Like an iceberg, 1997 cont., “Abusers in the pulpit”
One day in 1997 the friend of a friend called me. An Inuk woman in Nunavik wanted to speak with me about something. I called this woman and heard the story of how she was molested by the local minister in Kangirsuk, a community on the Ungava Bay coast.
He’d just received a short jail sentence and she felt betrayed, by him and by the justice system. She was young, she told me. She trusted this man. He was her school teacher and minister. But when he touched her breasts and vagina through her clothes, she says she felt scared and powerless.
“He was a big guy in town. He was the minister, preaching up there that we should love little children!” she said.
But, finally, in 1993, she’d spoken to a social worker about what had happened, and not just to her, but to other girls she knew. Social workers alerted the provincial police force, the Surêté du Québec.
After an investigation by police, charges were laid against Eyetsiak Simigak, a teacher and the Anglican deacon in Kangirsuk, on Dec. 1, 1993. Simigak was charged with four counts, one for sexual interference with a child under 14 years and three for sexual exploitation by a person in a position of trust and authority.
Nearly four years later, in 1997, Simigak, then 62, pleaded guilty to all charges, and a Quebec Superior Court judge sentenced Simigak to eight months in jail. During this court appearance, lawyers heard a probation officer’s pre-sentence report that noted Simigak’s “lack of remorse.”
He did not tell his superiors in the Anglican church about his troubles because, the report said, he feared “if they find out, he would be lowered to lesser tasks.”
But when Simigak was given the chance to testify at his sentencing hearing, he said the probation officer had got it all wrong. Another Anglican minister from Nunavik also spoke to the court in Simigak’s behalf. In the end, judge decided to give Simigak the benefit of doubt, but because of the “heinous” nature of his crimes, directed towards children, Simigak would go south to serve an eight-month jail sentence.
Following his release, Simigak was to live under the terms of a probation order for two years, during which he could not harass or molest his victims and undergo therapy. That meant that, after serving as little as six weeks of his sentence at the St-Jerôme jail in southern Quebec, Simigak would return to Kangirsuk.
When I called the minister who testified in favour of Simigak, he said Simigak planned to use his sentence to study the scriptures and to meditate. Simigak, he suggested, would become a more effective counselor after his experience in jail.
He said Simigak, ordained as a deacon three years ago, should be able to return to his clerical duties on his return from jail. He said the sentence didn’t take into account the healing process that Simigak had already undertaken.
Simigak had already apologized to the community on the local FM radio and experienced a spiritual re-awakening four years ago, according to the minister.
In his opinion, the sentence also did not reflect Inuit culture.
“He wasn’t really purposefully trying to do sexual abuse,” the minister said. “He just did it in the old Inuit traditional ways of treating young ladies, to make them proud of their womanhood. In Inuit culture, it isn’t really a crime.”
I asked the minister this question about what he thought about what Simigak did twice. He gave me the same answer each time. I then called back Simigak’s victim, to see what she had to say to that.
“We’re not in the old Inuit ways anymore,” she said. “We didn’t feel proud of our womanhood. It brought us shame. What he did was he invaded us.”
The jail sentence could never really make up for the fear she suffered then and the anxiety she experienced during the long wait for the justice system to give its verdict, she said. If Simigak had expressed remorse, she would feel that justice had been done.
“I had a dream, a confrontational dream,” she said. “He was saying, ‘No, I never did anything wrong.’ I said, ‘God knows you did it. God saw it. If nothing happens to you here on earth, it will when you die.'”
Furor erupts in the pages of the Nunatsiaq News. “I am proud of my culture, and I don’t believe it includes the sexual touching of children,” a woman wrote.
“Too many priests have exploited the latitude by acting on their own compulsive desire for twisted sexual privilege,” said another.
“The Anglican Church has never explained why Simigak was allowed to preach long after he was charged,” wrote Nunatsiaq News editor Jim Bell. “They tolerated a situation in which innocent children received communion from a man whose hands had been molesting them against their will.”
Also in 1997, another of Nunavik’s religous leaders faced charges involving sexual activities with a male minor. In this case, the accused never made it to jail: the community dealt with it in its own way.
The pastor of the Full Gospel Church in the tiny Nunavik community of Ivujivik was charged with three separate counts of sexual interference, incitement to sexual touching and sexual assault. These offences were alleged to have occurred between April 1987 and March 1990.
Meanwhile, even before the case can be heard, the Full Gospel Church burned down, by an act of arson, which was seen by people in the community as a form of revenge.
The accused man, it turned out, was better known as a businessman than a minister. The man, in his 50s, was the past proprietor of Ivujivik’s “Mushroom Shop” — given this name because the corner store usually had at least one can of mushrooms, exotic in Ivujivik, on its shelves for sale.
He had also counseled many of the community’s residents as pastor of Ivujivik’s Full Gospel congregation.
But the summer before his arrest, another local man was alleged to have set the building on fire to avenge another alleged incident of sexual abuse. In 1997, this man, the alleged victim of the court case and the pastor were all living peaceably in this community of about 275 people.
“It’s like there’s no problem. It’s bizarre,” said a resident. “I don’t think it should be like this.”
The revelation that a pastor had been accused of sexual assault on a minor is also disturbing to fellow believers.
“Somebody has to be trusted. We have to have someone to help us. If these authorities are going to do that, who are we going to turn to?” said a member of the Full Gospel church from another community.
Reporting these stories made a sensational impact in the Nunatsiaq News. But I just continued to write what I knew and what I heard and waited for people to either come up to me and say they hated me or to thank me for writing what I hear.
I actually met Simigak on a tour of the St-Jérôme jail. He’s a tall man with pale blue eyes.
I didn’t know then that I would see Simigak again in 2011, when he received an award for bravery in Kangirsuk.
The next instalment of Like an iceberg goes live May 14.
You can read earlier 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. “Secrets”
Like an iceberg, 1996, “Hard Lessons”
Like an iceberg, 1996 cont., “Working together”
Like an iceberg, 1996 cont., “At the edge of the world”
Like an iceberg, 1996, more “At the edge of the world”
Like an iceberg, 1996, cont. “Choices”
Like an iceberg, 1997, “Qaggiq”
Like an iceberg, 1997, more “Qaggiq”
Like an iceberg, 1997, “Qaggiq” cont.
Like an iceberg, 1997 cont., “Qaggiq and hockey”
Like an iceberg, 1997 cont., “Brain surgery in POV”
Like an iceberg, 1997 cont.: “Masks on an island”
Like an iceberg, 1997, cont., “Talking”