When Mary Ortepi went to Val-d’Or in her teens, women and Elders cautioned her to “never, never be picked up by the police.”
“There was a game. If you could find a young Cree girl, and get her really drunk and give her a drug so that she wasn’t aware, she could be sexually abused and filmed being sexually abused,” said Ortepi, the Activity Team Leader for the Waswanipi Multi-Service Day Centre, in her testimony to the Select Committee on the Sexual Exploitation of Minors. “This was sold on the street – and it made money.”
Last June, the National Assembly of Quebec appointed a non-partisan committee to examine the sexual exploitation of minors in the province. It’s an issue that is hard to quantify as it largely relies on criminalized victims coming forward to report incidents to indifferent authorities.
An invitation to present to the committee was sent to the Cree Nation Government in July and on January 23, Donald Nicholls, the Director of the Department of Justice and Correctional Services, and Virginia Wabano, the Cree Board of Health’s local director in Waswanipi, gave their testimony on behalf of the Cree Nation at the hearings in Val-d’Or.
While most sexual exploitation of minors happens in urban centres, especially in Montreal, there’s also cause for concern in the North, in towns like Val-d’Or and Chibougamau.
In 2019, an estimated 80-100 rape kits were used in Eeyou Istchee. Seven of these sexual abuse cases involved victims under the age of 18.
“Those are only the ones that have been reported,” Wabano told the Nation. “These processes need to be made safer and more comfortable for those who would like to report.”
Indigenous people represent just 4% of Canada’s total population, but 51% of women and youth trafficked are Indigenous.
“When we were asked to present to the committee, it was important to not only talk about the projects ongoing in Eeyou Istchee to combat sexual exploitation of minors, but to come forward with recommendations that could help the province,” said Nicholls. “We did a lot of research into best practices and presented those during the question period.”
In addition to adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Nicholls suggested to the committee that a project being implemented in Winnipeg be imported to Quebec.
“Hotel workers in Winnipeg are now being given training on how to spot when sexual exploitation is happening,” noted Nicholls. “Frontline service workers in Quebec need to be made aware of what’s going on and receive training.”
For Wabano, educating people in Eeyou Istchee is key.
“People leave the community for urban centres for all sorts of reasons – housing, education, escorting patients,” she said. “Education and awareness that they may be targeted really needs to be given to them.”
Nicholls was encouraged by the experience and believes that there is a real desire by the province to better protect Indigenous children.
“It’s good to share what we’re doing with the province, but if the majority of this is happening outside of our jurisdiction then Quebec needs to look at the systemic issues causing it,” stressed Nicholls. “For things to get better, non-Indigenous and Indigenous communities need to work together.”