After 14 years as a Peacekeeper in Waskaganish, Jim Hester has seen some painful things.

Two years ago, a girl came forward and reported that she was abused by her father. But she was so afraid of being alone with a male police officer that she couldn’t tell her story to the authorities.

Eventually, the man was charged and prosecuted outside the community.

His sentence came as a shock to many in the community—just two years’ probation and an order not to return to Waskaganish for six months.

Another case of abuse happened in March. Jim received a complaint about a 13-year-old who had been abused for two to three years. The complaint was passed on to him through the social services agency. Social workers had known about the abuse since January, but had not contacted police for three months.

“We arrested the guy right away. We didn’t want to take any chances,” said Jim. “I was surprised when I first noticed that they heard about it in January, but no one came to the police until March 29.1 don’t know why.”

Jim was one of several Crees who spoke with The Nation about how they help survivors of abuse and rape as part of their job. He says one of the hardest things faced by survivors is coming forward, talking about their experiences and starting the healing process. Telling other members of their family or even a close friend may be hard enough. Telling a police officer is a whole other story. A child may go through years of sexual abuse by a close family member and be too frightened to tell anyone. Or a woman may be raped and be too afraid or ashamed to file charges.

It’s the same problem in Canada as a whole. Only about 10 per cent of sexual assaults end up in court. When Jim first joined the Waskaganish police, he saw very few cases being reported. Today, survivors are coming forward more and more, and community members are starting to talk about the problem and how to deal with it.

But Jim says there’s still a lot of sexual abuse and assault in his community that never gets reported. “We believe people are holding back.”

Why? Often, said Jim, survivors don’t come forward because they are afraid of the abuser. The abuser might try to get back at them by hurting them. Jim said he and the other Peacekeepers will do everything they can to protect those who do come forward. “Once people are well-informed about the law and the protection they would get, I think they would come out.”

Jim also said the Waskaganish Peacekeepers recently hired three women officers, which will make it easier for female survivors to talk to the police about their experiences. But that might not be enough.

Another problem is the court system. Jim said he gets calls from many people asking for information about sexual assault and abuse. He tells them about how to file a complaint, but when he starts talking about trials and judges, they don’t call back. “As soon as people hear about the court system, we never hear from them again.”

He says fear of the court system is a big reason why people don’t come forward. When abusers or rapists are charged, said Jim, everyone in the community usually finds out pretty soon, especially when it goes to trial. “Once they go through court, quite a few people attend it.”

And that’s a big problem for survivors of sexual assault and abuse. It’s usually hard enough telling a police officer about their experiences. But telling the whole community and a strange judge in an open court room? That’s another ballgame. Especially when after all that, the abuser may still get off with only two years on probation, like in the case in Waskaganish. Many ask, What’s the point?

Jim emphasizes that survivors of sexual assault or abuse have the option of a trial in a closed hearing. In that case, no members of the public are allowed in.

Other Crees say the court system is just plain ineffective. This is one of the main concerns of Marlene Kitchen, the president of the Waswanipi Native Women’s Association and a Waswanipi Band Councillor.

Marlene says her community has seen several cases of a survivor of sexual assault or child sexual abuse getting the abuser charged, only to see him get off with very light punishment—or none at all. Now the abuser is walking around in the community and could even bump into the person he abused. “It makes me more mad than ever,” she said. “I think this is why people don’t want to come out with it.”

Marlene said many people would like to see rapists and abusers removed from the community as soon as the crime is reported, so the person they hurt doesn’t have to see them.

She said people are becoming more open to talking about sexual assault and abuse. That healing process got a big push at last year’s annual general assembly of the Grand Council of the Crees/CRA, when a special workshop was held on the issue. “A lot of things came out there. The ice is broken now,” she said. “Now what we have to do is go back to the communities to talk about it.”

But Marlene said there is still a lot of reluctance to discuss the issue openly. “It’s slowly coming out, very slowly. A lot of native people we know don’t want to talk about it. It’s very personal. Native people, I find are very private about these things.”

She emphasized that talking and healing are necessary to solve the problems, even though opening up can sometimes be very hard. Even opening up to yourself and coming to terms with the experience can be quite hard. “They don’t want to talk about it—just forget about it,” Marlene said. “I don’t really think that works. It will always be in the back of your head.”

To help the healing process get underway, the Waswanipi Women’ Association is organizing a workshop on the issue sometime this fall. They are now trying to find a resource person to do a presentation. “It’s a very touchy thing because you can’t just get anyone to do it,” said Marlene.

Marlene wasn’t the only one with harsh words for the court system. The police are often frustrated too, especially afterseeing abusers and rapists get off with a slap on the wrist in court. “I have the same feeling about the court system,” said Oliver Moses, the police chief in Eastmain. “They’re too lenient.”

Oliver suggested that the justice system should be overhauled to reflect a more native style of dealing with crime. “Crees should be more involved in the justice system.”

Oliver has been a Peacekeeper in Eastmain for seven years. But in that time, only four or five cases of sexual assault or child sexual abuse were reported. Oliver said people have a hard time coming forward partly because of guilt. “Most of them blame themselves. They feel guilty all the time. They fear what people will say. Sometimes, people will go against the victim,” he said.

Eastmain is a unique situation because of its size, he added. “It’s a small community. There haven’t been many reported cases. Most of the time, I think they don’t want to report it because it’s a small community. Once the guy is arrested, everybody knows about it even if we try to hide it.” And that usually means everyone soon finds out who made the complaint, which can lead to more pain or embarassment.

There seems to be a consensus among the people we interviewed that more should be done for those who’ve gone through sexual assault or sexual abuse as children. “There’s no support for anyone who’s been sexually assaulted except if they find a group like the women’s association,” said Caroline Bobbish, president of the Chisasibi Women’s Shelter.

But she went further, singling out the police and saying they should be more sensitive to people who report sexual assault or abuse. Caroline also said social workers don’t receive enough training to deal with the problem. “They’re trying to deal with that, but it’s not enough.”

There is also a consensus that the court system needs to be changed. “The court system is not doing enough,” said Caroline. “At the end, the person looks back and says, Was it worth it? It costs so much pain. No doubt, people are talking about you.”

Getting trained counsellors in the communities and changing the court system are important goals, but Caroline also has a much simpler proposal that could be put in place immediately with the right funds—a hotline for people to call for advice, information or just to talk. In her words, “a place they could call and they could be certain it would be confidential, just so they could talk about it.” That, she said, would be a good place for the healing and talking to start.

“Once the guy is arrested, everybody knows about it even if we try to hide it.”

—Oliver Moses, police chief, Eastmain

“There’s no support for anyone who’s been sexually assaulted.”

—Caroline Bobbish, Chisasibi Women’s Shelter