Kackaamin Director Lisa Robinson has been pushing to protect the work done at the Family Development Centre since she first heard about the plan to build a massive cannabis facility across the street. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

Kackaamin Director Lisa Robinson has been pushing to protect the work done at the Family Development Centre since she first heard about the plan to build a massive cannabis facility across the street. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

B.C. First Nations survivors addressing sexual abuse by Building the Family Circle

Vancouver Island-based effort aims to make healing a holistic, community-wide process

By Melissa Renwick, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

As a teenager, Lisa Robinson lived in denial and repressed her emotions.

She could not name what was causing her pain, so she kept silent while living among all of her sexual abusers.

The loneliness and shame propelled her into a black hole.

“There were times where I felt like I didn’t want to live,” she said. “Because I didn’t have the guidance to help me through it.”

Robinson attempted suicide for the first time when she was in residential school at the age of 11.

“I was screaming for help,” she said. “But I didn’t have the words.”

Her journey of healing began nearly a decade later when she met Jane Middelton-Moz while attending one of her workshops on intergenerational trauma at Tsow-Tun Le Lum Society, a substance abuse and trauma treatment centre.

“I finally heard somebody speaking the truth,” she said. “I found somebody that could help me find my voice.”

Middelton-Moz is an internationally renowned author, known for her work in consultation, training and community intervention. Barney Williams, of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, adopted her into his family nearly 50 years ago and she has been awarded the distinction of Honorary Witness for the Truth and Reconciliation Committee of Canada.

That first encounter with Middelton-Moz instilled her with a fight and developed into a lifetime of friendship, preparing Robinson to spearhead a new initiative, called Building the Family Circle.

As the executive director of Kackaamin Family Development Centre in Port Alberni, Robinson intends it to be a hub for sexual abuse assessment and treatment – for victims and perpetrators, as well as their families.

With Middelton-Moz’s guidance and training, Robinson – whose roots are from Hesquiaht and is married into Ahousaht – and her team of around 40 are aiming to address sexual abuse in their Nuu-chah-nulth nations. The team of community leaders and cultural support workers have been coming together for the past two years on a voluntary basis.

“Sexual abuse is an epidemic,” said Middelton-Moz. “Not only in Nuu-chah-nulth, but throughout the world.”

Healing in a holistic way

Each year, Sexual Assault Awareness Month is observed in April. It is a growing international movement to raise public awareness.

Indigenous women are physically assaulted, sexually assaulted, or robbed almost three times as often as non-Indigenous women, according to the 2017 National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

“Simply being Indigenous and female is a risk,” read the report.

Hollow Water First Nation is the only other community in Canada that has attempted to treat and deal with sexual abuse in a holistic way that Middleton-Moz knows of.

“If you don’t have an entire continuum of services where you’re working with victims of sexual abuse and their families, as well as perpetrators of sexual abuse and their families, you don’t stop the epidemic,” she said.

Without a foundation of services laid for victims and offenders, she added that oftentimes the issue is “shoved right back down under the rug.”

Building the Family Circle aims at addressing the lack of services available, creating safe pathways towards healing.

Part of that includes educating teachers, social workers, frontline workers, justice systems and creating trauma-informed schools, said Middelton-Moz.

“We need teachers that can identify kids in preschool that need help and assistance,” she said. “Offending behaviour can start as early as 11.”

Robinson’s road to healing has endured a lifetime.

“It’s quite a process,” she said. “You have to have people in your life that speak the truth — that you could say anything to. Somebody has to be there. It’s not easy to get there at all. It takes time. It’s a process of healing … you need to feel those feelings of what it was like to be victimized and it’s not nice to go back to that. As a victim, you need to connect back to yourself because it’s almost like you split off. You’re not connected and that’s where that emptiness comes from.”

She has never confronted her abusers, but said, “what would help my healing heart would be to see them get some help.”

‘Behaviors say what words cannot’

Rather than competing with each other, Nuu-chah-nulth nations are cooperating to create that foundation.

“What’s wonderful about Vancouver Island is that these services are coming together to work together, which is unheard of,” said Middelton-Moz.

As a residential school survivor, Robinson said she understands some of the learned behaviours that were instilled throughout generations of Nuu-chah-nulth families who suffered a similar fate.

“People were taken away from their sources of love,” she said. “And didn’t have anyone to guide them. It’s almost like we have to re-do it over again.”

Without intervention and assistance to work through the inflicted trauma, some residential school survivors became offenders, said Middelton-Moz.

To quote Middelton-Moz, Robinson said, “behaviours say what words cannot.”

Robinson recalls her late-mother-in-law recounting stories about living in a longhouse, a large house built with cedar planks which several families shared.

“It’s really not that long ago that we lived that way,” she said. “Where people took care of one another and taught each other strong values. I’m of the belief that we will lead — we can lead this because of that love we have for one another.”

Sexual abuse is a “sickness” that stemmed from residential schools and was brought back into community, said Robinson.

“Our communities are all in the same canoe, so we have to help heal everybody that’s in the canoe,” she said.

While Robinson was careful not to excuse the behaviour of offenders, she said they are also a part of “our families and communities.”

“How do we address that?” she questioned. “We can’t just get rid of them all — there’s so many.”

Being put out in a canoe without a paddle

Asking perpetrators to leave their community is not the solution, said Chris Seitcher, Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation cultural support worker.

By not addressing offender behaviour, the onus is being placed on neighbouring nations and towns, he said.

“It doesn’t really help them and it doesn’t really help us because we still go to our neighbouring tribes for potlatches, birthday celebrations and ceremonies,” said Seitcher.

As one of the 40 people working with Robinson to bring the pilot project to life, Seitcher not only hopes to “shine a light” on sexual abuse, but highlight the lack of support that is available for victims, both men and women, as well as perpetrators.

If a man was inflicting harm on someone in the past, communities would place him in a canoe and push him out to sea without paddles. He would be in the hands of the creator and if he survived the ocean, the community would offer him a second chance, Seitcher recounted hearing from his elders.

“I believe that everybody deserves a second chance,” he said. “People can change.”

Through the new initiative, offenders will be assessed to determine if they can go through treatment. There may be a “small number of offenders” who may not be treatable, said Middelton-Moz. However, for those who want to work through treatment, the program would support treatment rather than incarceration.

When looking at the problems individuals and communities are dealing with in terms of drug abuse, alcoholism and suicide, the underlying layer is sexual abuse, she said.

“We call it the secret everybody knows,” said Middelton-Moz. “You’re told, `don’t go over to that house’ – but it’s just not dealt with. Kids are living in silence. And it’s the silence that is breaking their hearts.”

With funding from the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA), Robinson has been able to hire two coordinators to help develop a strategic plan. She anticipates launching the pilot project in one year.

The FNHA also recently funded a new program being developed in collaboration with Nanaimo Family Life Association, Island Health’s Central Island Forensic Nurse Examiner Program and Warmland Women’s Support Services Society.

The Indigenous-informed Sexual Assault Response Program (SARP) aims to improve access to sexual assault services that are culturally safe for Indigenous people who experience sexual violence. It will be available to anyone through the Forensic Nurse Examiner Program at the Nanaimo Regional General Hospital.

“Indigenous women and girls are at even more risk of sexual assault,” said Deborah Hollins, Nanaimo Family Life Association executive director. “They also are less likely to seek services because of barriers that are inherent in our colonial structure. That is really what we’re hoping to address.”

Moving forward, Hollins said the next step in establishing SARP is to interview volunteers, who will be put through an intensive program that will unpack the impacts of colonialism on Indigenous communities, along with hiring a program coordinator.

Eventually, they hope to offer such things as a regular healing circle based on Indigenous models of healing, and access to elders in the community for guidance.

“In a partnership like this, we’re able to really develop a response to sexualized violence that reflects the survivors and what they need,” said Hollins. “Partnerships that bring all the players to the table are just so much more effective than one agency trying to answer all the questions. This partnership is specifically and uniquely situated to really give a holistic response to these victims.”

`Justice means taking responsibility’

In Ahousaht, Tom Paul is in the early stages of trying to acquire funding to create a space where members can engage in dialogue around sexual assault.

“I’m kind of grabbing the torch,” he said. “We’ve got to start somewhere.”

It’s an opportunity to lead by example and show our children how to respect and love a woman, said Paul, Ahousaht Education Authority co-chair.

“I’m all about restorative justice and dealing with this in a holistic way because nobody mentored us as Indian men.”

Robinson has been trying to put a program like Building the Family Circle together since she was 20 years old.

The now-51-year-old said, “I tried but nobody would listen to me.”

At the time, residential schools hadn’t been “exposed,” said Robinson.

“We needed to realize the extent of what had happened,” she said.

After becoming one of the first to graduate from the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work with a Master of Social Work in Indigenous trauma and resiliency in 2018, Robinson has been building up to realize her life’s work.

“I’ll do this until I pass over,” she said. “I want to see this happen because there’s so much unnecessary suffering. I suffered for so long and people are suffering in silence.”

The epidemic will not end overnight.

As someone who has been working through her trauma from sexual abuse for nearly two decades, Robinson said the path to healing will be a “long, long journey.”

“I see this outcry from communities who want some kind of justice,” she said. “And I think justice means taking responsibility — being accountable for that behaviour and being willing to heal. That’s the best gift you can give to a victim – to say, `I’m going to stop this behaviour and I’m going to pursue healing.”’

RELATED: Violence against Indigenous women during COVID-19 sparks calls for MMIWG plan

RELATED: ‘How are they going to feel safe?’: Kackaamin healing centre rallies against cannabis facility

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

(Pixabay photo)
Morning Start: Kentucky has more bourbon than people

Your morning start for Thursday, May 6, 2021

Fun in Penticton is being promoted through banners going up along Main and Westminster. (Suzanne White Western News)
Banners go up in downtown celebrating fun in Penticton

From beach or biking time to dining or shopping, the banners promote things to do

A woman wears a face mask and shield to curb the spread of COVID-19 while walking in North Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, January 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
57 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health region

Thirty people in the region are in hospital, 16 of whom are in intensive care

Victory Church homeless shelter had the highest calls for police service above everywhere else, at 290 calls for service, in the first three months of the year. (Jesse Day Western News)
UPDATE: Human error doubled data about calls for police to Penticton’s homeless shelters

Police have now partnered with Interior Health to have a nurse come with them to calls

(File photo)
Penticton, Summerland RCMP having success with online crime reporting

They have also added new crimes that can be reported online

Protesters attempt to stop clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. (Will O���Connell photo)
VIDEO: Workers, activists clash at site of Vancouver Island logging operation

Forest license holders asking for independent investigation into incident

Photo: Kathleen Saylors
West Kootenay city votes down motion to support Penticton in paramountcy battle

Grand Forks city coun. Neil Krog insisted Penticton’s issue with Victoria is about city bylaws, not homelessness

A black bear made a visit to downtown Vancouver Tuesday, May 4. The animal was spotted on train tracks in Gastown shortly after at 2:30 p.m. (Twitter/Craig Minielly)
VIDEO: Black bear spotted meandering around downtown Vancouver

The bear was reportedly tranquilized by conservation officers Tuesday afternoon

Southbound traffic was reduced to single lane on Highway 97 as a vehicle involved in a collision was being retrieved by a tow truck on Thursday morning, May 6, 2021. (Jennifer Smith-Vernon Morning Star)
Collision causing delays on Highway 97 near Vernon

Southbound traffic reduced to single lane

Flow Academy is located at 1511 Sutherland Avenue in Kelowna. (Michael Rodriguez/Capital News)
Interior Health locks out Kelowna martial arts gym following COVID violations

Actions were taken after all other steps to gain compliance were exhausted, says health authority

A man who allegedly spat at and yelled racial slurs at an Asian family was arrested for hate-motivated assault Tuesday. (Black Press Media file photo)
Arrest made after man spits, yells anti-Asian racial slurs at Victoria mom and kids

The man was arrested for hate-motivated assault near Quadra Elementary School Tuesday

A lady wears a vaccinated sticker after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Canada may find it challenging to reach herd immunity from COVID-19, experts say

Level of immunity among the population changes with the variants, especially the more transmissible strains

B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Dip in COVID-19 cases with 572 newly announced in B.C.

No new deaths have been reported but hospitalized patients are up to 481, with 161 being treated in intensive care

(Kingfisher Boats photo)
In the market for a boat in the North Okanagan? Be prepared to wait

Vernon’s Kingfisher Boats is out of 2021 models, with many 2022 models already pre-sold

Most Read