Northern community grapples with reports of child sexual abuse

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Montreal Gazette

10 January 1991

BAKER LAKE, N.W.T. – First there was the shocking news that Roman Catholic priest Eric Dejaeger had been sexually abusing young people in Baker Lake for seven years.

Then last year, in the same central Arctic community, 16 males from teens to senior citizens were charged with sexually assaulting a 12-year-old mentally handicapped girl from the time she was 6 years old.

Now the 1,100 people of Baker Lake are treating their casualties and waging war against child sexual abuse and the shameful silence that allows it to persist.

“They’re saying they’re not going to stand for it any more, and people who commit these kinds of things are going to be taken to police,” said RCMP Cpl. Dale McGowan.

McGowan chairs an inter-agency group which recognizes sexual abuse as the Inuit town’s most pressing social problem. Last year at least 26 sexual assaults were investigated.

“We have one of the highest incidence rates (of sexual assault) per detachment,” McGowan said, “but I think that’s because we’re receiving more disclosures, and that’s because of education and a willingness of the people to stand up and say, `We’ve had enough.’ ”

Mary Sillett, president of the Inuit Women’s Association, said it takes a lot of guts to disclose sexual abuse in an isolated settlement like Baker Lake, 1,500 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

“People don’t report,” she said. “If you’re living in a small community like Baker, to go to the police takes courage because first of all you’ll get your sister-in-law calling right away saying, `Why’d you do it?’ and then everyone else will draw attention to you.”

Social workers, teachers, police and community volunteers agree that the problem of sexual abuse is no more prevalent in Baker Lake than elsewhere in Canada. It has just surfaced more.

“It’s always been around, but no one ever talked about it until now,” said Marjorie Nukik, a lifelong resident.

Nukik is training to become a councillor for the Baker Lake Project, set up last spring to provide therapy for victims of Dejaeger. A Catholic order has hired a private Edmonton agency of social workers to oversee the project.

With the raised awareness of sexual abuse in the community, trials for the 16 male offenders charged in the extended sexual assaults are expected to draw large audiences.

On Jan. 28, two young offenders will enter pleas in Baker Lake territorial court. Trials for two other young offenders will take place during a special sitting Feb. 5. Preliminary hearings for the remaining 12 will also begin that day.

Dejaeger was convicted last April of a series of sexual assaults against males and females.

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