Like an iceberg, 1995 cont.: “Secrets”
At 8 a.m. in early December, the sun finally rose in Puvirnituq, lighting up a strip of greenish sky between the cold clouds and the hills beyond the river. Over the surface of the frozen water, snow billowed on to the land.
During the day, all was calm, but at night, it was a different scene: young people raced around on snowmobiles, kids congregated in front of the arcade.
One kid held a long piece of metal in his hands — that’s what he used to open the valves on gas tanks to sniff the vapours.
Near the school a man with a history of molestation stood in the shadows. Not far away, three girls huddled around a gas tank. Screams filled the air as a man dragged a woman into a house by her hair. Although everyone probably knew what’s going on, it was as if it never happened.
The community was still reeling from revelations of widespread sexual abuse, which first came to light during the troubled spring of 1993, when two men, one white, one Inuk, were arrested on nearly 100 charges relating to sexual abuse of many young people, aged three to 18 — nearly one-fifth of all the children in Puvirnituq. The men had been buying sexual favours around town.
For years they played “games” with the community’s children. They gave them money to keep it a secret. This silence was broken when an adult overheard a conversation between two little boys.
“Did he do that to you?” one boy asked.
“Yes,” said the other. “And did he pay you, too?”
After that, two other men were arrested on more charges of sexual abuse involving still more children.
On the surface, in 1995, Puvirnituq residents appeared to be getting on with their life. In the carving shop of the local co-operative association, two men were sorting through caribou antlers. A woman came in and carefully unfolded a small package wrapped in newspaper — a carving of a bird, its wings perfectly bended inward, its beak to the sky.
Outside, a little girl, in a bright jacket and patterned sealskin boots, trailed after her mother. They greeted me as I passed by. Further down the street, a group of kids were playing a lively game of street hockey, using blocks of snow for goals.
It was hard to imagine anything but good times in this northern community.
So, how did sexual abuse happen there on such a wide scale, why did no one say anything, and why did sexual abuse still go on, with one young boy found suffering from genital warts around his anus?
“A lot of people knew that one of those men who was arrested had been exhibiting himself in his window for years. When you spoke to most of the people, they tried to say it was a rumour,” a social worker told me in 1993.
“But, of course, everyone knew it.”
“Here, every time you see a dog crossing the street too fast, everyone knows it,” he said.
“But the concept of the secret — even if it hardly exists in the Inuit language — is deep inside every Inuk.”
Starting late in 1993, a team comprising local youth protection authorities, social workers from the local health clinic and community members started to delve deeply into Puvirnituq’s darkest secrets, thanks to a six-month, $450,000 emergency fund from Quebec.
The sexual abuse team set up shop in Puvirnituq’s old school. There, community workers, Lucy Napartuk and Elisapee Uitangak, welcomed me on a stormy afternoon to talk about their work.
They were wearing pins, made of twisted pink and blue ribbons, with a knot in the middle. The knot stood for parents who protect their children.
Napartuk and Uitangak said symbolic efforts like the pins, a poster and a parade appeared to have been successful in raising Puvirnituq’s consciousness about sexual abuse.
“If anyone sees this ribbon,” said Napartuk, “It means no sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is not acceptable.”
Napartuk said the work she had been called on to do was very difficult. She had to help break the news to parents that their children had been sexually abused.
“It was so ugly,” she said. “It was as if I was hitting them with an iron bar. Even though we didn’t have any experience with this, we still knew what to do. We gave them hope.”
These two community workers met with children who were sexually abused. They prepared files on each child and held regular healing sessions for victims and parents.
“Meeting the children is very difficult. They don’t talk,” Napartuk said. “The people are hurting. They’re trying to forget about it. But it’s in there.”
Most told me that they feared the consequences of talking about sexual abuse and receiving ridicule, banishment, or even violent revenge from irate relatives.
When they did talk about what they or others had done, usually it was in a group situation, such as the community meetings I’ve seen, where there is more support and less personal danger. That’s because they knew, and I learned, that to be secure by yourself, you have to shut your mouth and keep the silence.
And my study of Inuktitut also suggested another barrier to breaking the silence: Inuktitut demands an incredible precision of detail. So, before you can talk about anything, you have to know exactly when it happened, who did it and to whom and whether or not you had any prior knowledge of the event.
“I have to be very sure of all the details before I can say anything,” an Inuk friend told me.
That’s why wasn’t surprising that knowledge of matters like sexual abuse usually remained — and remain — unspoken. Feelings, speculations or accusations can be difficult to communicate in Inuktitut — and this also seems to make many Inuit more suspicious of third-party reporting by journalists like me.
It’s also hard to speak up because family bonds also link each person to the other, complicating loyalties. As I learned in my language class, there’s that tradition of passing on names, giving each newborn the name of a deceased friend or relative and all the relationships that person had during life.
Adoption between families is quite common, too. So, almost all Inuit in any given community are related, somehow.
Puvirnituq was like a huge, interconnected family, not easily unraveled — and only crossed at risk. It’s not easy to accuse a member of your family of a wrong, it never was. In 1996, I learned how people who speak out find themselves in deep trouble.
The next instalment of “Like an iceberg” goes live April 25 with “Hard lessons.”
You can read previous instalments here:
Like an iceberg: on being a journalist in the Arctic
Like an iceberg, 1991…cont.
Like an iceberg, 1991…more
Like an iceberg, 1992, “Shots in the dark”
Like an iceberg, 1992, “Sad stories”
Like an iceberg, 1993, “Learning the language of the snows”
Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Spring”
Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Chesterfield Inlet”
Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., more “Chesterfield Inlet”
Like an iceberg, 1994: “Seals and more”
Like an iceberg, 1994, cont., “No news is good news”
Like an iceberg, 1994 cont., more “No news is good news”
Like an iceberg, 1994 cont., “A place with four names”
Like an iceberg, 1995, “More sad stories”
Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “No place like Nome”
Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “Greenland”