Whatever unimaginable horrors could happen to a child, Leslie Pierre says happened to her.
Pierre, 34, was a participant in a recent study that revealed children of Indian residential school survivors, and victims of childhood sexual abuse, were significantly more likely to be sexually assaulted themselves.
The Cedar Project examined drug use in young indigenous women and girls (age 14-30) over a seven-year period in British Columbia.
The study showed if an indigenous girl was the victim of childhood abuse or had at least one parent who attended residential school, they were ten times more likely to be sexually assaulted later in life. The indigenous participants were all found to also be drug users at some point in their lifetime.
Pierre, who's from the Sekani Nation, is not surprised by the project's findings.
"The (sexual assault) rates are probably a lot higher," says Pierre of the Cedar Project's findings. She's now an outreach worker with Providing Alternatives, Counselling & Education (PACE) Society, an organization located in downtown east-side Vancouver that offers services to the city's sex worker community.
"I only had one parent that went to residential school."
Pierre said her father's experience in the residential school system was horrific.
The University of British Columbia School of Population and Public Health and the Centre for Health Evaluation and Outcome Sciences spearheaded the project, following a group of 259 young indigenous women.
Growing up wasn't easy for Pierre, as she says she witnessed and experienced various forms of abuse.
She started using drugs at age 13, and later worked in the sex trade for 13 years.
"I got so many things against me: I'm trans, I'm aboriginal, I'm a former sex-trade worker, I was an addict," says Pierre.
Today, she helps many indigenous women and girls who were just like her, sharing a similar family history.
Mary Teegee is from the Takla Lake First Nation and the executive director of Family Services for Sekani Family Carrier Family Services in Prince George, BC. She says she would like to see these women's stories count for something.
"We understand that this is an impact of residential school but what are we going to do about it?" asks Teegee.
"One of the recommendations we have provided is to provide a holistic, culturally appropriate, one-stop-shop for those victims of sexual abuse."
British Columbia indigenous leaders such as Teegee are hoping to run a pilot project in northern BC and Prince George to help young indigenous women and girls.
"That would be the child advocacy model, where if a child has been sexually abused they go there, they tell their story once and the services are wrapped around that child and family to ensure that it never happens again," says Teegee.
The Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre based in Calgary already operates under such model.
The advocacy centre brings together police agencies, child and family services and health counsellors to help children, youth and families.
Individualized and integrated case plans are created for each child.
"There's got to be an integrated approach, an indigenous child advocacy centre where all these issues can be dealt with in one place," says Kukpi7 (Chief) Wayne Christian, Splatsin Secwepemc Nation.
Such a centre would include traditional practices that have been used for thousands of year to keep the people healthy, explains Christian.
Right now, an indigenous woman has to explain what happened to her eight to 10 times—working on issues individually through a variety of services.
"There's got to be a way that we can look at [the issues] for the child and family to deal with, so they're not lifelong sentences," says Christian.
"It's people that do not deal with those trauma-based issues have a cycle of violence, a cycle of addiction, a cycle of poverty."
Pierre wonders why there isn't an integrated trauma centre on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, given the high number of indigenous women and girls and after all the years of intergenerational trauma.
"It would be neat to make an all nations centre, where everybody can go for help and there will be all kinds of help within one location," says Pierre, who admits she still has problems finding services herself.
Luckily PACE hired Pierre and provided an opportunity to her, something she says she's extremely grateful for.
She says it isn't easy to land a job when you have a bunch of strikes against you and personal pain.
Pierre hopes to see something change to help those indigenous women and girls with their pain, addictions, and someday begin their healing journey.
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