to a psychologist is many months. It doesn’t help that the psychologist is only available every two months for one week in Mistissini.
Police Chief Blacksmith said that another problem has to do with probation officers and the fact that they are located seven hours from the community. “When the probation officer calls or visits at supper time, which is rare, of course the guy is going to be home. It’s at three in the morning they should go and check on them. That’s when they are out in the community.”
Blacksmith also mentioned the difficulty keeping tabs on the assailants without a warrant. “We can’t just go in their house to see if they are there. Our hands are tied.”
But Justice Gagnon said there are benefits to community oversight. He argued that the close-knit feel of the community can help the police when monitoring criminals. “Very often a conditional sentence is more work for the police officers because they are part of the verifications that must be done,” he said.
“Those communities are very small and it’s very easy to find out if they are at home. They know their brother and sister and father who live in the community and they can chat with those people to see if they are at home or not. Very often the parents will call us and say, ‘My son is not at home. Can you do something?’ So right away we know that they broke their conditions and we file a report.”
When asked about extenuating circumstances, such as checking on the offender late at night or early in the morning, Gagnon was not swayed. “At 3 in the morning in a place like Wemindji, chances are if you patrol and the accused is on the street that you would find him very easily. Chances are also that there is some light on somewhere in the house that will get the officer’s attention.”
Tammy Coon, Senior Officer
Tammy Coon has seen many sexual assault assaults in her 14 years on the Mistissini force. She recently discovered that police officers who are not satisfied with a judge’s ruling could appeal the verdict and try to get a harsher sentence. And that is exactly what she is doing in one case.
Rene Gunner, 57, was given a conditional sentence of 18 months May 11 after being convicted of inappropriate touching a minor under 12. He will be under house arrest 24 hours a day for the first six months, said Coon. Then for the next six months, he will have a curfew from 9 pm to 6 am. The last six months his curfew will be from 11 pm to 7 am.
“When Rene got his sentence, we went out of the building and a girl came up to me and said, ‘That was a lousy sentence. He has a lot of victims and after this, what do you think they’re going to do? They won’t come forward. He gets to live his life and be at home.’
“It really made me think,” Coon said. “People will think it’s okay to do that because you get a slap on the hand and you get to be in the comfort of your home. The suspects are still in control. I don’t think it should be like that. Rene told the judge he still had urges and he still let him go. There are kids in that area that he has easy access to.”
Gunner was given other conditions; he is forbidden to contact children under 14 years unless accompanied by an adult. He also must keep the peace and continue to work on his sexual problem through counseling or at a treatment centre.
Gunner was also charged with sexually abusing the victim’s mother many years ago. She came forward after her daughter was attacked.
Coon is pushing for a stiffer sentence of 18 months detention.
“This is my first time looking into a stiffer sentence. If I have to do each case individually I will. Even if it doesn’t work, I’ll try again,” said Coon.
She said that the sexual offenders have places to turn to, to help themselves within the community; it’s up to them to use them. “I know there are resources in the community for them like social services,” she said. “It’s a matter of them getting up and saying they have a problem and they need help. They can get help if they really want it.”
Dorothy Nicholls, Vice Principal Voyageur Memorial
Dorothy Nicholls is the vice-principal at the Voyageur Memorial School and has seen her share of fights among students. But she says that sexual abuse is creeping into her school. That alarms her, but she’s not sure what to do.
“Sexual assault in the community has never been dealt with before,” said Nicholls, who has raised three children. “People would rather not talk about it and don’t want to go to court a lot of times.”
“The victim has to live with it for the rest of their life and even if someone is charged, it’s the victim that pays for the crime in the long run.”
Nicholls told the Nation about increasing instances of inappropriate touching by older boys on younger girls, although she was not comfortable with having specific stories in the magazine.
“Whether the victim wants to be or not, they become tainted after a sexual assault. I think that’s the reason more people don’t come forward. It’s hidden,” said Nicholls.
Nicholls talked about instances of gas sniffing and self-mutilation by students in the past year. Signs, she thinks, of abuse, sexual or not, suffered by the students.
“The good values should be taught as home as well as in school. It’s about respecting each other and the opposite sex,” she said.
Roderick Rabbitskin, CBC North
Roderick Rabbitskin has been an Announcer/ Producer with CBC North for 14 years. As a young boy, he was a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a family friend.
“It started when I was seven or eight years old and continued until I was 16,” said Rabbitskin.
“It started with some drinking at my house. There was a fight going on and I was scared so I went to my room. That guy came in and told me not to worry, that he would take care of me, and he wasn’t going to leave me.
“So I was in bed and he came to lie down and put his hand around me. Next thing I knew he had his hand in my pants. I tried to stop him but he told me not to say anything because if I made a noise, ‘Those drunks will come in here and do something.’
“I tried to push him off but he was tall and heavy,” he said. “He forced himself on me. I felt terrible. I never asked for that.”
Rabbitskin had no choice but to keep it a secret because the man threatened to physically harm Rabbitskin’s mother, who was partially blind.
“He forced me [over the years] to do things to him that I didn’t want to,” he said. “Sometimes he’d take me to the bushes, but I couldn’t say anything because I didn’t want anything to happen to my mom.”
It was only ten years after his mother passed away on Sept. 27, 1984, that he could muster up the strength and courage to tell his family members. Rabbitskin, now 41, was 19 at the time.
Rabbitskin said the sexual assaults changed him forever. “I was afraid to be alone with adults and I didn’t like being alone. I was always afraid someone would do something.”
Letting it out has helped him tremendously. “Talking about it has made me feel a lot better. Before I would hide it from everyone and it damaged me. I felt depressed and I used to cry a lot. But after telling people, I’m doing a lot better.”
Rabbitskin said at the time it happened in Mistissini, there were no support groups or professional help available.
“I feel angry when I see him. I confronted him one time and he said, ‘You’re crazy, I never did that to anyone.’ He said I needed help and I should see someone. I told him he also needed help.
“People need to talk about things instead of keeping it to themselves,” he said. “If you are going through this right now you need to come out and talk about it.
For Police Chief Blacksmith, Roderick’s story illustrates how victims of sexual assault continue to hurt long after the criminal penalty is paid.
“When you commit a serious crime, that will affect someone for the rest of their lives,” said Blacksmith. “It’s not a bad idea to do some time. You can really look at yourself and where you made some wrong turns.”
One of the solutions might be through traditional culture, he said. “I’d like to see a program where convicted criminals are taken out in the bush. Instead of being under house arrest, maybe they should go out and do portages to learn their history. They would have professionals with them as well. Our people used to paddle all the way to Caniapiscau.
“Right now Crees are concerned with losing their language and culture. That’s the best way to preserve it would be to send them out there,” he said.
But Blacksmith said that using residential schools as an excuse for committing sex crimes does not fly with him.
“I think they’re going to have to turn the page at one point,” he said. “People use their history to get out of trouble. Sometimes you can reflect on the past but you have to move on and look forward. You can’t just blame everybody for what happened to you,” he said.