The first step to effectively addressing sexual exploitation in Eeyou Istchee is acknowledging that the problem exists.
That’s according to Virginia Wabano, local director for the Cree Board of Health (CBHSSJB) in Waswanipi. Alongside Donald Nicholls, Director of the Department of Justice and Correctional Services, Wabano represented the Cree Nation before a National Assembly committee January 23 to examine the sexual exploitation of minors in the province. The commission has been consulting experts from diverse disciplines and cultural communities to investigate the issue.
“It’s important to let people know that sexual exploitation is in our communities and we need to be very vigilant of our surroundings,” Wabano told the Nation. “We’re at a point in time when infrastructures in our Cree Nation are concentrated on addressing aspects of the intergenerational trauma that has happened.”
She said that overcrowded housing exacerbates instances of domestic violence and potentially driving youth into vulnerable situations. With three or four generations often living in the same home, some eventually migrate to cities where they may become targets of sexual exploitation or human trafficking.
“We’ve heard stories of young girls,” said Wabano. “They give them money, buy them clothes, they live in nice apartments and then they end up in this vicious cycle – ‘Now you owe me, so this is what you’ve got to do.’ Drugs and money are weapons to target vulnerable people.”
The commission noted that Montreal has a reputation for teen sex exploitation, much of which occurs during the summer festival season. Half of all women trafficked in Canada are Indigenous. The Native Women’s Shelter’s Iskweu project connects Indigenous arrivals with support services, including prevention kits provided at the bus station where pimps are known to target girls.
There is a need for better professional training in recognizing possible victims as well as understanding the wider cultural context. Some advocate expanding training in forensic nursing, a bridge between medicine and the legal system specializing in sexual assault examinations.
“In Quebec, we don’t have forensic nurses – in five provinces in Canada they do,” said Françoise Filion, assistant professor at McGill University’s Ingram School of Nursing. “We said to the commission, we really need to train the whole province, not only health professionals but allied professions and receptionists, to detect the signs and symptoms of victims who might be trafficked. This person might not be ready to disclose but we need to open the door.”
In Eeyou Istchee, a growing collaboration of entities have developed social services to address the problem. The CBHSSJB trains frontline workers in sexual assault response protocol with culturally relevant tools and has begun a 24-hour psychosocial on-call service as a pilot project in one community. In partnership with the Cree School Board, the Chii kayeh iyaakwaamiih program teaches secondary school students about healthy sexual relationships.
For the past decade, the Cree justice department’s CAVAC program has provided confidential support for victims or witnesses of crimes. One of Wabano’s recommendations was to simplify and improve access to these processes so more victims will come forward to file a complaint.
“In order to get legal action, some tools needed to say I was raped have this long test,” Wabano said. “You’re already going through the process of being that victim – you’ll get retraumatized in a sense. It is a very delicate and sensitive issue. However, we need to create those safe spaces so they can go through their healing and move into a positive lifestyle.”
While an estimated 80-100 rape kits were issued last year in Eeyou Istchee, Wabano believes that fear and shame prevent many victims from reporting. In small communities where everyone knows everyone, confidentiality is an inevitable concern. One concept that could be applied in such situations is restorative justice, which aims to heal the harm done while healing the offender to prevent future harms.
“With sexual assault there is a process: the trauma itself, dealing with that through healing, then the healing of forgiveness, then punishment or justice,” explained Wabano. “Restorative justice would require community involvement. It’s sensitive, dealing with the conflict.”
An Aboriginal restorative process generally involves a healing circle including the offender, members of the community and possibly the victim. After discussing the offence and its consequences to both the victim and community relationships, the circle will consider underlying causes before reaching a consensus on how the offender should correct their harms.
Wabano is pleased that land-based healing and cultural elements will be embedded throughout emerging projects coming under the recently signed health agreement. While new addictions and rehabilitation centres, mental health resources and transition homes will help address the sexual exploitation issue, she believes that prevention begins at home.
“It’s important we teach our young the notion of consent,” Wabano asserted. “We are very loving and accepting people. We need to ensure our children and youth understand what we accept and what is safe. You do have a right to your own body.”
With social media increasingly used for sexual exploitation, parents must be particularly vigilant about controlling their child’s internet settings and access. Overly personal sharing online can signal vulnerability to traffickers, who may make contact from anywhere in the world.
“What you share plays a big role in your vulnerability,” explained Wabano. “If you’re allowing your child to have a device, you have control over that device. If you don’t provide those limitations, you open up a door through social media.”
Although new threats continue to appear, there are also more resources than ever to confront the taboo of sexual exploitation. Two Piipiichaau Uchishtuun (Robin’s Nest) women’s shelters have opened in recent years and the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association have created a task force to raise awareness about domestic violence.
“You are never alone to go through these experiences,” Wabano affirmed. “A lot of compassionate people in the community are willing to support you, protect you and be there for you should you need to reach out to someone. It’s important to know that there are people out there you can trust.”