Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “Secrets”

Like an iceberg, 1995 cont.: “Secrets”

Puvirnituq River. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Puvirnituq River. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

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.

Children play outside in Puvirnituq, 1995. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Children play outside in Puvirnituq, 1993. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

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.

A dog walks in the snow in Puvirnituq in December, 1995. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

A dog walks in the snow in Puvirnituq. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

“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.

This large carving of a mother and her child made by Peter Ittukallak stands outside the Iguarsivik School in Puvirnituq. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

This large carving of a mother and her child made by Peter Ittukallak stands outside the Iguarsivik School in Puvirnituq. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

“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”

 

Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “Greenland”

 Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “Greenland” 

I felt as if I’d visited Greenland before when I stepped off an airplane there in September 1995. But I couldn’t decide what Greenland’s capital city of Nuuk reminded me of.

It was a bit like the place I just left, Iqaluit, but at some point in the future. In 1995, Nuuk had more than three times the population of Iqaluit (then about 4,300,) paved roads, buses and even street lights. And stressed-looking commuters with briefcases. Instead of wearing big-hooded parkas to carry their babies, Inuit mothers in Nuuk pushed baby carriages.

The main store in the centre of Nuuk in 1995, Brugen, a Danish supermarket chain. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

The main store in the centre of Nuuk in 1995, Brugsen, a Danish supermarket chain. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Or maybe, Nuuk made me think about Newfoundland: there was something familiar about the scenery — rocks and no trees. Nuuk resembled Cornerbrook, but with higher prices: a cup of coffee cost, by my calculations, $4.50, a beer $9.

Then, again, I was reminded of Scandinavia.

Down by the shore in Nuuk I discovered the old town of Godthab, as the Danes who settled here in the 1700s used to call Nuuk, with its mustard and red- coloured houses with steep roofs.

Downtown, the stores sold dense Danish bread, salty black licorice and even my favourite liqueur, a bitter drink by the name of Gammel Dansk, the Old Dane.

I climbed to the top of a small hill in the centre of Old Nuuk, with a bronze statue looking out over the water of Hans Egede, the first missionary, who came to Greenland in 1721.

Icebergs sailed by in the cold water. Their path was marked by turquoise froth where white ice met the water’s surface. Across the water, a ridge of low mountains, sprinkled with snow. At this time of year, belugas and seals would pass by, and I strained my eyes to try to see some. The Sermitsiaq mountain rose up in a spiky point to touch the high clouds.

A view over to the Old Town of Nuuk, Greenland. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

A view over to the Old Town of Nuuk, Greenland. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

In a cemetery, the white wooden cribs around the plots were falling over: long grass covers old graves. Not far away, in front of the former hospital, there was a row of shiny kayaks. Some skin-covered ones were in the museum, but just next door, at the Kayak Club, young men were touching up the frame of a homemade kayak. For us, it’s just a hobby, they told me.

Kids play chess in a Nuuk recreation centre, 1995. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Kids play chess in a Nuuk recreation centre, 1995. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

At the back of Santa’s Post Office down by the shore, I found a six-metre high plastic pacifier filled with tiny pacifiers. When a Greenlandic child no longer needed a pacifier, he or she would deposit it here.

A stop at a sealskin workshop brought me back to reality. A group of women were sitting around a table, making tiny kamiit, the sealskin boots worn across the Arctic. Although these women spoke a Greenlandic dialect of the Inuit language, I could understand them fairly well.

A man cuts up reindeer at a country foods market in Nuuk. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

A man cuts up caribou at a country foods market in Nuuk. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

And, like Inuit in Canada, Greenlanders appeared to share a taste for country foods. Seal, walrus, local meats and whale blubber were sold in large slabs at the market.

But Nuuk’s reality was definitely more urban than anything I’d seen in the North of Canada, with its giant apartment blocks housing up to 900 people each.

A view of one of the many huge apartment blocks in Nuuk, Greenland. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

A view of one of the many huge apartment blocks in Nuuk, Greenland. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

I made a visit with a friend to the apartment where his mother lived: graffiti lined the stairwells, the walls were paper-thin, even the windows seemed more to offer a barrier to privacy than a view on the world.

The per capita suicide rate in one such building is the highest in the world, I was told.  Clean laundry, a bicycle and pieces of seal meat dangled from balconies on strings, like mobiles, the last links to the land.

Laundry and seal meat hang from the balcony of this Nuuk apartment in 1995. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Laundry and seal meat hang from the balcony of this Nuuk apartment in 1995. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

During the day, I got caught up with café life and icebergs. I saw friends, musicians here in town, and we talk about spiritual healing, Thai spices and CDs: If it hadn’t been for the view, you’d have thought we were on St. Denis Street back in Montreal. After dark, Nuuk was not so different from the seedier sections of Ste. Catherine St., with bars reeking of stale cigarettes and beer.

“Look around us at all the plastic, all those things brought thousands of kilometres, over the ocean,” said a Greenlandic singer and songwriter.

I’d met with him for a CBC radio documentary on Greenlandic music that I was preparing.

“I’m the only thing that hasn’t been brought here,” he said.

I looked at a spiky plastic cactus impaled between two windows of the western-style bar we were sitting in.

“All this, it’s hard to live with,” he said.

But I didn’t want to dwell on trauma, despair and hopelessness — not that night.  That was familiar enough. I liked being in a North with Tuborg beer and cappuccino.

The next morning, I saw my tired face in the mirror and remembered I was supposed to be looking at the justice system here for another story.

I had visited my first jail in the Nunavik community of Puvirnituq a few years ago. The second northern jail I’d seen was in Iqaluit, the Baffin Correctional Centre. There, a heavy-set guard, with a shaved head and beard,  sat at the entrance.

The employees on duty the day when I visited are all white, while the inmates were all Inuit. Some of the prisoners couldn’t speak any English. When I asked a guard why more Inuit weren’t working at BCC he says “because they aren’t very hard-working” — as if I would agree with this reflection.

A look down one of Nuuk's streets in 1995. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

A look down one of Nuuk’s streets in 1995. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

The third jail I visited was in Nuuk. It wasn’t even called a jail — but a “correctional residence.” In one room, a man doing time showed me his artwork, drawings of glaciers calving into the ocean, of a kayaker finding his way through ice floes. In the neighbouring room, two men were sharing a cup of coffee by candlelight.

In nearly every room, there were computers, television sets and stereos. Windows looked out over the fiord, while doors could be locked, from the inside, for privacy. One resident was introduced to me as an “investment counselor.”

A Greenlandic friend later told me that this man killed two other men over a financial dispute a few years ago. Since then, he’d been held at the corrections residence.

From there, this model inmate managed to engineer a money-making scam to import 250 kilos of hash. It was the lead story in the Nuuk’s newspaper the week I was there, and many people said they were upset because they lost money in the deal.

A guard showed me the menu for the residents’ evening meal, cold plates with pâté, cheese and fish. It looked better than what I’d been eating in town. Residents had return to eat after work, but on weekends and three nights a week, they could go back out and visit friends or family. They were expected to come back sober. For all this, they paif about $175 per week.

The Sermitsiaq mountain is a landmark around Nuuk. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

The Sermitsiaq mountain is a landmark around Nuuk. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

So, that’s how crime and punishment worked in Greenland — it didn’t look too bad, at least from the criminals’ point of view.

Re-socialization was the aim here in Greenland, not punishment: There were almost no professional judges, lawyers or police. Most communities had lay judges, and what they called “assessors” for lawyers and “bailiffs” for policemen.

At a typical hearing, like the one I attended, there was a judge, the accused and two assessors. A couple of pieces of evidence were introduced.

The accused, like 90 per cent of all Greenlanders who end up in court, pleaded guilty to the charge of rape, was fined and sentenced to a few months in the corrections residence.

The advantages: The case was handled within weeks of the incident and it only took one and a half hours — not months — to decide. But any presumption of innocence seemed to be a moot point, although there was practically no evidence presented.

I started to wonder about the process. It didn’t seem like the guy had much chance to mount a defence — but he wasn’t going to suffer much of a punishment either. What about the victim?

How would she feel when she runs into this guy around town? Only about two out of every 2,000 women who made calls or come to the women’s shelter there pressed charges, a staff person at the shelter said.

Flowers are left on the steps of a bar where a young man died in an assault. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Flowers are left on the steps of a bar where a young man died in an assault. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Sentences for assault were lenient. Most women returned home. And with waiting lists of more than 10 years for apartments, there was nowhere else to go.

“It reminds me of Namibia in South Africa. Even those regular apartment blocks look like work camp housing. Who cares if you can leave the jail at will? Nuuk might as well be a jail because even law-abiding people can’t get out,” said a Canadian RCMP officer I talked with in Nuuk, which is accessible only by sea or air.

Maybe the Danish elite in Greenland didn’t care what the Greenlanders did to themselves, he said, or perhaps Denmark was just delivering the cheapest form of justice possible.

But, on the plus side, fly-in justice, seen throughout northern Canada, didn’t exist there. Instead, there was a court and judge of some sort in every community.

And people actually seemed proud of their system. They respected it. When I told my Greenlandic friends that I was looking into how justice works here, they would say “how interesting,” with no scathing criticism about how bad things were.

I was puzzled, though, that drug trafficking took place in plain view in downtown Nuuk. And, in fact, it was going on right down the street while at the other end the police were holding a recruiting drive, with a display of guns and even black riot gear.

Did they ever use that stuff there? And why did’t the police just look up the street? If there was lawlessness there, it didn’t seem to bother the locals much.

Unless, of course, Greenlanders just accepted things as they were. With that same attitude that once helped Inuit survive storms and famines, ajurngarmat, that expression, spanning the Inuit world, meaning it can’t be helped.

View over Nuuk, July, 1995. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

View over Nuuk, July 1995. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

The next instalment of “Like an iceberg” goes live April 24.

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”