Sacred fire a beacon of light for sex abuse victims in Treaty 3

Reaction to fire has been mixed as some want sex abuse swept under the rug

Cheynna Gardner. Submitted photo.

Everyone agrees sex abuse found on-reserve today across Canada is rooted in residential schools and colonization.

“But at what point are just using that as an excuse to continue that behaviour?” said Cheynna Gardner, on Nation to Nation, Thursday.

Gardner, 30, is one of several Anishinaabe women from Eagle Lake First Nation in northwestern Ontario that have tended to a sacred fire to draw awareness to sexual abuse in the community.

It was lit in March and continues to burn.

And it will continue to do so until their community address the sex abuse said Gardner.

“I’ve seen the effects of it, I’ve lost people that I love as result and I see a lot more people struggling with that, not just in my community but from all over,” said Gardner, who first shared her story with CBC reporter Logan Turner.

The fire may have begun representing one community but now represents all of Treaty 3 and its 24 First Nation communities.

The reaction to the fire has been mixed, including some who want to keep ignoring the sex abuse, she said.

“Instead of talking about it they would just rather sweep it under the rug. I don’t want to lose more people that I love and care about and that was one of the big reasons we started the fire. It has to be addressed,” said Gardner, who lost her cousin, Kyle Gardner, 29, last year, after she said he confided that he was abused years ago.

She also lost her friend Stephanie Keeash, 24, who was also abused.

Both of their pictures sit around the fire.

Gardner has also seen the impact sexual abuse has on the child welfare system and how it keeps the vicious cycle of apprehensions and broken homes going.

No one knows that more than Autumn Windego, an Anishinaabe woman from Seine River First Nation in Treaty 3, and someone who is a fierce advocate for change in communities and the system.

Windego, 25, was raised in care where she was abused, but is now the first woman in four generations of her family to raise her own children.

Windego was part of an intensive APTN News investigation into Weechi-it-te-win Family Services late last year that uncovered a long list of negligence.

As a result, she was threatened with banishment from Rainy River First Nation, where she is raising her two children with her partner, for what leadership called “continued attacks”.

After two months of keeping quiet and trying to address the threat behind the scene, Windego appeared on N2N saying she wasn’t going to be bullied into keeping quiet.

From left, Rochelle Koostachin, Cheynna Gardner, Shaylynn Lands and Storm Walmsley. Submitted photo.

Meanwhile, Gardner isn’t alone with her fight. She has the support of Shaylynn Lands and Storm Walmsley, among others.

“We are apart of the eighth fire prophecy. I don’t want to worry about my children going through the same abuses me and this generation have. I put my all physically, spiritually, mental, emotional being into this because I believe it’s one of the reasons I’m alive,” said Lands, 20.

“No more shame, no more silence, no more blame. I can’t keep going to my loved ones and friends’ funerals for this reason. I almost lost a brother to this. I took the rope out of his hands. We don’t have a lot of time here. I see the struggle and I see how silence kills.”

Walmsley, 25, said he was drawn to the movement because he was dealing with his own sexual abuse and trauma.

“I was scared to talk about what happened to me and the people it will affect. Scared of how it was eating at me, What it was doing to me, keeping it inside. Being around the fire helped me open up and share my story,” he said.

“When I did open up I was attacked, victim shamed and bullied. It drove me to attempt suicide. The sacred fire helped me in my own healing. It literally started my healing process. My faith in the culture was shook because of the bullying and victim shaming. The fire, my partner, my brothers and sisters brought me back.”

Walmsley said he wants whole again and that the fire is a beacon of light for victims.

“Before the fire, I participated in every cultural activity to try and continue to heal but it wasn’t really doing anything for me because I kept my abuse hidden for so long and didn’t talk about my sexual abuse or tell anyone. It affected every relationship I’ve had. The abuse. And I want to be OK again. I want our people to heal. I don’t want sexual abuse to be normalized any longer like it always has been,” he said.

Red dress day

The red dress raises awareness of violence against Indigenous women, girls and gender-diverse people. The MMIWG inquiry delved deep into the issue of sex abuse. Photo: APTN

Marion Buller, who headed the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, said advocates like these deserve a lot of credit.

They’re the ones pushing for change when politicians drag their feet.

“Change is happening, and it’s happening at the grassroots level,” Buller said on N2N. “It’s happening at a community level, it’s happening where people vote — and politicians have to wake up to the fact that voters want change.”

The inquiry discussed sex abuse at length. It was one of several intersecting legacies of colonization contributing to what the report called a “deliberate race, identity and gender-based genocide.”

Buller said Ottawa is still trying to sidestep this finding by referring to the crisis as a “national tragedy” instead.

“By changing the wording they are first of all avoiding responsibility for genocide both socially and legally,” she explained. “But by doing that they’re also belittling the lives of the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and gender-diverse people.”

It’s been nearly two years since the inquiry tabled its final report. In response, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to deliver an action plan by June 2020.

It was another promise broken.

Now the former lawyer, judge and chief commissioner is calling out the federal government.

“An elder did tell me this would me a marathon, not a sprint,” Buller said. “But my goodness, we’re not even at the starting blocks.”

And she had much more to say on the subject. Watch the full interview below.

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