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.”’