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Juanita Desjarlais was younger than six when she first recalls being molested.
It was by a relative, in what would become years passed around in the foster-care system before living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside where she faced addiction, sexual assault and violence.
“I have a path full of instances… that no child should have to experience,” she told Commissioner Brian Eyolfson during the first day of hearings at a Richmond hotel, marking the final leg of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
In hearing room #3, in front of a backdrop of hand-patched quilts, with her mother by her side, Desjarlais shared her story of resilience through chronic violence and discrimination – a common thread shared across several testimonies told to the four commissioners Wednesday.
Originally from Edmonton, Desjarlais was a youth when she and her younger siblings were taken into government care in the 70s — away from her mother and their home in Fort McMurray. In the years to follow she was moved around in several foster care families, she said, eventually ending up in B.C.’s care.
Under the roofs of some of those foster families, Desjarlais recalled being confined in a room with the door locked, away from human contact.
“I was fed food from under the door,” she said through tears.
And while not all families were abusive, Desjarlais said she always felt there was a pressure to assimilate.
Due to some of the traumatizing memories, she still doesn’t remember much about her time in care, but does remember spending hours crying for her mother. Her mother, who suffered from alcoholism, wasn’t allowed contact with her children while they were in government care.
“I don’t remember having any of that bonding, or that love, provided to me like children should have,” Desjarlais said. “I also didn’t have any counseling services, or connections to culture provided to me. And I never got to see any of my family, either, during that time.”
‘I understand it was a deeper issue’ of violence, colonialism
Holding her mom’s hand tightly, Desjarlais, who is Nehiyaw and Dene, shared fond memories of early years spent growing up on the reserve and experiencing nature at an elderly relative’s cabin. There, she and her brother learned to trap animals and live off the land in a way that gave her insight into her culture.
“But after we left that cabin was when things began to change,” Desjarlais said.
As a young girl, Desjarlais was molested by her step-father on several occasions, she recalled – abuse she didn’t speak about until later in life while undergoing therapy.
“This was supposed to be a person I was supposed to trust,” she said. “He began to groom me into a lifestyle where I eventually became sexually exploited as a young person and as a youth.”
She also witnessed violence in her community, she said, leaving her with vivid memories of blood and gore.
“To this day I can’t watch horror shows.”
Desjarlais did find some stability in her last foster home – an Indigenous family living in Chehalis in the Lower Mainland. But those short years of comfort were met with further trauma, when Desjarlais was raped at a house party.
“I came to and he was on top of me, and I felt nothing but shame and guilt and dirtiness.”
Battling drug use, exploitation in the Downtown Eastside
At the age of 16, Desjarlais ran away to Vancouver with nothing more than a bag of clothes gifted to her by a friend. There, she was introduced to cocaine use, while experiencing violence by strangers and police officers. To pay for her drug use, Desjarlais said she was forced to turn to prostitution.
“As a young girl I was objectified,” she said. “And it was the women that were jailed, not the perpetrators.”
During her testimony, Desjarlais said she suffered through an abusive relationship and a late-trimester miscarriage.
She recounted police officers who abused their power and failed to protect her and others in the Downtown Eastside. She said some would take her to the outskirts of town, where she was assaulted and pepper sprayed “a number of times.”
After an altercation with an unknown suspect that led to life-threatening stab wounds, Desjarlais said two Vancouver police officers spent no more than 30 minutes investigating the incident.
“Didn’t my life matter? I was just a young girl,” she told the commissioner.
Finding sobriety, connecting with spirituality leads to healing
Many memories in between her time as a struggling teen and her recovery remain patchy for Desjarlais. It wasn’t until sometime in the 1990s, after years of alcohol and drug use on the Downtown Eastside, that she was able to become sober.
Now in her 50s, she has reconnected with her mother. She’s also mother to her son and part of feminist organizations in the Lower Mainland.
Through therapy, and reconnecting with her spirituality, Desjarlais said she is able to give her son the life he deserves.
“I knew that was our doorway to change,” she said. “Now it’s time for me to share that medicine, that strength, that honesty, humility, truthfulness, generosity – to continue walking in that way, to share with our young people… because our ways haven’t been forgotten. They’ve been put away and our people are coming back even stronger.”
Desjarlais’ statement was one of nine public testimonies that took place in the first day of the community hearings in Richmond, as part of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
As the final leg of the nearly-year long inquiry, first beginning in Whitehorse in May 2017, more than 100 speakers are set to share their experiences and recommendations to the four commissioners until Saturday.