Raped then silenced: Nunavut case shows secrecy still prevails in sex assaults

She was nine years old when her uncle raped her.

It was 1968, year her family had moved into a Nunavut community from an outpost camp on the land.

It was spring, and she was playing outside with other kids.

She often cleaned for her grandmother. So when her uncle, who was 16 at the time, called her inside, she thought he wanted her to clean.

“I went there, and he told me to take off my parka, he got my clothing off in the bedroom, and he was getting this big thing in me,” she told a Nunavut civil court this month.

The “big thing,” she later realized, was his penis.

The woman is suing her uncle for damages, for the effect the abuse has had on her life. This month, decades after she was raped, she flew to Iqaluit from her community to testify against him in the civil case in Nunavut Court of Justice.

She’s one of four people, including two other women and a man, suing him for historical sexual assaults. 

Her identity is protected by a court-ordered publication ban. CBC is also not naming the offender, in order to avoid identifying her through the pair’s family connection. 

“It was painful,” she testified, sobbing. “I felt so scared. I felt ugly. I felt I was dirty.”

Shortly after that, she says her father began sexually abusing her too.

“I started fighting off my father … One day he dragged me to the bedroom, and my three-year-old sister, he had sex with her. And he told me, ‘It is your fault. You made me do it,'” she said.

“For the longest time I hated myself. And every time it got too much to think about, I tried to commit suicide because I felt like I made my father hurt my little sister.”

Between her father and her uncle, she says, she has lost count how many times she was abused growing up.

Nunavut Court of Justice

This month, decades after she was raped, a woman is testifying in the Nunavut Court of Justice in a civil suit against her uncle. (Nick Murray/CBC)

Silenced by family, police

As a child, she eventually told her mother what happened.

“She spanked me and told me never, ever to say anything like that. Those are not appropriate for a child to say,” she told the court. 

“[My uncle] was my mother’s favourite brother.”

She couldn’t bring herself to tell her mother she was going to Iqaluit to testify this month.

“I don’t know what my mother is going to do to me when I get home. I’m scared. I’m scared. I’m scared. But I say to myself, I have to get this out of my system. I can’t live with hate.”

The other person she says she told when she was younger was an RCMP officer.

“He just patted my head and said, “It’ll be over some day, don’t worry.'”

It wasn’t until 2008 that she once again told the police what happened.

Her uncle, who is a prominent businessman in his community, ended up pleading guilty to having sex with someone younger than 14 — an old charge since updated in Canada’s Criminal Code.

He was given a suspended sentence and 12 months probation.

Emotional toll

The woman’s experience with sexual abuse has left emotional scars.

“It makes me feel like because I could not say no, or fight off that day, that any advances I get, I’m scared like that little girl. And just let things happen to me,” she testified.

“I just tell myself it’s OK for anyone to hurt me. Because that’s what my father taught me.”

That was her mentality when her uncle made a pass at her 10 years ago, and she had sex with him.

“When he took my arm to go upstairs, I didn’t resist,” she said.

“But I still felt, after he had sex with me, I still felt as if he had forced me. And I have to keep telling myself, ‘You said yes! You said yes!’ But it still hurts.”

Assaults underreported 

Though this story is decades old, the former president of Qulliit Status of Women, Elisapee Sheutiapik, says the mentality surrounding supporting victims hasn’t changed much over the years.

“As parents we educate our children it’s not appropriate to be touched this way, to be talked to this way. So there’s been that kind of a shift,” said Sheutiapik, a recently elected MLA.

“But I don’t know if there’s been a real shift in encouraging victims to be silent.”

One of the other women accusing the man of sexual assault is his younger adopted sister. She claims he raped her, though the charges in that criminal case were dropped. 

The sister testified in the civil case that she was met with doubt when she reported the abuse to local RCMP.

Sheutiapik said it’s even harder to report abuse in small communities, and then have to go through a sexual assault kit, where the victim is examined and DNA evidence is collected.

“Just imagine if you’ve just been victimized, and you’re actually making an effort to deal with it,” she said. “The whole process, I think, is re-victimizing.”

Nunavut RCMP declined to comment on this particular case, but said it’s committed to improving how its employees respond to victims and investigate allegations of sexual assault.

“Sexual assault is a devastating crime that has traumatic and long lasting effects on victims,” a spokesperson said.

“A bad experience with police investigators can bring more trauma to victims, and discourage others from reporting these crimes.”

An investigation by The Globe and Mail earlier this year, determined 28 per cent of sexual assaults reported to police in Nunavut from 2010 to 2014 were deemed unfounded by the RCMP. In Iqaluit, 37 per cent of cases were declared unfounded.

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